Bill Ayers is responsible for the Tucson tragedy?? Really??

In the latest whacky twist from the troglodyte right, blame is now being placed on Bill Ayers, of all people, for the Tucson events. The story seems to have originated with Aaron Klein reporting for World News Daily. [UPDATE: Klein’s co-author Brenda Elliott backs off original story. See below.]

Klein is the author of a book on Obama that, without evidence, attempts to link Ayers to Obama as far back as 1987 (see my review, The Myth of the “Manchurian President”). While I have speculated here that Ayers and Obama have a relationship that goes back to the 1980s, and provided some evidence that it might be true, Klein falsely contends that it is true without any proof.

Poor Bill Ayers, he is to blame for everything these days. As I have been a strong critic of Bill Ayers in the past I thought it incumbent to try to clear the air in this particular case. Turns out, Klein is wrong again about Ayers. He has the wrong guy. – if you are intent on blaming anyone for the curriculum at Jared Loughner’s former high school, Mountain View High in the Marana Unified School District, you might as well blame the guy responsible for funding their school restructuring effort, George W. Bush.

Klein’s (wrong headed) reasoning, if you can call it that, is as follows:

Ayers and his maoist side kick Mike Klonsky founded a group called the Small Schools Workshop in 1991. True.

The Small Schools Workshop received hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant money from the Chicago Annenberg Challenge from 1995-2002. True.

The Annenberg Challenge was founded by Bill Ayers in 1994-5, who appointed Barack Obama to its board of directors in the spring of 1995. True.

The high school attended by deranged Tucson assassin Jared Lee Loughner was a recipient of a grant from the Smaller Learning Communities. True.

So far, so good, but now consider the following claims:

Bill Ayers is “father of the Smaller Learning Communities.” False.

Smaller Learning Communities – initial caps – is a part of the US Department of Education where it has resided since 2002. It was brought into being by the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001 – the infamous NCLB which is opposed vociferously by Ayers, Klonsky and just about everyone else in their (small) corner of the education policy world.

Loughner’s high school teachers were trained and funded by the Ayers/Klonsky Small Schools Workshop. False.

The grant money received to train and structure a smaller learning community at Loughner’s high school came from the same SLC program at the US Department of Education, mentioned above.

The money from the federal SLC program was funneled to Loughner’s high school while he was a student there. Not entirely clear.

Klein provides, typically, no source for his claim that this is the case. On line records of the SLC program indicate that Mountain View high school was the recipient of a $2.2 million “new award” for a program involving freshmen in 2008. But by then, Loughner had dropped out of high school. The grant also covers an advanced placement program at Mountain View that was to be developed over the course of the five year grant, but clearly not one that Loughner will be able to attend.

There may have been earlier grants to Mountain View but, if so, they do not appear in any other year than 2008 in the list of the schools that obtained SLC grants. The lists are available on the Department of Education website here. The School District appears to have received smaller awards from Arizona’s Department of Education to support the U.S. grant and a planning grant for $50,000 in 2004-5 school year from the federal government that would help lead to the larger $2.2 million. The earliest on line record of a discussion of the district’s smaller learning initiative appears to be from the January 2006 minutes of the Marana Unified School District school board. The discussion took place under the heading “New Business” at a meeting of the district’s school board. (However, online records do not appear to predate that year.)

Now, it is true that there is some overlap in the ideas that permeate the Federal SLC and the ideas of the SSW set up by Ayers and run now by Klonsky. But that is not saying very much. Ayers and Klonsky set up their own SSW precisely because they could not control the larger small schools movement which is an out growth of a much larger school reform effort that is very much at the heart of the agenda of the conservative movement, hence the role of George Bush’s Education Department. Other backers of small schools include the Gates Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Klonsky has been a major critic of the Gates Foundation (see Klonsky’s blog post:  “Power Philanthropy at its worst”.) There is no mention of Mountain View High School on Klonsky’s blog or the website of the Small Schools Workshop he runs. If Klein has actual evidence that Klonsky had any role in setting up the Arizona programs I can’t find it.

