Deborah Quazzo, a prominent advocate for encouraging private investors to back companies working in K-12 schools, is facing scrutiny over questions about how her financial holdings intersect with her public role as a Chicago school board member.
After a newspaper’s reports questioning her investments, the school district’s inspector general has reportedly begun an investigation of those ventures.
Quazzo says she’s been open and forthright about her investments, and that she’s had no say over the companies’ business dealings with the 400,000-student district.
The founder and managing partner of GSV Advisors, a Chicago-based financial advisory company, Quazzo was named to the board by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2013.
In an interview with Education Week, Quazzo said she has acted properly and that her investments in the companies in question have been tiny. Over the past few years, Quazzo has been a leading nationwide figure in trying to spur private investment into promising companies working in educational technology and other areas, investment that she and others believe will spark innovation and produce gains for students, teachers, and schools.
Quazzo, for instance, has played a major role in helping organize the ASU/GSV Education Innovation Summit, a yearly event which has grown from an obscure conference into a go-to gathering that draws investors and education companies of all sizes, from startups to giants in the industry.
The controversy around Quazzo’s investments grew out of a series of stories in the Chicago Sun-Times, one of which reported that five companies Quazzo has invested in have seen their business from the district’s schools triple during the period since she joined the board a year and half ago, and now total $3.8 million.
At the time, Quazzo had listed just two of the five companies on her most recent ethics statement, filed in April, the newspaper reported. (A spokesman for the Chicago schools said Quazzo wasn’t required to list the remaining three, because those companies’ business deals were with individual schools and not through the district.
In a separate story, the newspaper reported that Quazzo had voted to support charter school networks that have given money to companies in which the board member has an ownership stake. The board member is quoted as saying that those buying decisions are typically left to schools’ principals, and have nothing to do with her.
A group of protestors chanting “Quit, Quazzo, Quit,” recently showed up outside one of the board’s meetings, and some advocacy groups in the city, as well as the Chicago Teachers’ Union, have called on her to step down.
But Quazzo is fighting back, arguing in statements posted on her company’s website, and a newly released letter to her supporters (titled “Enough is Enough”) that the coverage of her investments has been misleading, and that much of the subsequent uproar is being fueled by politics. She asks her allies to make their opinions known to the leadership of the Sun-Times. Some of them have also taken up for Quazzo on Twitter and other forums.
(Disclosure: Quazzo serves on an advisory board for an editorial product under development from Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit publisher of Education Week, about the K-12 marketplace.)
The board member has sought to counter the Sun-Times articles on a number of grounds.
In one of her written statements, Quazzo said that the investments she’s made in the companies are small—that she has between less than 1 percent and 2 percent of a stake in them, and that her involvement had been disclosed in her filings. She also described the businesses as mostly young companies in which she has no ownership control, and she says the calculations of how much the companies have gained since she joined the board are off the mark.
In an interview, Quazzo said she recuses herself from decisions before the board involving companies that she has invested in. More broadly, she said that as a Chicago school board member, she has had no control over decisions about what companies the district hires.
“Procurement is a very regimented process in the district,” Quazzo said, adding that “I have no control of these businesses. …”I’ve followed every rule, I’ve filed every piece of compliance,” in trying to make the investments clear to the public.
In a letter last month to Emanuel and Chicago school board President David Vitale, Quazzo publicly pledged that, while serving on the board, she would turn over any net earnings she receives from the investment holdings in question to philanthropies and individual schools serving Chicago public school students.
Quazzo told Education Week she has no plans to step down from her post. She said that her background as an investor familiar with both educational technology and how businesses operate brings a perspective that is often lacking from K-12 policymaking discussions.
“I believe passionately that technology can and is able to [foster school improvement],” Quazzo said.
Her company focuses on trying to identify innovation and support it, she said, and “that expertise, I believe, is critically important.”