Obama’s Education Track record in Chicago

Obama’s Education Track record in Chicago

Ed Lasky
Barack Obama’s record as leader of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC) has come under scrutiny by, among others Steve Diamond, Tom Maguire, Stanley Kurtz and our own Tom Lifson . The CAC was a group formed in 1995 by former Weather Underground terrorist and current educational radical theorist Bill Ayers and  Barack Obama, then an attorney at a politically connected law firm-Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland.
Barack Obama was the founding chairman of the board and led the organization for 4 years. During his tenure, the CAC received $50 million dollars from the Annenberg Foundation and tens of millions of matching funds from local private and public dollars. This money was supposed to be spent improving the schools of Chicago. However, studies from the CAC itself, and confirmed by an analysis from the well-regarded Thomas B. Fordham Institute, show that the effort directed by Barack Obama led to no discernible improvement at all in the schools which were the beneficiaries of the funds nor in the ultimate intended beneficiaries, the students.

Earlier in the year, the author of that study, Alexander Russo, wrote a column for Slate magazine taking another look at Barack Obama’s performance as a school reformer. Given the current controversy over the Annenberg issue, Russo’s report should be revisited. .


One of the goals of Barack Obama was to devolve power over schools to local school councils (LSC) which were independent bodies made up of parents, teachers, and community members (ten in all) plus the principal. They were each dominated by 6 parents and were empowered to have a say over curriculum and also had the power to fire principals-an action that could be very disruptive to schools.


Russo writes:


Not surprisingly, the relationship has been extremely uneasy between the central board office (dominated by college-educated professionals) and individual school councils (dominated by minority parents, not all of them college-educated).
In reality, Obama never really championed the local councils. He supported them behind the scenes and only eventually came out publicly on their behalf. When he did weigh in, he came down on the wrong side of the debate-against protecting principals from unwarranted dismissals and in favor of keeping councils independent, no matter what. In the end, the resolution of the conflict between the two sides didn’t alleviate anyone’s concerns. Instead, it prolonged a turf battle that seems to have dragged down academic progress in the years since.
Obama’s links to local school councils began more than 20 years ago, when they were first being created. His South Side community organizing group, the Developing Communities Project, supported the 1988 reform act that created the councils. A decade later, when Obama was a second-year state senator, he served on the board of several local education foundations that had supported the councils and chaired the board for the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a $50 million philanthropic effort that supported local control.
Vallas felt that some effective principals were being let go because they were white or because of personal conflicts. He proposed giving himself the authority to review and approve most decisions to let principals go, styling the change as an “accountability” measure. Local-control advocates called it an attempt to “gut” local control.


Russo noted that Obama was ideally positioned to have worked to reconcile the two “sides’ in the conflict. He was friends with Arne Duncan and Paul Vallas-who was the superintendent of the school district and wanted to  restrict the power of the local school councils to fire principals and worked to organize the school system to work more effectively.


Where was Barack Obama during the controversy? He was AWOL.


Still. For several months, Obama didn’t indicate clearly where his sympathies lay. He didn’t join with protesters and other legislators who swarmed public events denouncing the Vallas proposal. He didn’t talk to the press about the importance of community engagement for schools or the unfairness of diminishing the influence of the 5,500 elected LSC members. Obama kept tabs on the negotiations through his staff, met occasionally with local-control advocates, and, according to those who were involved, sometimes provided ideas and advice in private. But that was about it. Some local advocates weren’t even sure whether he would ultimately be on their side or not. And many worried that without someone like Obama to stop it, the Vallas juggernaut would overrun any opposition.


Ultimately, Vallas lost the battle. Only after the battle was lost did Obama come out — for the victors — the local school councils.This would not be a Kennedy-like Profile in Courage moment.


In being so late to the debate, however, Obama didn’t really have to stand up to anyone — not the groups he was affiliated with, not Vallas, not Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. He was just approving the final result. He remained loyal to his roots, but only when it was easy to do so. To some critics, this is exactly the problem. “Obama has no history of standing up to school interests or anyone else,” says Dan Cronin, the Republican state senator who handled the 1999 legislation (and recalls little if any involvement from Obama). “If you look at his past record, there’s nothing that’s particularly bold or creative.”


Russo opines that Barack Obama would not be a leader in reforming our education system-given his sorrowful record in the City of Chicago. This is a conclusion that can certainly be drawn as well from an examination of how the funds raised for the Chicago Annenberg Challenge were apparently completely wasted.


Given the roadblocks placed in the way of Stanley Kurtz in examining the records of the Annenberg Foundation, perhaps another source of information might be Alexander Russo who wrote the Fordham study that laid bare the failure of the Obama led Annenberg effort in Chicago and who seemingly is one writer who is not reluctant to scrutinize Barack Obama’s record..

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