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The Annenberg Challenge—then the largest private donation ever made to public education—was announced in December 1993 by Walter H. Annenberg, the publishing magnate who owned TV Guide, served as U.S. ambassador to Britain from 1969 to 1974, and had close friendships with Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Annenberg, who in 1989 had established the Annenberg Foundation with $1.2 billion in assets, explained that he made his historic commitment to school reform because he was concerned about rising violence among young people. “We must ask ourselves whether improving education will halt the violence,” he said at a White House ceremony with President Bill Clinton.
The idea behind the $500 million Annenberg Challenge was to require recipients to raise matching money from other sources, on the theory that the fundraising efforts would mobilize communities in support of their schools.
As Education Week put it in 1997: “A central assumption was that by giving money to reformers on the ground, rather than to the school bureaucracy, the challenge could make public education work for poor and minority students and deepen existing grassroots efforts.”
But in doing so, the projects struggled to influence the larger educational system, the article noted.
Common themes across all of the Annenberg Challenge sites were the importance of smaller, more personalized schools and classrooms; high expectations for all children; and strong ties between schools and between schools and their surrounding communities.
In all, the foundation spent $385 million on 18 reform efforts, including grants to national organizations representing rural schools and promoting arts education. The challenge provided grants to nine urban areas: Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, the San Francisco Bay Area, and South Florida. By 2002, most of the projects were winding down. Mr. Annenberg died in October of that year.
New York City’s project is widely considered the most successful of the urban initiatives undertaken with the challenge money, since it spurred a movement to create smaller schools that still has momentum today. The projects in Boston and in the Bay Area, which focused on teacher knowledge, were the only urban projects to receive second, five-year grants from the foundation.
Other sites weren’t as successful, including Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and South Florida.
At the time, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge was lauded for giving birth to the Chicago Public Education Fund, which has continued to be a convening place for civic leaders to get involved in schools.
The Chicago initiative has received fresh attention during the 2008 presidential campaign because it was chaired by Democratic nominee Barack Obama, then a young lawyer. (“Backers Say Chicago Project Not ‘Radical’,” Oct. 15, 2008.)
Half of the first $100 million spent under the challenge went to endow the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, which had been formed in 1993 with a $5 million anonymous gift. The institute was then chaired by Theodore R. Sizer, the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools and one of the nation’s most prominent education thinkers.
Today, the institute focuses on how to create “smart education systems” in urban areas—a distinct shift from the school-by-school approach for which Mr. Sizer was known and which was pursued by most of the challenge sites.
Marla Ucelli Kashyap, the director of district redesign at the institute, chairs the board of trustees of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week.
Vartan Gregorian, the president of Brown at the time of Mr. Annenberg’s gift, consulted closely with Annenberg Foundation officials on how to distribute the remaining challenge money.
In August, in response to questions about Sen. Obama’s ties to William C. Ayers, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and one of the founders of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, the foundation and the institute opened their records on the Chicago project.
In a news release, the foundation noted that sites participating in the national Annenberg Challenge were locally governed and controlled, and that the cac had no record of providing any salary for Mr. Ayers, whose past as a leader of the radical Weather Underground has stirred controversy in the presidential race.
‘Wise and Appropriate’
The Annenberg Foundation’s Web site contains links to documents related to the Chicago project, including a Nov. 18, 1994, letter from Mr. Gregorian to Mr. Ayers and Anne C. Hallett, who described herself in another piece of correspondence as “joined at the hip” with Mr. Ayers in putting together a plan to secure Annenberg funding.
Mr. Gregorian’s letter describes their plans as “ambitious and exciting” and “wise and appropriate.” It concludes: “Your dedication to the children of Chicago deserves hearty applause.”
Mr. Gregorian, who is now the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, deferred to Gail C. Levin, the executive director of the Annenberg Foundation, for comment.
(The Annenberg Foundation, based in Radnor, Pa., supports coverage in Education Week of new arrangements in public education and classroom improvement strategies. The newspaper also receives support from the Carnegie Corporation for coverage of pathways to college and the workplace.)
Ms. Levin said that Mr. Ayers’ involvement was not an issue for the foundation, and that commentators are giving him an “outsized role” in the project.
“The lessons learned from the excellent evaluation work that was done were useful and instructive in determining the future work,” she said. “Chicago has made great headway in the years since. I think a measure of that was due to the inaugural investments of the Annenberg Challenge.”
Staff Writer Dakarai I. Aarons contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2008 edition of Education Week as Other Big Cities Pursued Goals, Strategies Similar to Chicago Project’s Plan