Backers Say Chicago Project Not ‘Radical’

’90s Annenberg Reform Push an Issue in Presidential Race
By Dakarai I. Aarons — October 09, 2008 14 min read
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The Chicago Annenberg Challenge, chaired from 1995 to 1999 by Barack Obama, is being portrayed by John McCain’s campaign as an attempt to push radicalism on schools.

The project undertaken in Chicago as part of a high-profile national initiative reflected, however, mainstream thinking among education reformers. The Annenberg Foundation’s $49.2 million grant in the city focused on three priorities: encouraging collaboration among teachers and better professional development; reducing the isolation between schools and between schools and their communities; and reducing school size to improve learning.

The other eight urban projects that received money from the foundation under the Annenberg Challenge initiative, launched in 1993 by the philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg, pursued similar aims.

And the creation of small schools has continued as a reform strategy nationwide, most recently with major funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The proposal that won Chicago the grant, which the Annenberg Foundation required be matched two-to-one by local donations, was written by William C. Ayers and Anne C. Hallett. Mr. Ayers, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has become a prime target for Sen. Obama’s foes, who point to Mr. Ayers’ membership in the radical Weather Underground in the 1960s and 1970s and assert that the Democratic presidential nominee has been keeping company with an unrepentant domestic terrorist.

Sen. John McCain’s television commercial, “Ayers.”

Last week, the campaign of Sen. McCain, the Republican nominee, posted a Web ad asserting that “Ayers and Obama ran a radical education foundation together” that distributed more than $100 million to “ideological allies.”

Mr. Ayers and Ms. Hallett, who was then the executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, led a citywide group called the Chicago School Reform Collaborative that met frequently throughout 1994 to write a proposal to secure Annenberg funding.

“They are taking what was a very positive civic undertaking to improve public schools and characterizing it as something it was not at all,” Ms. Hallett said of the bloggers, commentators, and TV and radio hosts who for months have been discussing Sen. Obama’s association with Mr. Ayers. (“Ayers Controversy First Smoldered, Now Flares Bright,” Oct. 15, 2008.)

Critics have focused not just on Mr. Ayers’ involvement in violent opposition to the Vietnam War, but also on what they see as his espousal of a radical “social justice” approach to education.

For example, Dick Morris, a political consultant and pundit who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats, including President Clinton, said Oct. 6 on the Fox News Channel show “Hannity & Colmes” that Mr. Ayers has a philosophy of “radicalizing students.” Under the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, he charged, Mr. Ayers chose Mr. Obama to “pass the money out” to “extremist community groups” to infuse students with “radical ideology.”

Support for Decentralization

The context for the Chicago proposal to the Annenberg Foundation was the 1988 decentralization of the city’s public schools by the Republican-controlled Illinois legislature, a response to frustration over years of teachers’ strikes, low achievement, and bureaucratic failure. Among other changes, the law set up “local school councils” at all district schools and gave the panels, which included community representatives, the power to hire principals.

“Chicago is six years into the most radical systemwide urban school reform in the country,” a letter accompanying the proposal stated, referring to the decentralization. “The Annenberg Challenge provides an unprecedented opportunity to concentrate the energy of this reform into an educational renaissance in the classroom.”

Barack Obama is shown in 1992 working on a Chicago voter-registration drive.

The proposal was backed by letters of support to the Annenberg Foundation from Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, local education school deans, the superintendent of the Chicago public schools, and the heads of local foundations.

“Part of the work was to build a strong community around schools,” said Ms. Hallett, who is now the director of Grow Your Own Illinois, a Chicago-based teacher-recruitment project. “Most of the schools had been isolated for a long time.”

To manage the Annenberg grant and raise the necessary matching funds, the Chicago project was required by the Annenberg Foundation to have a board of directors.

Vartan Gregorian, then the president of Brown University and an adviser to Mr. Annenberg on the national challenge, wrote to Adele S. Simmons, the president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, in November 1994 to seek her counsel on setting up a management and fiscal structure for the Chicago project, noting that Mr. Ayers and Ms. Hallett’s group did not have and was not seeking the legal status to be a formal grant recipient.

Critics of Sen. Obama assert that Mr. Ayers must have played a role in his selection as the chairman of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote in a Sept. 23 opinion essay in The Wall Street Journal that it was an “unsettled question” how “a former community organizer fresh out of law school could vault to the top of a new foundation.”

Those involved in selecting Mr. Obama, however, say it was precisely that background that attracted them to him.

Mr. Obama, then 33, was an associate at the law firm Davis, Miner, Barnhill, and Galland and a member of the board of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation. He also served, as Mr. Ayers later did with him, on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago, which had financed the Developing Communities Project, a South Side community-organizing project that Mr. Obama ran from 1985 to 1988 before leaving to attend Harvard Law School.

