Facebook Twitter

Like the candidates themselves, donors in Chicago’s mayoral race have deep education ties

A collage of two men running for mayor of Chicago standing at podiums flanked by supporters.

The contrasting visions of Brandon Johnson, left, and Paul Vallas, right, for Chicago Public Schools are underscored by their donors — some of whom wield influence over education policy in Chicago and beyond.

Mauricio Peña/ Chalkbeat

Like the candidates themselves, the people and organizations giving big money in Chicago’s mayoral election have strong ties to public education — and the debates around it for the past two decades. 

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas’ campaign has been propelled by wealthy business executives, while county commissioner and union organizer Brandon Johnson has been fueled by labor unions.

The Chicago Teachers Union is Johnson’s biggest donor, while Vallas has received six-figure donations from wealthy individuals with ties to school choice and education reform, including some who have charter schools named after them. Vallas, a torch bearer for school choice and charter schools, has supported voucher expansion. Meanwhile, Johnson’s progressive platform aligns closely with the teachers union’s vision for the district. 

While a full accounting of campaign donations and spending won’t be available until after the election, a Chalkbeat Chicago analysis of Illinois State Board of Elections records shows Vallas has received at least $15 million since October and Johnson has collected more than $10 million since October 1, 2022. 

Johnson’s campaign fueled by labor unions and educators

Johnson received the backing of the Chicago Teachers Union, his largest donor, before officially launching his campaign last fall. Since then, the union’s Political Action Committee has donated almost $2.2 million to his campaign, according to state board of elections records. 

The union has poured millions into aldermanic and mayoral campaigns in recent years as a way to influence broader policies that affect public schools. Some rank-and-file CTU members have filed a complaint against union leadership, alleging members’ dues were being funneled to the union’s political action committee, according to WTTW’s Paris Schutz.

A handful of other labor unions are among Johnson’s other top donors. The parent unions of the CTU — Illinois Federation of Teachers and American Federation of Teachers — each gave $940,000 and $2.1 million respectively. The country’s other largest teachers union, the National Education Association, donated $50,000, and its Illinois counterpart gave $75,000. Several political committees connected to the unions that represent special education aides, classroom assistants, school bus aides, child care workers, and nurses, have collectively donated more than $2 million, according to a Chalkbeat analysis.

United Working Families, a progressive group and CTU ally, has also donated almost $47,000 in in-kind contributions, usually in the form of staff help, to Johnson’s campaign and the national Working Families Party donated $70,000.

Aside from labor unions, Johnson’s campaign coffers have mostly been filled by smaller individual donations — many from teachers and educators. For example, he received $20,000 — one of his largest individual gifts — from Elizabeth Simons, a former bilingual education teacher, who now chairs the board of the Heising-Simons Foundation. The foundation provides grants to organizations aimed at strengthening early childhood education for low-income families. 

Attorneys who have represented the Chicago Teachers Union at the bargaining table donated to Johnson. Robin Potter, mother of union Vice President Jackson Potter, gave $6,000 and Robert Bloch’s law firm donated $5,000. 

Others who have advocated for more funding for public schools gave to Johnson, as well. Cassie Creswell of Illinois Families for Public Schools gave $5,000, and National Education Association President Rebecca Pringle donated $2,000. Kenneth Williams-Bennett, father of CPS graduate Chance the Rapper, also donated $8,000 to Johnson. Williams-Bennett was previously an aide to late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Chance donated $2.2 million to Chicago Public Schools in 2017, as the school district was fighting for more state funding.

Vallas backed by wealthy donors with ties to education reform

Vallas’ campaign war chest is bigger than Johnson’s and has been throughout the campaign. The former district CEO has seen an infusion of cash from corporate business executives, many of whom have ties to charter schools and other education organizations.

