As the complete records of the $160 million dollar six-year long Chicago Annenberg Challenge project are liberated and analyzed in coming weeks, it makes sense to ask just what was the Challenge, or CAC, all about.
After all, the CAC was the first chance for Barack Obama to take on a serious executive role in a controversial political environment. And the Challenge failed, badly.
Most of the criticism of the longstanding relationship between Bill Ayers, who founded the CAC, and Barack Obama is, unfortunately, coming from the conservative side of the political spectrum. That is natural enough – they want their candidate, John McCain, to win and they know that any association between Ayers and Obama is toxic because of Ayers background as a terrorist.
But silence on this issue from the left is rather puzzling – well, not exactly silence. Critics of the Ayers-Obama alliance whether on the right or, like me, on the left, are actually subject to loud and constant attack.
Of course, those on the attack whether high brows like E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, or Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic, or the mobs mobilized a la the Sandinistas or Hugo Chavez by the Obama campaign to attack a Chicago radio talk show host and guest, ignore the facts. So as far as advancing the debate is concerned they might as well be silent.
The left, however, should be particularly concerned about what it is that brought Obama and Ayers together in the same movement some 20 years ago, because there is very little about that movement that can be called progressive or democratic. In fact, it was a bureaucratic and potentially authoritarian movement to control the public school system in the city of Chicago against the Chicago Teachers’ Union, the Chicago School Board and the Mayor’s office, in particular, Mayor Daley, in the mid-1990s.
The starting point was a 1987 strike by the Chicago Teachers’ Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and AFL-CIO. Teachers’ strikes are always very controversial as teachers perform a vital public service. In Chicago, unfortunately, there was a very frayed relationship at the time between the teachers and the city. There were deep fiscal problems as well as the city was transitioning away from a manufacturing center to a services dominated urban environment.
In the wake of that strike, a coalition of business, community and education reformers emerged to form a group called the Alliance for Better Chicago Schools, ABCs.
ABCs came up with a proposal that was then lobbied for in the state legislature to establish a new governance structure in the schools. Power over individual schools would be de-centralized and placed in the hands of new Local School Councils, or LSC’s, which would be comprised of elected representatives of six parents, two community members, two teachers, the principal, and, in high schools, a student. They would be able to hire and fire, unilaterally, principals of their respective schools, who were now stripped of tenure and placed on four year contracts. The principals, in turn, could recruit teachers to particular schools, thus undermining union seniority protections.
The proposal struck a popular chord among some community groups, particularly the Hispanic United Neighborhood Organization, a strong force in certain city neighborhoods modeled on Saul Alinsky’s controversial and troubling, in my view, organizing principles.
But the idea was decidedly less welcome to black organization like Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH. Why? Because becoming a teacher in Chicago or a public school administrator or staff member was one of the few routes in 1970s and 1980s Chicago for a black person to establish a secure middle class existence.
The idea of imposing a new power center through the LSC’s on top of teachers and schools, and outside of the collective bargaining process, was viewed as a threat to the gains that black teachers had fought long and hard to achieve.
In fact, one of the few, if only, black community groups to support the LSC’s was the DCP, whose Executive Director at the time was Barack Obama. The DCP was very vocal and up front about pushing for school reform, according to press reports.
So the LSC reform was pushed by Hispanic community activists angered by a recent strike, Barack Obama’s DCP, elite business groups looking to solve the school system’s fiscal crisis, and Bill Ayers who saw the LSC’s as the fulfillment of a dream for radical school restructuring.
The LSC’s were put into place in 1988 and conducted elections every two years thereafter. Hundreds of principals were duly fired or resigned but student achievement languished. Naturally, apathy began to set in. Moves were afoot to gut the LSC’s and re-centralize power in the hands of the Mayor’s office. The business sector support for the LSC’s was waning.
It should have been no surprise that the LSC’s were both controversial and problematic. They actually had been tried once before and the result was a disaster.
The setting that time was 1968 New York and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district in Brooklyn. There a similar local control effort ended up in a divisive clash with the teachers’ union headed up by Sandra Feldman and Albert Shanker. Then, sadly, there were few, if any, black teachers and the black power movement was on the ascendancy. As was the New Left, that would soon give birth to the authoritarians Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.
A new school board fired teachers, in violation of due process rights according to the union, and a strike ensued. According to a thoughtful study by Peter B. Levy of the New Left and the labor movement, the conflict led to the New Left siding with the community control activists against the union:
Local black community activists and their new left supporters claimed that the union’s actions demonstrated its traditional autocracy. One black activists [sic] declared: “The current issue…with the union is clearly one of old time boss politics. Mr. Albert Shanker has handled himself in a manner reminiscent of the traditional UNION BOSS.” His were the callous actions of a power broker who would “do everything possible to prevent us from really ever controlling the education of our children.”
