The right is certainly correct when it attacks Bill Ayers’ “social justice teaching” agenda for America’s public schools, as neo-con Sol Stern does in this Wall Street Journal piece. Far from representing a progressive viewpoint on where our society should be moving, “social justice teaching” is little more than an ideological fig leaf for the authoritarian, anti-union and race-driven identity politics of Ayers and his crowd including figures like Obama advisor Linda Darling-Hammond and Gloria Ladson-Billings who use the concepts like “small schools” as the vehicle to implement their anti-teachers’ union policies.
But whenever the right brings this up the Obama camp points out the Republicans like Arnold Weber, former president of Northwestern University, who sat on the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge alongside of Obama and Ayers.
Ayers, of course, appointed the first board of the Challenge, including Obama, after leading the year long effort to secure a $49.2 million grant from prominent Republican philanthropist Walter Annenberg.
Ayers then worked closely with the board, helped draft its by-laws, shaped the principles of its grant making program and shared authority with Obama and Weber to write checks on behalf of the Challenge. The Challenge’s first office was even housed at his university.
But is the Obama campaign right about those darn Republicans? Why can’t the McCain campaign explain this anomaly?
The reason is simple. It’s true. And it’s true because Ayers, Obama and Republicans like Weber early on shared a critical principle: they all supported the major reform put in place in Chicago in 1988 – the establishment of so-called “local school councils” to rein in the power of the Chicago Teachers’ Union and school administration after an unpopular teachers’ strike in 1987. Ayers and Obama were active supporters of the lobbying effort that led to that reform.
Even the Heritage Foundation liked the idea. And no wonder, using local control (or, in the words of education theorists, “site based management”) to watchdog teachers helped open the door to the free market “choice” agenda that now includes vouchers and charter schools.
The entire raison d’etre of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge in 1995 was to pump more money into those Councils which were under political attack because they had failed to impact student outcomes favorably.
Thus, the problem for the McCain campaign is that the only explanation for the joint participation of “liberals” like Obama or “radicals” like Ayers together with mainstream figures like Arnold Weber in the Annenberg Challenge is their joint interest in breaking the back of the teachers’ union which so many on the right see, even today, as the barrier to real education reform.
Interestingly, the McCain campaign shares a joint interest with the Obama campaign in hiding this fundamental principle behind the Chicago Annenberg Challenge.
They could, of course, point out that within a short period of time after Ayers and Obama began their joint leadership of the Challenge, Weber and other board members raised concerns about spending millions of dollars on support for the Councils as was proposed by Ayers. Mayor Daley, who had once gone along with the idea of the councils, was now moving to strip them of power. Obama intervened on behalf of Ayers and the money was approved.
But to admit to the “teacher bashing” (in the words of one Chicago teachers’ union activist) character of the Annenberg Challenge grant program would mean admitting that both the right and opportunistic liberals like Obama have their reasons for allying with authoritarian figures like Bill Ayers.
And that’s not a very attractive conclusion for either candidate to reach in this particular debate.