In an email yesterday, a prominent education technology investor encouraged industry supporters to fight back against a Chicago Sun-Times investigation that was critical of her role as a member of the Chicago school board.
Investor Deborah Quazzo sent an email, with the all-caps subject line "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH", asking her supporters to "stand united" against the attacks on her tenure, which she called "distractions." The email included photos of the editor in chief and other top executives of the Sun-Times, along with their contact information.
The Sun-Times first published a story critical of Quazzo in December, reporting that during Quazzo's tenure as a Chicago school board member, the district had tripled its spending on education-technology companies she had invested in. The five companies that Quazzo has an ownership stake in, the Sun-Times reported, collected $2.9 million from the school district since Quazzo joined the board in June of 2013.
Quazzo is a managing partner at the investment firm GSV Advisors, which invests primarily in education technology. She is also one of the co-hosts of the education industry's most prominent and exclusive annual conference, the ASU/GSV Summit. Last year, Jeb Bush was the Summit's keynote speaker.
The Sun-Times story led to calls for Quazzo's resignation from the Chicago teachers' union — which protested outsid her office with chants of "Quit, Quazzo, quit!" — as well as the Sun-Times' editorial board and mayoral candidates running against mayor Rahm Emanuel, who appointed Quazzo to the board. (Unlike in many U.S. cities, the Chicago school board is not elected.) Late last year, the Chicago inspector general said it had opened an investigation into Quazzo's investments.
Quazzo said she had consistently recused herself from all school board votes concerning the companies she invests in.
After the Sun-Times reported yesterday that charter schools funded and approved by the school district had spent an additional $1.3 million on companies that Quazzo invested in, Quazzo appealed to supporters in the ed-tech and ed-reform communities. She wrote that she was "angry" about the investigation, which she called a coordinated effort to remove her from the board, and encouraged people to to " take a minute and express your views to the leadership at the Chicago Sun-Times."
"I am here to make a difference and no number of Sun-Times articles will deter me from that goal," Quazzo wrote in the email. "I'm angry because nowhere in this back and forth has there been any focus on having an impact on students... I'm angry about many man-hours and dollars that have been expended by mission driven organizations serving our most vulnerable children at the behest of the Sun-Times and its investigation."
In the wake of the controversy, Quazzo promised to give profits from her ed-tech investments back to Chicago education charities for the duration of her tenure and a year after she left the board. Critics have claimed that the promises are largely symbolic, since Quazzo stands to make a significant profit if the companies she invests in are eventually sold, which would likely be years down the line.
Quazzo told BuzzFeed News that she agreed to donate the profits from her investments because "It's a totally great idea. I wish I'd thought of it before — it's completely aligned with what I'm doing anyway," she said. "I'm delighted to do it."
Quazzo also disagreed with the Sun-Times' analysis, saying that if they had included a sixth company, Teachscape, in their calculation, the school district's spending on companies she backs would have actually declined. Quazzo does not have an ownership stake in Teachscape, but owns stock options that she has not yet exercised. The Sun-Times also reported she had earlier argued Teachscape should be excluded from the calculation because she is not an owner.
Quazzo told BuzzFeed News that she targeted the Sun-Times in the letter, rather than the political groups that have seized on the story, because they were the "source of the misinformation. They're turning me into a punching bag when the focus should be on the kids."
"We stand by our stories and find her email puzzling," said Sun-Times editor in chief Jim Kirk in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "Nothing in her email disputes a single fact in the stories. The newsworthiness of the facts our reporters have brought to light is obvious: A school board member is invested in businesses that do work for the school district and for taxpayer-suported charter schools authorized by the district. The response to the stories, from people who view those facts in different ways, has been strong, as is often the case with our coverage of local education and politics."
Deborah Quazzo is a member of the Chicago school board. In an earlier version of this story, a sub headline incorrectly described her as a former school board member.