‘Grassroots Level’

Mr. Obama brought that organizing perspective with him to the new education project, telling the Chicago Tribune in a June 1995 article about the Chicago Annenberg Challenge: “If we’re really going to change things in this city, it’s going to start at the grassroots level and with our children.”

Mr. Ayers and Ms. Hallett met with the heads of three Chicago-based foundations that were actively involved in education, and the foundation executives agreed to take the lead in putting together a board. The three officials were Deborah Leff, then the president of the Joyce Foundation; Patricia Albjerg Graham, then the president of the Spencer Foundation; and Ms. Simmons of the MacArthur Foundation, which had recently pledged $40 million for Chicago schools.

(Education Week receives funding from the Joyce Foundation for coverage of efforts to improve the teaching profession and from the Annenberg Foundation for coverage of new arrangements and classroom improvement. It has received support from the Spencer Foundation for coverage of research, and in the 1990s had a grant from the MacArthur Foundation for special reporting.)

The trio of foundation presidents met for breakfast to begin their work. Ms. Leff, who is now president of the Washington-based Public Welfare Foundation, said in an interview that she suggested the young lawyer to the group.

Ann C. Weller, a special-collections librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago, transports three boxes of documents that are part of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge files. The university library made them available for inspection in August after questions were raised about Barack Obama’s involvement with the project and one of its founders, William C. Ayers.

Ms. Simmons said she also knew Mr. Obama at that time, but Ms. Graham did not. She had, however, heard of him while both were at Harvard University, Mr. Obama as the president of the Harvard Law Review and she as dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“I knew of his deep commitment to improving urban education,” Ms. Leff said. “I also knew in watching him on the board at Joyce that he was extremely intelligent, able to deal efficiently with a variety of points of view.”

Ms. Graham said she later met Italian restaurant, and after a lengthy conversation, asked him to chair the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, which he agreed to do if she served as vice chair and helped him.

Mr. Obama’s life story, she believed, could serve as testimony that lower-income and minority children could thrive when given access to good schools—a chief goal of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge.

“I thought a young man of that extraordinary personal background ... would be much more inspirational for a group of Chicago public school kids than a middle-aged white woman like me,” Ms. Graham said.

All three former foundation executives said this month that their decision to recommend Mr. Obama was not influenced by Mr. Ayers or Ms. Hallett.

“I can speak to the fact that Bill Ayers had nothing to do with the appointment of Obama to the Annenberg Challenge, and he was not significantly involved with the challenge after Obama was appointed,” Ms. Graham said.

The board of the CAC approved Mr. Obama as chairman at its first meeting, in March 1995, on the recommendation of Ms. Graham.

The other members of the board were Arnold R. Weber, a former president of Northwestern University who was then president of the civic committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago; Stanley Ikenberry, a former president of the University of Illinois system; Ray Romero, a vice president of Ameritech; Susan Crown, a philanthropist; Handy Lindsey, the president of the Field Foundation of Illinois; and Wanda White, the executive director of the Community Workshop for Economic Development. Mr. Ayers and Ms. Hallett were ex officio members.

Mr. Obama’s role as chairman of the board included working with lawyers to set up the group as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and appealing to donors for matching funds.

Mr. Obama was active, challenging the staff and pushing the researchers on the project to do more, said Ken Rolling, who was the executive director of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge and a former associate director of the Woods Fund.

“Barack was all the best people already see in him,” Mr. Rolling said. “He’s very smart, a quick study, and somebody who listens to a range of opinions and takes in data, information, and viewpoints, and helps work toward a decision that is often much more broad than the initial recommendation.”

External Partners

Over its six years, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge funded projects in more than 210 schools, mostly elementary. The schools were required to work with “external partners,” including higher education institutions, museums, community groups and already-established school reform initiatives.

Until the CAC board was in place and a staff hired, the 23-member Chicago School Reform Collaborative crafted the requests for proposals seeking prospective grantees and reviewed their grant requests.

Some of the projects led by members of the collaborative, including Mr. Ayers, received Annenberg money. Mr. Ayers, who was involved with the Small Schools Workshop at his university, also gave a workshop for some of the school-community networks funded by the challenge on small schools.

One fact of civic life in Chicago, say city residents, is the prominence of the Ayers family.

Thomas G. Ayers, the father of William and John Ayers, was the chief executive officer of the Commonwealth Edison Co., the region’s major electric utility. He died in 2007.

John Ayers was active in Chicago school reform circles as the head of Leadership for Quality Education, an organization that represented business leaders’ interest in schools. He is now a senior associate of the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

John Ayers declined to comment for this story, and William Ayers could not be reached.

