Behind the Annenberg Gate: Inside the Chicago Annenberg Challenge Records

Inside the Chicago Annenberg Challenge for a Closer Look

As Global Labor readers are now aware, the University of Illinois is blocking access to the records of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, an Illinois non profit corporation, established in 1995.  
The records are held by the University’s Richard Daley Library. Sadly, Daley’s son, the current Chicago mayor refuses to endorse a call to open the records.  Instead, he again today attempted to mislead people into thinking that Ayers and Obama are  just “friends” when, in fact, as we will show here, they have been long time political allies.  Fortunately, Hizzoner has no legal control over the records – the state University is governed by its Board of Trustees and must answer to state law (including laws that protect public records) and its obligations to the people of the state of Illinois.
(See my earlier post here for more on the Ayers/Daley/Obama relationship.)
While the University sits on the complete Annenberg Challenge records, several months ago I was able to obtain certain key records of the Challenge – including board minutes, annual and semi-annual reports and financial records – from Brown University’s Annenberg Institute. Brown housed the national Annenberg Challenge program that was set up in 1993 by a gift of $500 million from Walter Annenberg.  
While the material I was provided is helpful it is no substitute for the complete documentary record that is apparently housed at the University of Illinois (some 70 linear feet of documents according to the library’s public records) and thus that public University should immediately make available to the public those records.
Below is an analysis of what I found in the documents I was able to obtain.  
They evidence:
  1. the leading role that Bill Ayers played in the Annenberg Challenge; 
  2. the equally important role played by Barack Obama; and
  3. the intensely political nature of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge.

The CAC was established in 1995 as a result of a $49.2 million grant from Walter Annenberg to support education reform in Chicago. Bill Ayers and Anne C. Hallett co-signed a letter submitting the grant proposal to Brown University President Vartan Gregorian on November 8, 1994 where the national Challenge office would be headquartered. 

The letter was on the letterhead of the University of Illinois at Chicago (“UIC”). Ayers identified himself as representing the UIC and the “Chicago Forum for School Change.” Ms. Hallett is identified as the Executive Director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform. At the bottom of the letter, a parenthetical states: “On behalf of the Chicago School Reform Collaborative.”

The letter and the attached detailed proposal grew out of a process that began in December 1993 when a small group led by Ayers, Hallett and Warren Chapman of the Joyce Foundation “met to discuss a proposal to the Annenberg Challenge for support of this city’s public school reform efforts.” This group became the nucleus of the larger Chicago School Reform Collaborative, one of the two operational arms of the CAC, which Ayers would co-chair and on which Hallett and Chapman would serve. (Program Report, CAC, Jan. 1, 1995 through Mar. 31, 1996 at 1).

The letter makes the goal of the grant proposal explicit:

“Chicago is six years into the most radical systemwide urban school reform effort in the country. The Annenberg Challenge provides an unprecedented opportunity to concentrate the energy of this reform into an educational renaissance in the classroom.”

The attached proposal is titled: “Smart Schools/Smart Kids: A proposal to the Annenberg Challenge to Create the Chicago School Reform Collaborative.”

The six year old “radical reform effort” that Ayers/Hallett refer to, of course, was the establishment of local school councils (“LSC”) as a new center of power in the Chicago Public Schools (“CPS”) in 1988, in the wake of a 1987 teachers’ strike that proved unpopular to parents and reform activists in both community groups and business groups.

The Alliance for Better Chicago Schools (“ABCs”) was formed then to push for the LSC idea in the Illinois state legislature. Active in the reform effort was Bill Ayers, Barack Obama’s Developing Communities Project, and Chicago United, a group of businessmen concerned about race and education issues founded by Bill Ayers’ father, Tom Ayers, once CEO of the large Chicago utility, Commonwealth Edison (now Exelon). The DCP was a member of the ABCs, Chicago United was a leading force in organizing the ABCs and Bill Ayers would later chair the ABCs which continued after the school reform bill was passed in late 1988 as an oversight group.

By the early 1990s there was controversy about the LSC idea from many directions. At one point the 1988 law was actually declared unconstitutional and it had to be restructured. Another effort was underway to re-centralize control over the schools in the hands of the mayor’s office when the possibility of the Annenberg grant arose. This counter-reform effort, if you will, partially succeeded in new laws passed in 1995 and 1999.

But in 1993 the CAC grant proposal was seen by Ayers as an attempt, in part, to rescue the LSC’s. The grant proposal states,

“We envision a process to unleash at the school site the initiative and courage of LSC’s….” Later, it states “[t]he Local Schools Councils…are important both for guiding educational improvement and as a means of strengthening America’s democratic traditions.

