Obama, Ayers and the Annenberg Challenge: Does Conservative Stanley Kurtz Get It Right?


As far as it goes, Stanley Kurtz of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center and the National Review Online, has done a reasonably good job in this essay in the Wall Street Journal of capturing the intimately close political relationship between Barack Obama and Bill Ayers in their work together on the $160 million Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC) from 1995 to 2002.
But there is a key piece missing in this continuing puzzle.
Global Labor readers will recall that Dr. Kurtz, a Harvard-trained social anthropologist, was initially invited to view the CAC’s records held at the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus but was then denied access for several weeks after the former Executive Director of the CAC, Ken Rolling, demanded that the University keep the CAC records, donated to the University by the CAC for public research in 2002, off limits to the public.
No one has yet been able to explain how Rolling, who now runs a non profit in Mississippi, happened to call the University library the same day as Kurtz – August 11 – and demand that Kurtz be denied access to the records.  Unless, of course, someone tipped him off.
The University relented, however, after conferring with Rolling who was then given an opportunity to recommend that certain documents be kept confidential. The University maintains nothing was changed.
Kurtz was then able to review the records, some of which I had already seen after securing copies from a separate archive at Brown University earlier this summer.
My own assessment of what the Ayers/Obama Challenge experience adds up to is explained in my essay, The Authoritarian Radicals.
Kurtz’ main argument is that the CAC was a continuation of the “radical” agenda towards education that Ayers developed as a civil rights and anti-war activist in the 1960s.  Thus, he points to Ayers’ intention to use the funds of the CAC to infuse students and teachers with an interest in resisting oppression, racism, and social injustice.
There is a great deal of truth in this.  Ayers speaks widely of his commitment to “social justice” teaching where he sees the classroom as the potential starting point of revolutionary consciousness.  Such nonsense deserves the derision the Kurtz piece suggests.
But one is left wondering, would the national Annenberg Challenge program have really awarded Ayers nearly $50 million if this kind of silliness were the real purpose of the CAC?  
Would Chicago area foundations like the MacArthur Foundation and the Pritzker Family Foundation, as well as major corporate and public donors, have provided $110 million in matching funds for such an agenda?  
Could anyone have realistically expected such an agenda to have improved student outcomes?
Somehow I doubt it.
Rather, I think there was a more pressing purpose at the heart of the award and the support it engendered among certain elite institutions and individuals in Chicago. Ironically, while Kurtz wants to tar Obama with the red paint brush of the 60s “radical” Ayers, an understanding of the real purpose of the CAC indicates a much closer political alliance between Obama and Ayers.
The grant application itself and much of what the CAC was up to emerged in the heated “Chicago School Wars” underway in that city from the late 1980s until the late 1990s.  This war was for the control of Chicago’s public schools.  
One side in this war was controlled by Mayor Richard M. Daley, Jr., son of the legendary Mayor Daley.  
And the other side was led by Ayers and a small group of reformers that had emerged several years earlier in 1988 during a battle to create a new power center in the Chicago schools, the so-called Local School Councils, or LSCs.  The LSCs were an effort to rein in the power of unionized teachers, school principals and school administrators, in the wake of an unpopular teachers’ strike in 1987.
This milieu around Ayers also included, as far back as the late 80s, Barack Obama and the Developing Communities Project (DCP) that had hired Obama as its Executive Director in 1985. The DCP was a leading participant in the campaign to establish the LSCs.
Thus, in fact, the “radical” Bill Ayers and his ally Barack Obama, a Democratic political activist and lawyer on the rise in Chicago, were engaged in an anti-union effort to influence the direction and nature of the entire Chicago public school system.  It would lead them into a battle with Mayor Daley himself.
By 1994 the Local School Councils were losing momentum and Daley started to reassert his power, looking to new legislation to strip the LSCs of their power and return power over the system to his office. Ayers and his reformers turned to the Annenberg Challenge money to reinvigorate the power and impact of the LSCs.  
They also funded, as Kurtz documents, a network of so-called “external partners,” such as the Small Schools Network run by Ayers’ comrade from the 60s, ex-Maoist Mike Klonsky.  These Partners engaged in what one union activist called “teacher bashing” rather than concrete programs to improve outcomes for students.
This was the heart and soul of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge – a front in the Chicago School Wars.  For a time mainstream figures like the former President of Northwestern, Arnold Weber, backed the effort, but later began raising objections to its “political” agenda.  
But the project prevailed and over time dumped nearly $160 million in six years into the schools, consistent with the Ayers’ camp’s political agenda of supporting the LSCs as a power center against the teachers’ union and the city administration. (Ironically, the LSCs were not supported by major black groups in Chicago like Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH.  The LSCs anti-teacher approach was viewed with alarm as teaching had become one of the few sure routes to a middle class life for black Chicagoans.)
Thus, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge was far more than just a chance for Ayers to engage in “radical” efforts to raise the political consciousness of young students.  It was that but it was much more – it was a front in an important battle for control of the Chicago Public School system. In fact, according to the Ken Rolling, Daley himself tried to wrest control of the Annenberg grant money away from Ayers and Obama.
The Challenge was radical, but not the right wing’s simplistic view of “radicalism.”  Rather it represented an authoritarian and bureaucratic agenda – a desperate attempt to foist upon troubled classrooms a “politically correct” curriculum, yes, but more importantly to use parents as canon fodder in a battle to control teachers and administrators.  This authoritarian approach is entirely consistent with Ayers’ long held views as he has consistently sided politically with the most undemocratic regimes available, including most recently that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
And at Ayers’ side the entire time during this battle was his comrade-in-arms, Barack Obama, who served as President and Chairman of the board of directors of the Challenge.

Obama and Ayers Pushed Radicalism On Schools – WSJ.com