Chicago School Board Member Under Investigation Wins Education Industry Award

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A Chicago school board member embroiled in controversy over her investments in companies that do business with the district received a standing ovation and a “Friend of the Education Industry” award Thursday at an education technology conference.

Deborah Quazzo, founder and managing partner of GSV Advisors, a venture capital firm, earned the honor from the Education Industry Association, a Washington, D.C., trade organization. Her dual roles as public official and private investor are being investigated by the Chicago school system’s inspector general, in the wake of recent articles in the Chicago Sun-Times.

But she was greeted with a warm welcome Thursday at the technology summit.

“You have friends in this room,” Michael R. Sandler, chairman of the Education Industry Foundation, said as he introduced Quazzo, adding, “We stand with you.”

For her part, Quazzo sidestepped the controversy in Chicago during her remarks, and described it as “unwanted press attention” during a panel discussion at the event.

According to the latest Sun-Times reports, five companies in which Quazzo has invested have received contracts worth more than $1.3 million from charter schools, which are privately operated but get most of their funds from the Chicago Public Schools system, on whose board Quazzo sits.

She has said that she recuses herself from school board decisions where her position might be seen as a conflict of interest.

Quazzo is the latest example of a public education official snared by accusations of improper relationships with technology vendors seeking to do business with schools. Last year, John Deasy, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, stepped down after a $1.3 billion iPad program collapsed amid charges that the procurement process had favored certain vendors. In both the Los Angeles and the Chicago cases, teachers’ unions sharply criticized the district leaders.

At the education technology conference Thursday in Washington, school leaders said they worry about a similar fate, and so try to err on the side of caution with technology purchases. A recent report commissioned by the Education Industry Association and Digital Promise, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for successful technology programs, found that school officials and private industry often struggle to communicate during the procurement process.

Education technology programs tend to wither when they try to expand to larger numbers of schools or districts, Quazzo said during the panel discussion. But recently, she said, more of them have nimbly navigated challenges.

“People always ask me: ‘Will there be a Facebook of education?’” she said, adding that her response is, “we’ll see.”

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a reporter has focused on education. She has also covered stories about government, courts, business and religion. She was a staff writer at The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., The York Daily Record/Sunday News in York, Pa., The Times-Tribune in Scranton, Pa. and The Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. and has been published in The Atlantic's online edition. She won first prize and best of show for education writing in 2011 from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. She earned a B.A. in journalism at the Pennsylvania State University.