That makes sense because the goal of this reform movement in Arizona is quite conservative: to break the influence of schools of education, teachers’ unions and school managers on K-12 education. Small schools, charter schools, NCLB, local control – these are the hallmarks of the reform movement. Of course, as I have explained here in the past, Klonsky and Ayers actually share some of this anti-union and anti-teacher ideology. That is what motivated Ayers to set up the Chicago Annenberg Challenge and to appoint Barack Obama to chair its board (see my many posts here on the Annenberg Challenge).

A “small learning community,” in fact, is a very broad term of art. One academic study, of the Marana District itself as it turns out, defines it as follows:

A small learning community consists of a school serving less than 400 students in “clusters of up to 350 students and their core-subject and thematic elective teachers who remain together through all four years of high school; teachers meet regularly to discuss students’ progress and their own teaching practices

The same study defines the small school movement as follows:

The small school movement is the reform initiative endorsed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, the Annenberg Foundation, and the National Association of Secondary School Administrators dedicated to reforming high schools in the United States into small schools to better serve student learning

And the study highlights the link between small schools and the more conservative accountability movement heralded by the passage of NCLB:

The popularity of small school reform has grown alongside the accountability movement in the United States… The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 increased the demand for state departments of education to demonstrate that schools are evaluated according to valid assessment measurements… Independent of the high-stakes testing, which has demonstrated the proliferation of illiteracy throughout American public schools, system-wide support for small schools may never have been endorsed by so many educational leaders… [citations omitted]

There is no mention of Ayers, Klonsky or their relatively tiny Small Schools Workshop (although the study does cite work by Ayers and Klonsky as well as their fellow traveler in this movement, former Obama education advisor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University). Thus, Ayers and Klonsky are, at best, only one very “small” part of the very large “small schools” movement, a movement that has as many ideological positions as any other part of our educational policy arena.

When Ayers and Klonsky get the chance, they try to infuse their politically correct “social justice” agenda through small schools programs. But that is not the reason that the Bush Administration put millions into the SLC program that, in turn, funneled some of that money to Mountain View High School in 2008, despite Klein’s attempt to imply otherwise.

There may very well be an ideological explanation for the horrific acts committed this past weekend (consider Loughner’s loony ravings about the gold standard, the constitution and the English language), but the whacky right will have to shine their light somewhere else this time.

UPDATE: When I pointed out the problem with the RBO/WND story to Klein’s research assistant Brenda Elliott, she admitted that they do not in fact have evidence to back up their claim. The opening line of their original story says:

Aaron Klein, Jerusalem bureau chief for World Net Daily, reports:

Jared Lee Loughner, the suspected gunman in Saturday’s Arizona shooting, attended a high school that is part of a network in which teachers are trained and provided resources by a liberal group founded by Weatherman terrorist Bill Ayers and funded by President Obama, WND has learned.

Of course, they have – purposely? – confused the SSW founded by Ayers with the SLC program at the DOE. In response to my comments to them, Elliott now claims that they only meant the following:

“….the smaller learning communities/small schools guidance IN GENERAL began with CAC funding under Ayers and Obama.” [caps in original]

So we are apparently meant to conclude now that “in general” because Ayers through the CAC in 1995 in Chicago provided some money to start smaller classes in Chicago schools that somehow that led to some kind of influence by him over Loughner in Arizona a decade later, even though the program that funded the Arizona schools in question was run by the Department of Education and had a different purpose in mind altogether.

Of course, the original statement that the Arizona teachers received training and resources from Ayers is floating all around the web as is the WND/RBO headline which reads that Loughner’s high school was “part of learning community funded jointly by Obama and domestic terrorist.”

Presumably embarrassed by their sloppy research, Elliott has now deleted our exchange on the problems with their story. A screen shot of the original is here.