As I have argued elsewhere on this blog, I do not think that the link made here between the LSC’s and “democracy” is, in fact, accurate. I think that such “councils” look eerily similar to efforts by regimes like those in Nicaragua under the Sandinistas and Venezuela under Chavez to impose control over teachers and their independent unions by an authoritarian regime. Thus, it is not a surprise to me that Bill Ayers has traveled several times in recent years to Venezuela where he has spoken in front of Hugo Chavez and has enthusiastically applauded that regime’s efforts to link education policy to the Chavez “revolution.”

As Ayers stated in a speech there in November 2006 “La educacion es Revolucion!” He applauded “the profound educational reforms underway here in Venezuela under the leadership of President Chavez” and he said he “share[d] the belief that education is the motor-force of revolution.”

When the LSC reform was put in place Bill Ayers wrote an opinion piece for the Chicago newspapers that spoke of combatting the “bureaucracies” that he felt blocked true reform in the school system.  I believe he meant by this both the Chicago school board and the Chicago Teachers’ Union.  This use of the word “bureaucracies” as his target is, again, evocative of the attempts of figures like Mao Tse Tung to combat “bureaucracy” in the Chinese cultural revolution.
It is interesting to note that very few black Chicago organizations were willing to back the LSC reforms precisely because they targeted the Teachers’ Union and the School Board – two of the few places in Chicago life at the time where blacks could pursue a secure middle class profession.

Thus, in the midst of an intense political battle in Chicago over the LSC role in the schools, securing the CAC money was very important to the LSC reform effort backed by Ayers and Obama from the late 1980s. The Ayers/Hallett proposal stated that the money would provide

“a powerful catalyst for Chicago educators and parents to build on this base toward a sustained and serious advance….This is the critical step, that must be taken now, and the time is now.”

Indeed, the CAC proposal effort led by Ayers and Hallett was a critical part of what the Project Director of the CAC, Ken Rolling, described as the “political wars” being waged over schools in Chicago at that time. Ken Rolling was a veteran of those wars because in his previous role he had been a program officer of the Woods Fund, which supported the school reform effort through its grants, including grants to Barack Obama’s Developing Communities Project.

Other groups in other cities were competing for the same pool of funds (a total of $500 million made available by philanthropist Walter Annenberg) and, perhaps even more importantly, other groups in the city of Chicago with different policy views were applying to receive funds. 

(I have read but not confirmed that Mayor Richard Daley himself attempted to secure a grant from Annenberg in competition with the Ayers/Hallett proposal.  My inquiry about this to the Annenberg Institute at Brown was never answered.)

However, the Ayers/Hallett proposal was successful in the end with the decision made in late 1994. In January of 1995 the formal announcement of a grant of $49.2 million was made. That money would have to be matched by contributions from the private and public sector 2:1 for a total amount over the life of the project of approximately $150 million dollars to be disbursed in Chicago. 

In fact, by the end of 1999 the CAC had raised slightly more than $50 million from public sources and nearly $60 million from private sources, for a total of $160 million to be disbursed in Chicago area schools.
The CAC set up an office in rent-free space at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in the same Department of Education building where Bill Ayers taught.

The CAC Structure: The Board and the Collaborative work hand in glove

The Ayers/Hallett proposal described a three-piece structure established to carry out the CAC. The three “over-lapping entities each of which has clear tasks and responsibilities” included:

“The Chicago Annenberg Challenge Board (the Board); the Chicago School Reform Collaborative (the Collaborative); and the Consortium of Chicago Schools Research (CCSR).

The Board would handle “all fiscal matters” including raising the required 2:1 matching funds (nearly $100 million required in a five year period) and “creating a grant-making system to disperse monies to schools and networks.” The Board would hire the Project Director, a full time professional staff position.

The first chairman of the CAC Board was Barack Obama, at that point, 33 years old and a third year associate at Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, a small Chicago law firm.

Obama took over the reins of the Board in early 1995 and stepped down from the chairmanship in late 1999, though he remained on the Board until the CAC phased itself out of existence and handed off its remaining assets to a permanent new institution, the Chicago Public Education Fund, in 2001. The Board began to meet in March of 1995 and formally incorporated the CAC as a non-profit entity in April 1995.

Other board members included numerous already prominent Chicagoans: Susan Crown, Vice President of the Henry Crown Company; Patricia A. Graham, President of The Spencer Foundation; Stanley Ikenberry, President-emeritus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Handy Lindsey, Executive Director of the Field Foundation; Arnold Weber, former President of Northwestern University and then President of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago; and Wanda White, Executive Director of the Community Workshop on Economic Development. Some of these individuals would resign and be replaced by other equally prominent Chicagoans.

