Here’s a closer look at Kids First Chicago, the group behind a report sparking debate

In January 2017, Daniel Anello, the CEO of a school choice group backed by the business community, flew to Denver with Janice Jackson, who was then No. 2 at Chicago Public Schools.

The two leaders were there for a two-day trip to learn about Denver Public Schools’ universal enrollment application, something Chicago hoped to develop with help from Anello’s group. They toured schools, met with the head of the district, and had conversations with officials across departments. One element that kept coming up was a comprehensive report featuring where schools are, how they are performing, and how people choose among the options available.

Related: Secret CPS report spotlights big vacancies, lopsided options for students

The report “was indoctrinated into everything they did out there, whether you’re talking to teachers or community members of the finance department, they were all using the same sort of data,” Anello said. His group was already helping with enrollment, so it made sense they’d assist with analysis.

The trip spurred conversations about making similar information available to parents in Chicago schools, but it highlighted something else: the collaboration between Chicago schools leadership and Anello’s high-powered group, formerly known as New Schools for Chicago and now called Kids First Chicago. The more than decade-old partnership has both propelled a parent-choice agenda, spurred school openings and closings — and sparked bitter reaction.

These conversations are not just happening in Chicago. The Kids First philosophy — that the district should offer a menu of different schools, with families encouraged to choose among them — is consistent with the portfolio model approach, which has gained traction across the country and garnered backing from national funders.

By last fall, Kids First had a research agreement with the district to work with CPS’ demographics and planning department and compile a report, and, by January, Jackson had been named the district’s CEO. The report, which Kids First began previewing earlier this year to select community groups, shows the district has more than 150,000 empty seats, nearly 40 percent of them at top-rated schools. The report also indicates that black and Latino students are the most likely to attend the district’s lowest-rated schools, and shows broad swaths of the city lack some of CPS’ most in-demand academic programs.

The school district says the Kids First analysis is meant to help guide investments and empower communities to engage in conversations about their needs. Some community members agree, saying it offers an unprecedented window into the assets — and problems — in certain neighborhoods. But critics suggest it could be used to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

At Wednesday’s board of education meeting, Martin Ritter, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, blasted Kids First for its “corporate interests” and backers, including many who don’t live in Chicago or don’t send their kids to Chicago public schools.

While the district did not release the report, Jackson said it’s not secret. And both district leadership and Anello said the report is not meant as justification for school closings.

“We did work in collaboration with Kids First. Our demographics team also played a role in compiling this report,” she said. She added that the district has shared it in dozens of meetings with over 105 organizations, including the Chicago Teachers Union and Raise Your Hand.

However, both the teachers union and Raise Your Hand have criticized the report and denied getting to preview it.

Kids First, meanwhile, is seeking to shed its reputation as a primarily pro-charter, politically connected group. Anello said the report is intended to provide parents data to make informed decisions around programs and schools. It’s a testament, he said, to how Kids First is trying to work differently.

Who is Kids First?

Kids First is one of at least five groups affiliated with an organization that has had a hand in shaping economic development and planning in Chicago since the early 20th century. The Commercial Club of Chicago’s clout-heavy membership includes 350 business and civic leaders, from Mayor Rahm Emanuel to corporate CEOs to the owners of the city’s major sports teams.

Commercial Club President Kelly Welsh, a Chicago attorney who served as general counsel of the U.S. Department of Commerce, said in an email statement that his group works with an array of public officials, not-for-profits, and other civic organizations. The goal, he wrote, is the “social and economic well-being of our region, including work on local and state education issues.” He did not elaborate.

Welsh sits on Kids First’s board along with former school board chief David Vitale, the head of Namaste Charter School Natalle Nerls, and others who have donated thousands of dollars to the mayor’s campaign coffers, including KPMG Managing Partner Patrick Canning and Exelon Chairman Emeritus John Rowe.

Kids First’s roots are with the Renaissance Schools Fund, a private group that helped fund and orchestrate Renaissance 2010. That plan hatched in 2004 under former Mayor Richard Daley and Chicago Schools then-CEO Arne Duncan with the mission of creating 100 new schools by the end of the decade.

The fund pumped tens of millions of dollars into new schools, the vast majority out of district control. However, by 2009, a report from the Consortium at the University of Chicago found little difference in the achievement of students at Renaissance schools compared with the schools they had come from, and media reports had characterized the effort as a wash.

In 2011, when Rahm Emanuel became mayor, the organization had changed its name to New Schools for Chicago. From 2004 to 2013, it helped fund 81 new schools, 68 of them charters, according to Anello.

“But then, the climate changed pretty dramatically,” he said. “During that period, the enrollment was declining, and we got to the place where there are far too many seats for the number of kids we have in the district.”

The organization went dormant in 2013, but was revived two years later under Anello. He is a former Unilever brand manager who, after training at the Broad Residency in Urban Education, signed on as chief strategist and marketer for the Chicago International Charter School network. He relaunched New Schools with a focus on helping parents. Universal high school enrollment seemed a great place to start.

“We’re really a different kind of organization now,” said Anello. “We’re pro-quality first and foremost — that includes high-quality charter schools like it includes high-quality traditional schools.”

Kids First’s funding sources, however, remain similar to before: a mix of foundations, private donors, board members, and businesses, including Northern Trust, BMO Harris, and ITW. The organization had an operating budget of about $4 million in 2016, according to the latest tax filing publicly available.

Why is the report up for debate?

The analysis in the Kids First report is mainly based off of public information, but it pulls from disparate datasets. The idea, Anello said, was to put together “a universal fact base” for the city around education and schools. “It’s actually something that is prototyped off of what we’ve also seen in other cities like Cleveland and Oakland.”

He characterized arguments about whether schools are run by the district, charter networks, or other entities, as “just a political fight.” He said the report is not intended to foreshadow any major district decisions like school closings.

But the reaction to the Kids First report serves as a reminder that the organization’s past could prove hard to shed.

Community groups like Blocks Together, Generation All, and Raise Your Hand have all expressed concerns about how CPS will use the data. Christine Geovanis, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union, calls it a “powerful, politically connected proponent of charter expansion and school ‘choice.’”

“We can expect Rahm and his ‘choice’ cronies to try to spin these numbers,” she said, warning of charters, cuts, closures, and “more educational divestment in neighborhood public schools, which are sometimes the only civic anchors standing in chronically disinvested neighborhoods.”

Despite apprehension and criticism of the Kids First report, dubbed the Annual Regional Analysis, some community members say the numbers provide valuable insight for residents of the same South and West Side neighborhoods Geovanis referenced.

Austin resident Ronald Lawless, an education consultant and community organizer, saw a preview of the Annual Regional Analysis in the spring at a meeting at Michele Clark High School.

He found the information valuable, “because there’s a lot of misinformation about how well our schools are doing versus what people have heard.” The Kids First report divides the city into 16 planning regions, with detailed information about each area. The West Side region, which includes Austin, has about 29,000 unfilled seats, 10,000 of them at top-rated elementary schools. Only 39 percent of elementary students attend their zoned neighborhood school, according to the report.

Lawson was shocked to see how many unfilled top-rated schools were underenrolled, and how many West Side families were sending their kids to school in other areas despite the quality schools in their own community.

“We have some damn good schools,” Lawless said. “But there needs to be better marketing to ensure everyone in the community knows. There are empty seats because of the misconception and stigma that these schools are bad.”