click to enlarge Republican Ryan Higgins
Republican Ryan Higgins
It’s not every day that a group almost nobody has ever heard of gives $175,000 to a single state legislative candidate. But that’s just what happened on Oct. 7 when Stand for Children Illinois PAC handed over that gigantic check to Republican Ryan Higgins, who is vying to replace retiring state Rep. Paul Froehlich (D-Schaumburg).

In fact, Stand for Children’s $175,000 check represents the largest single contribution to a legislative candidate – other than from a caucus leader, party organization or candidate loans to themselves – since contribution records were put online 16 years ago. It’s probably a good bet that the group’s contribution to Higgins is the single largest “outside” legislative campaign check in modern Illinois history.

Yet Stand for Children has received almost zero press coverage. Fox Chicago followed up on a story I wrote earlier this month, but that’s it, even though the group has contributed $650,000 to rank and file legislative candidates since Oct. 4. 

Republicans had hoped to receive nearly all of the group’s prodigious contributions this fall, but the majority of its money went to six Democrats. Rep. Jehan Gordon (D-Peoria) received a $100,000 check. State Reps. Bob Flider, Mark Walker and Keith Farnham and Sen. Toi Hutchinson have all received $50,000 contributions, as well as House Democratic candidate Daniel Biss. Three Republicans received money from the group.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan met with the group after hearing what it was up to, said his spokesman. Madigan can be a very persuasive man.

Huge contributions have been the norm in Illinois for decades. Usually, though, when we see big checks run through the system we have a general idea what the group wants. So far, though, Stand for Children has not established any sort of public presence here. There have been no editorial board visits or public relations blitzes. Their campaign finance filings show that their money is coming from their parent organization, which doesn’t have to list its contributors. So we really don’t know who is actually bankrolling this group.

After several tries, the organization did send me a flier about how it intends to “Improve Illinois Public Schools.”

“Our vision is to dramatically increase improvement for all Illinois children by building a powerful, independent, statewide voice asking that we make what’s best for public school children the center of all education policy,” the flier states.

Um, OK, but what do they want? They say they want to “redefine” teacher tenure so that it is a “benefit that is earned and kept based on high expectations and student achievement.” Their website indicates that the group strongly backs testing to gauge achievement.  And they appear to want to apply those test results to teachers. They also want to make sure that administrators and teachers have “exhausted every possible avenue during contract negotiations before resorting to a strike.” Details about how they would do that were not available.

“Certainly, any time you see a new group not from Illinois dropping significant dollar amounts into legislative races, it does raise some red flags,” said a spokesperson for the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “Where is their money coming from, who is funding them, what are their objectives? We’re certainly curious to see what their agenda is.”

While they don’t seem to be explicitly saying so, it looks like the group is taking advantage of a peculiar situation in Illinois politics.

The two teachers unions are furious at legislators for voting for a major pension reform bill, so many of those incumbents are not receiving the unions’ endorsements. Plus, the unions’ contributions, along with everybody else’s, will be capped at a much lower level starting Jan. 1, and that could hinder their influence.

The thinking is that Stand for Children is now filling a unique void created by the relative lack of teacher contributions.

But that theory doesn’t totally hold up. For instance, Rep. Farnham and Sen. Hutchinson were both endorsed by the IEA. And Rep. Flider has sponsored three bills making it easier for teachers to receive tenure more quickly.

However, if Speaker Madigan retains the majority and the group continues to, um, “stand” with his candidates and the unions refuse to step up, it’s possible that we could see a significant education reform push next year. Stay tuned. 

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and

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