The second operating entity of the CAC would be the Collaborative that would represent various constituencies in the Chicago schools and wider community. It would be:

“A clearing-house for ideas, for resources, for information – the place where strategies are created, successes and failures analyzed, and plans made and shared. The Collaborative under the leadership of the [Project] Director will publicize the Challenge, develop the RFP [Requests for Proposals] and application criteria, host seminars to inform and assist schools through the process, select participating schools, establish working groups, oversee program evaluation, develop the metropolitan strategy, broker waivers and resources, and provide services for networks. In other words, the Collaborative is the place where the Challenge digs its deepest roots into the community and the schools – and it is the heart of the operational work.”

The co-chair of the CAC’s Collaborative from 1995 until 2000 was Bill Ayers. In 1997 Ayers was named Chicago’s “Citizen of the Year” for his work on the CAC.

Thus, the leaders of the two operative arms of the CAC from its inception until 2000 were Bill Ayers and Barack Obama.

What Happened: The political battle that CAC waged

A review of the annual and semi-annual reports submitted to the Annenberg Foundation indicates the close working relationship between the Board and the Collaborative throughout its entire five-year life.

I. 1995

Some examples from the 1995-96 Program Report (prepared in May 1996) include the following:

1) The Collaborative developed the first Request for Proposals (RFP) form for the CAC “which was widely circulated and they held a series of informational meetings throughout the city to acquaint public school staff, school reformers and potential ‘external partners’ with the mission and goals of the CAC.”

2) In the first year, the Collaborative “read each of the letters-of-intent” at least three times and rated them and then made recommendations to the CAC board on the disposition of the applications.

3) The Collaborative and the Board worked together on a job description for CAC staff.

4) The Collaborative and the Board worked together on a “process for reviewing planning and implementation networks” which had received grants.

One critical project of the Collaborative and Board in 1996 demonstrates the closely aligned political views of the two operational arms of the CAC:

5) The Collaborative and the Board became direct players in the Chicago LSC elections held in 1996. According to the CAC Report:

“In 1996 the Chicago Public Schools were scheduled to hold the fourth election of Local School Council (LSC) representatives since the school reform of act [sic] of 1988 was passed. As in the past two elections support from the central office of the Chicago Public Schools appeared to be minimal.

“Until, that is, members of the Collaborative coalesced with school reform groups around the city and began to put pressure on the Chicago Public Schools’ central office to promote the elections both by recruiting enough candidates for the open seats so that contested elections would be held and by urging parents and community members to vote. Members of the CAC Collaborative began their work on the LSC elections in late Fall 1995.

“Part of their effort was to seek funding to support efforts at the school level to locate and elect active LSC members. The CAC board was asked in early 1996 to approve funds for a citywide coalition of local organizations who agreed to work on both candidate and voter turnout for the 1996 elections.”

The Board approved a grant of $125,000 for this effort.

6) One of the first grants awarded in 1995 was a $175,000 Implementation Grant to the Small Schools Workshop. The Workshop had been founded by Bill Ayers in 1992 and was headed up by his former SDS comrade and hardcore Maoist, Mike Klonsky. Klonsky actually visited China and met with its stalinist leaders in the early 1970s. Klonsky still heads up the Small Schools Workshop and, until it was summarily removed, hosted a blog on “social justice” and education issues on the official Barack Obama Presidential campaign website. Hundreds of thousands of dollars more would be forthcoming from the CAC for the Klonsky group.

II. 1996

A second Program Report was filed for the period ending 12/31/1996. Among its relevant comments were the following that indicate the inherently political nature of the CAC Board and Collaborative’s activities:

The Collaborative (still co-chaired by Bill Ayers) and the CAC Staff (now headed by Ken Rolling) prepared an RFP for potential grantees for $2 million allocated by the Board (still chaired by Barack Obama) for “Leadership Development.” Its aim was “to make clear the connection between organizing a base of supporters for school reform with local schools, and a training program on educational issues to assist parents and community members participate in their schools.”

At the May 1996 Board meeting a proposed $2 million Leadership Development Initiative RFP was discussed. This program was a centerpiece of the CAC’s early efforts aimed at supporting the recruitment and training of candidates and members of the controversial Local School Councils in Chicago. Barack Obama chaired the meeting. The minutes state:

“After some expression of concern for how the RFP and the Initiative itself would directly support the criteria used by the Challenge in its general grant program Chairman Obama volunteered to meet with representatives of the Collaborative to clarify the purpose of the RFP and to request another draft which would be more carefully tailored to meet the criteria and program of the Challenge.”

At the December 1996 Board meeting former Northwestern University president and business community representative Arnold Weber asked for clarification on a number of issues related to the Leadership Development Initiative RFP for $2 million. According to the Board minutes he was concerned about the relationship of this planned effort to recruit and train new leaders to the existing LSC structure. 