One of his largest individual donors is Paul J. Finnegan, co-founder and co-CEO of Madison Dearborn Partners, a private investment equity firm in Chicago. Finnegan has donated $400,000 since October. He is a past chairman and current local advisory board member of Teach for America. Finnegan also sits on the board of CDW Corporation, a technology and services provider for businesses, governments, and school districts, including Chicago Public Schools, which has ramped up purchasing in recent years using COVID-19 recovery dollars. 

According to tax filings from 2019, the Finnegan Family Foundation supports dozens of education nonprofits, including Teach for America and the Academy for Urban School Leadership, and charter schools networks, including Noble, LEARN, KIPP, and Intrinsic. 

Golf resort owner Michael Keiser, who also sits on the local advisory board of Teach for America, and his wife, Rosalind, have donated $400,000 to Vallas’ campaign since October.  He also made a $500,000 donation last summer, shortly after Vallas announced his bid. Finnegan and Keiser are also supporters of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute.

Other six-figure donations include Craig Duchossois, executive chairman of the Duchossois Group, has donated $760,000. The Duchossois Family Foundation has given grants to After School Matters, according to the foundation’s website. 

Citadel executive Gerald Beeson has donated $300,000 since October. Beeson and his wife have an ongoing scholarship for students at Big Shoulders Fund, which provides support to Catholic elementary and high schools in low-income communities.

Two of Vallas’ top donors helped open charter schools in Chicago that now bear their names. Donald Wilson, CEO of DRW Holdings, supported the opening of the Noble Network of Charter Schools 12th campus — DRW College Prep —on the West Side in 2012. He has donated a combined $350,000 to Vallas’ campaign since January. 

Joseph Mansueto, a billionaire entrepreneur and owner of the Chicago Fire soccer team, donated $250,000 to Vallas’ campaign. In 2017, he donated $18 million that largely funded the construction of Noble’s 17th campus in Brighton Park, now named Mansueto High School

Deborah Quazzo, a controversial ex-Chicago school board member, and her husband donated $7,500 and $10,000, respectively, to Vallas’ campaign, as first reported by WBEZ. Quazzo left her seat after the Sun-Times reported on her business dealings with the district. The district Office of Inspector General said Quazzo violated Chicago Public Schools’ ethics code, according to the Sun-Times.

Even though they have not given direct donations to Vallas’ campaign, two political action committees focused on school choice and education reform are backing his candidacy by running ads for his platform and against Johnson. 

On March 23, the American Federation for Children, a group founded by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, donated $65,000 to the Illinois Federation for Children PAC. On the same day, the group gave $59,385 to a political strategic media firm Go Big Media, for digital media supporting Vallas, records show. 

INCS Action Independent Committee, which supports candidates who are supportive of charter schools, spent $258,000 on television ads and $359,000 on digital media opposing Johnson, as first reported by WTTW. 

INCS Action has received most of its funding since October from James S. Frank, who gave the committee a collective $1.5 million. Frank is on the boards of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools and Chicago Public Education Fund, in addition to Teach for America’s local advisory board. He has donated $225,000 directly to Vallas since January.

Campaigns have until April 17 to file a full accounting of their fundraising and spending activities through March 31.

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at bvevea@chalkbeat.org. 

The Latest
A boost in early childhood education, more funding for K-12 schools, and a major investment in accessing higher education are in the final version of the 2024 budget that the House passed early Saturday morning. It now heads to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk to be signed.
Illinois legislature approved a measure giving themselves more time to draw Chicago’s school board districts. Once signed by the governor, the deadline will move from July 1, 2023 to April 1, 2024 — seven months before the first elections on November 5, 2024.
Emerging data suggests school districts such as Chicago are making headway. But experts say this is only the start of an undertaking that will likely take years.
The Illinois governor announced Wednesday that there is a 2024 budget deal with lawmakers. Here’s what it could mean for education.
The district will pay some students to attend an orientation program for freshmen and launch a hotline for families exploring options in June.
Illinois legislators pass bill that requires school districts to have a full-day kindergarten bill by 2027 as spring legislative session starts to wind down.