Behind the Chicago Annenberg Challenge: Politics and Ideology


The selection of Barack Obama as Chairman of the Board of the Bill Ayers-designed and founded Chicago Annenberg Challenge in early 1995 did not happen in a vacuum.

It happened within the context of a “radical” (Ayers’ word) school reform effort begun in Chicago in the late 1980s. Both Ayers and Obama were active together in that effort which was led by the Alliance for Better Chicago Schools (ABCs). Ayers would later chair the ABCs.

Here are links to some helpful research reports on the school reform effort as well as two pieces that take two very different views on the question of education reform.

Philanthropy’s Paradox: Chicago School Reform (The Role of Chicago Foundations in Reform, 1987-1990).

This research paper by one participant in the reform describes the important role of Chicago foundations in allying themselves with Saul Alinsky influenced community organizations including Barack Obama’s Developing Communities Project (DCP) during that reform process.

Key in this effort were the Joyce Foundation and the Woods Fund. Joyce provided the DCP with $60,000 during this period. Obama would later join its board. Woods provided more than $27,000 to the DCP during this period. Woods had funded the hiring of Obama by the DCP in 1985. Ken Rolling, one of the Woods Fund’s key program officers, would be hired by Obama and Ayers as the Executive Director of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. Obama would later join the Woods Fund board and Ayers would join and chair the board.

School Reform Chicago Style – How Citizens Organized to Change Public Policy

This pamphlet describes the unusual alliance that came together to push for the legislation that established the Local School Councils as a new power center in Chicago schools in 1988. The LSC’s were to be a watchdog over teachers, principals and school administrators in Chicago. Barack Obama (through the Developing Communities Project) and Bill Ayers were both active in the push for the establishment of the LSC’s. A chart at the end of this pamphlet indicates Ayers’ and the DCP’s role.

The Shifting Ground of Curriculum Thought and Everyday Practice by William Ayers

This is a fascinating short essay by Bill Ayers published in 1992 just after the Chicago School Reform was put in place and while Ayers was chair of the Alliance for Better Chicago Schools, which had led the charge to put the Reform in place. The following year Ayers would conceive and draft the proposal for the $160 million Chicago Annenberg Challenge and recruit Barack Obama to chair its board.

Ayers writes “in a sense, all education is about power.” His greatest concern is to use politics to shake up what he sees as the “bureaucratization” of the schools by school boards and unions. He celebrates the “upheaval” that the Reform caused in the Chicago schools. He wants schools to tackle the question of how students can be “empowered to attain greater liberation, equity, and social justice through schooling?”

The “Crits” Capture Presidential Power: Top education researchers denounce scientific research. A book review by Nathan Glazer of Education Research in the Public Interest: Social Justice, Action, and Policy edited by Gloria Ladson-Billings and William F. Tate (Teachers’ College Press 2006)

This review serves as an intellectual antidote to the Ayers worldview. Glazer slays the “politically correct” absurdities that appear to have taken hold in America’s Schools of Education. Unfortunately they have begun flowing into the political arena during this year’s presidential campaign. Bill Ayers is the author of one chapter in the book. The co-editor Gloria Ladson-Billings is the inventor of a proposal to make repayment of centuries of “education debt” owed to people of color the top priority of the next President, an idea shared by Ayers and also strongly backed by Barack Obama’s education advisor, Linda Darling-Hammond.

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