Founded in 1988 to offer financial support and real estate consulting to nonprofit groups, IFF has made more than $57 million in loans to charter schools, according to material it provided the District. In 2007, it received a $10 million federal grant to leverage charter school financing in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin.
In 2004, IFF consulted with Chicago Public Schools — then headed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan — on the Renaissance 2010 project, designed to close underperforming schools and increase the number of good ones in underserved areas. IFF identified about 228,000 students in 25 Chicago communities shut out of “performing” schools. About 100 schools, roughly half of them charters, have been opened through 2010.
Some public school advocates question the choice of IFF to conduct the study. “What I would say is that it is not a strong choice for the deputy mayor,” said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, which works for improvements in school facilities and planning. She described IFF as “a charter intermediary.”
“I really don’t understand why a foundation should be able to come in and define what needs to happen,” Filardo said.
Wright, a founding partner of the Newark Charter School Fund before his appointment by Gray, said he wasn’t concerned about IFF’s connections and was confident that its work would be objective. But he also echoed Henderson’s assertion that if the solution involved more charter schools, that was fine.
“I am very much wedded to quality, and I don’t care where it comes from,” said Wright. “And let’s be completely candid here,” he added. “We have to right-size the [school system], and we have to be honest about where we’re not providing high-quality schools to our children. And if that ruffles feathers, then so be it.”
Jose Cerda, IFF’s vice president for public policy and communications, also discounted concerns that it favors charter schools. “Almost every city we’ve been in, no one part of the system is the solution,” he said. “It would be a mistake to say this work is charter-centric.”