Mr. Obama had significant contact with Thomas Ayers toward the end of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, when they worked to establish the Chicago Public Education Fund. The fund received more than $2 million in startup money from the CAC.

The Chicago Annenberg Challenge’s records were opened in August.

A examination of the records of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, housed at the Richard J. Daley Library at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that Mr. Obama and William Ayers attended Chicago Annenberg Challenge board meetings together, and that Mr. Ayers worked on a governance committee with Mr. Obama.

They also appeared at events where the role of Mr. Obama, as chairman of the board, was largely ceremonial. He would give a welcoming speech, while others, such as Mr. Ayers or Ms. Hallett, spoke more specifically about the education efforts taking place.

“You can’t work in school reform in this community without coming across Bill Ayers. He’s been involved in every area of Chicago reform going back 20 years now,” said Michael Klonsky, who has known Mr. Ayers since their days in the leftist group Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s. Mr. Klonsky later founded the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago with him.

In a Sept. 23 statement, the Obama campaign said: “The Annenberg Challenge records only serve to establish clearly that while Barack Obama and Ayers had occasional contact during Obama’s six years of service on the bipartisan board, they did not work closely together to exchange and develop policy ideas. In fact, as these same records show, Ayers attended a total six meetings of the board during the six years of Obama’s board service.”

While the Chicago Annenberg Challenge was designed to strengthen the decentralization of the city’s schools by better connecting them to their communities, another major change in the governance of the school system served to complicate its effects.

In 1995, just as the CAC was beginning its work, the Illinois legislature gave control of the school system to Mayor Richard M. Daley. He appointed his former budget director, Paul G. Vallas, to run the schools, ushering in a new era characterized by a top-down emphasis on accountability.

Competing Agendas

Individual schools were faced with the tension of pursuing Annenberg-funded projects while at the same time adhering to new mandates from the central office for raising students’ test scores.

The CAC made a grant to support a leadership-training program for members of the local councils.

“For school reform, the ’90s were like the ’60s,” Mr. Vallas, now the chief of the state-run Recovery School District in New Orleans, said in a recent interview. “There was a lot of experimentation going on. I thought there could be a balance between centralized accountability and local control.”

Mr. Rolling said schools often felt Mr. Vallas’ directives didn’t leave time or room for other projects.

“They were focused on accountability and scripted curriculum. They were carrying a pretty big stick,” he recalled of the new administration. “We were saying to schools: ‘Figure out what is best going to work there. Tell us your best ideas and how you would implement it, and we will get you some funding to carry it out.’”

In the end, a 2003 study conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research concluded that the Annenberg project “did not achieve an overall effect on student outcomes.”

“[W]hile the challenge contributed to the improvement of a number of Annenberg schools, there is little evidence of an overall Annenberg school improvement ‘effect.’ Any improvements were much like those occuring in demographically similar non-Annenberg schools,” the report said.

The challenge’s supporters point elsewhere for evidence of success: to the studies produced by the Chicago Annenberg Research Project, and to the creation of the Chicago Public Education Fund, considered by many a successor organization to the Annenberg board.

The CAC gave staff time and more than $2 million to create the fund. Mr. Obama was among the board members who gave their own money for the startup in 1999; the records at the Daley library do not say how much.

Mr. Rolling said the research project helped shape the agenda for Arne Duncan, the current chief executive officer of the Chicago schools, especially on improving teacher quality.

Ms. Graham, the former head of the Spencer Foundation, agreed. She added that she believes the emphasis on improving schooling for poor children also made a contribution.

“In the early ’90s, when this was all going on, there were not a lot of people who were thinking seriously about what we need to do to improve the schooling of low-income children,” she said.

The Chicago Public Education Fund has raised $25 million for training school principals and for boosting the number of teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The fund recently launched a $25 million campaign to bring in national management groups to help improve Chicago’s schools.

Warren K. Chapman, who co-chaired the Chicago School Reform Collaborative with Mr. Ayers, credited the Chicago Annenberg Challenge with laying the groundwork for such civic efforts.

“I don’t know if [the challenge] was successful in improving education in terms of student achievement. I think, at the time, it was successful in galvanizing support for local schools, bringing together people and communities who became engaged in the challenge,” said Mr. Chapman, who is the vice chancellor for external affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Today, you see a lot of people engaged in many schools in Chicago,” he said. “Some go back to the Annenberg Challenge, and some have done it since then.”

And one of the themes of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge is reflected in Sen. Obama’s education policy proposals in his presidential campaign. In his teacher-quality plan for K-12 education, Sen. Obama says he would provide incentives to give teachers paid common planning time.

A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2008 edition of Education Week as Backers Say Chicago Project Not ‘Radical’


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