The UFT [the American Federation of Teachers NYC affiliate] countered that it was a young progressive union that had historically fought for the rights of all workers and that it too had only just won basic rights. [In fact, as the author points out elsewhere the UFT had supported and participate in the Mississippi Freedom Rides, the Congress on Racial Equality and the 1963 March on Washington]. Most important, the teacher’ union reiterated that due process, the essence of democracy, was their main concern. Or as Shanker proclaimed: “The issue is…will we have a school system in which justice, due process and dignity for teachers is possible, or will we have a system in which any group of vigilantes can enter a school and take it over with intimidation and threats of violence.”
Among the supporters of the UFT defense of due process rights were A. Philip Randolph and the Negro Trade Union League. Randolph had been the organizer of the black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ union and a close ally of Martin Luther King.
As Dorothy Shipps has pointed out local control efforts like that tried in New York and later Chicago profess to be democratic but are, in fact, something else altogether.
Shipps argues in her study of what was called at the time the Chicago “school wars” that the local control movement in Chicago, though backed by “radicals” like Ayers, gave “business the clearest voice in systemwide reform.”
“A large districtwide elected group intended to serve as a legislative body, such an assembly would have both the staff and structure of one. This alternative vision of democracy rests on citizenship and stewardship even as it builds on the private interests and knowledge of concerned parents and neighbors. As an example of a different form of democratic governance, [the assembly idea] serves to remind ordinary Chicagoans that they now have no systemwide forum through which to debate broad issues of equity, standards, and accountability.”
It is interesting to point out as well, as Levy notes, that when the NYC UFT went out on strike, white members of the New Left volunteered to teach, serving then as strike breakers against the union. This was another sad chapter in the inability of young white student radicals to comprehend the nature and significance of the labor movement.
Some in the New Left set out to set up new power centers in poor communities through community organizing precisely because they did not want to compete inside the labor movement with the already democratically elected leadership. That was a leadership and movement that they could not mold to their authoritarian models.
Instead of supporting activists inside a democratic labor movement to consider new approaches to education that were genuinely responsive to community concerns, Levy notes the New Left adopted a “romantic view of Black Power”:
“…white radicals tended to believe the rhetoric of the Panthers and other black militants. They found in it proof that a revolution was imminent and thus a rationale for their own militancy.”
That “militancy” in 1968 would soon turn into sectarianism, violence, terrorism, authoritarianism and Maoism among a segment of the New Left. That segment would be the home of Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Ayers’ education reform ally Mike Klonsky (the fortunate recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the CAC for his Small Schools Workshop).
According to Shipps:
“The Challenge sought to build on the momentum of the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act which had radically decentralized governance of the Chicago Public Schools.”
As Ayers himself would explain in his proposal to receive $49.2 million from Annenberg:
“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.”
“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.”
With the initial grant secured Ayers formed the Chicago School Reform Collaborative, which he co-chaired, as the operational arm of the CAC. The Collaborative, in turn, recruited a new board of directors including Barack Obama who was selected its Chairman in the spring of 1995.
Over the next six years the CAC would match the initial grant with $110 million of matching grants for a total of $160 million to be invested to meet their goals. At the heart of the effort was a proposal to recruit and train new leaders for membership on the Local School Councils.
According to Ken Rolling, the executive director of the CAC, who had been recruited to the CAC from the Woods Fund where he had earlier funded efforts to create the LSC’s in the late 1980s, 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”
That proposal from the Ayers-led Collaborative was questioned by board members and specifically by business sector board member Arnold Weber as a potential “political threat” to the power of school principals. It was Barack Obama who volunteered to help shepherd the proposal through the board after consultation with the Ayers-led Collaborative. More than $2 million was spent to shore up the failing Councils.
And all of this was done in direct confrontation with the Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley.
After seven years of the LSC reform the schools were not raising test scores and Daley pushed successfully to recentralize power in his hands over school governance at the end of 1995. The LSC’s were not eliminated only handcuffed, yet the CAC persisted. At one point according to a report to the Ford Foundation, Daley even attempted to wrest the Annenberg money away from Ayers and Obama.
According to Ken Rolling:
“There were two or three attempts from them [Chicago city officials] to just “get the money.” Even the mayor got into at one point. The mayor asked the ambassador [Annenberg] to come into Chicago and he wanted to tell him, “You are wasting your money. You should give it to me.” The ambassador never responded to him and never agreed to a meeting. But [new School system CEO Paul] Vallas tried it, his staff worked on how to wrest that money away from us.”
It turns out, thankfully, that 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 on student outcomes. The CCSR is lauded and cited by Ms. Lenz in a talk she gave in September of 2006 about Chicago school reform but ignored in her assessment of the CAC.
In 2003 the final technical report of the CCSR on the CAC was published. The results were not pretty.
“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.
The Challenge allowed Barack Obama and Bill Ayers to work together, no doubt closely, in the heat of political battle to help disburse $160 million to allies, particularly in the LSC’s, in the Chicago School system.
Under the circumstances, it seems more than a bit disingenuous of Senator Obama to dismiss Bill Ayers as just some “guy who lives in my neighborhood.”