He also was concerned about the relationship between groups organized with CAC money to school principals. The minutes state: “Principals may view their presence as a political threat.” 
Barack Obama was absent from this meeting

III. 1997

Following the Board level discussion and then the Barack Obama-led discussion with the Collaborative, according to an Interim Report filed by Ken Rolling in October 1997:

“a new RFP [for Leadership Development] was issued in June 1997 to address the Challenge’s interest in organizing an informed constituency of parents and community residents who will actively support and participate in educational changes in their local schools. The RFP went through a number of revisions as both the Board and Collaborative discussed its goals and implementation….[The Initiative] is a critical aspect of the work of the Challenge as it seeks to increase not only numbers of parents and community residents who are actively engaged in changing their schools but also participants who are knowledgeable of promising and successful educational/academic practices in schools.”

Presumably this represented a compromise that Board Chair Obama was able to work out with the Bill Ayers-led Collaborative in the wake of the concerns raised by business community representative Arnold Weber about the CAC backed leaders becoming a “political threat.”

The annual report for 1997 made special mention of the surrounding political context of the CAC’s work. Director Ken Rolling noted that a goal of the CAC was “seeking a changed policy environment” but that this “has been the most elusive to date with no major progress to report at this time.” 

He explained further:

“The Challenge began its work in 1995 at the same time a dramatic change in the leadership and management of the Chicago Public Schools took place. The Illinois state legislature awarded complete control of the…Schools to the Mayor of Chicago in 1995. A new management team and Reform Board of Trustees was installed and a major emphasis began on administration, financial stability and accountability measures that are tied to specific test scores. The Challenge began its program at the time the central administration of the public schools took off in a different direction.”

Indeed, the 1995 law gave the Mayor and the Board the power to dissolve LSC’s – the very bodies that the CAC was trying to bolster.

IV. 1998

The 1998 Annual Report notes that the Collaborative (still co-chaired by Ayers) “continued to meet throughout 1998 and provided advice and outreach” while its members “regularly participated in site visits and proposal reviews, assisted schools and their networks in developing leadership programs, and assisted in raising funds for the 1998 Local School Council elections to support a wide range of community organizations who worked to recruit both candidates and voters for the Spring 1998 elections.”

V. 1999

According to the Mid-Year Report for 1999 the $2 million for the Leadership Development Initiative was “now fully committed.” The funds “supported efforts to recruit candidates and build turnout for the [LSC] elections in both 1996 and 1998 and provide support” for efforts to improve the “academic life of local schools.”

By the end of this year Board member Arnold Weber would resign and Barack Obama would step down from the role of Board Chair as he anticipated an upcoming run for Congress.

VI. 2000

The CAC Interim Report for 2000 noted that the CAC was “completing funding of seven Leadership Development Initiative projects by June 30, 2001…focused on organizing parents and Local School Councils into more effective relationships with school personnel to affect curriculum and other academic changes in schools.”

Anticipating the end of the CAC the following year, the CAC was “also in the midst of creating a special fund to support future work of the [LSC’s] including ongoing training and development of [LSC] members as well as to assist in recruiting and electing members for the Councils in future years.”

The matching money: big corporations and foundations pitch in

A report on the matching funds raised by the CAC indicates that by the end of 1999 approximately $60 million had been raised from a wide range of corporations and foundations. Among the largest contributors were:

Bank of America $1.6 million
DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund $3 million
IBM $2.3 million
Polk Bros. Foundation $6.8 million
Prince Charitable Trusts $1.1 million
Pritzker Foundation $100,000.00
MacArthur Foundation $17.1 million
Joyce Foundation $11 million
Woods Fund $1 million

What about the “bottom line”?

The CAC also funded a third arm, the Consortium of Chicago School Research (CCSR), in parallel with the two operational arms, the Board and the Collaborative. This arm was to conduct research on the impact of the CAC’s funding.

In 2003 the final technical report of the CCSR on the CAC was published. The results were not pretty. The “bottom line” according to the report was that the CAC did not achieve its goal of improvement in student academic achievement and nonacademic outcomes. While student test scores improved in the so-called Annenberg Schools that received some of the $150 million disbursed in the six years from 1995 to 2001,

“This was similar to improvement across the system….There were no statistically significant differences in student achievement between Annenberg schools and demographically similar non-Annenberg schools. This indicates that there was no Annenberg effect on achievement.

The report identified the political conflict between the Local School Council promotion efforts of the CAC – such as the $2 million Leadership Development Initiative – as a possible factor hindering a positive impact on student achievement.

Conclusion: an academic failure but political success?

The Challenge allowed Barack Obama and Bill Ayers to work together, no doubt closely, in the heat of political battle to help disburse more than $100 million to allies, particularly in the LSCs, in the Chicago School system. 

Under the circumstances, it seems more than a bit disingenuous of Senator Obama to dismiss Bill Ayers as just “a guy who lives in my neighborhood.”