Ethics & Public Policy Center

Obama's Challenge

Published in National Review Online on September 23, 2008



Today, in a piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Obama and Ayers Pushed Radicalism On Schools,” I offer a report on my research into the archives of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC), an education foundation once headed by Barack Obama. As I explained in “Chicago Annenberg Challenge Shutdown?” the Richard J. Daley Library of the University of Illinois at Chicago first agreed to grant, then abruptly denied me, access to the files of this foundation. Subsequently, the Daley Library again reversed their decision and made the CAC files available.

As I note in today's Journal piece, I've conveyed the gist of my Annenberg findings to the Obama campaign and offered them a chance to respond. In reply, the Obama campaign has sent me an extended “on the record” statement about Obama's role at the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, and about the nature of his relationship with Bill Ayers. I present that statement in its entirety here:

The Annenberg Challenge records only serve to establish clearly that while Barack Obama and Ayers had occasional contact during Obama's 6 years of service on the bipartisan board, they did not work closely together to exchange and develop policy ideas. In fact, as these records show, Ayers attended a total 6 meetings of the Board during the 6 years of Obama's Board service. And, as these same records also demonstrate, the advisory committee that Ayers co-chaired played no operational role whatsoever once the Challenge hired its Executive Director at the end of its first year.

Ayers had nothing to do with Obama's recruitment to the Board. Barack Obama was encouraged to run for Chair by Deborah Leff, with whom he served on another board, recommended by Pat Graham, and elected by the bipartisan founding board members: Susan Crown, Pat Graham, Stanley Ikenberry, Ray Romero, Arnold Weber, and Wanda White.

Barack Obama months ago confirmed that he had contact with Ayers during the course of his foundation work, and he pointed out that “We served on a board together that had Republicans, bankers, lawyers, focused on education”. Senator Obama also said earlier this year that Ayers was “not somebody who I exchange ideas with on a regular basis”, a fact that is not in any way contradicted by their contact through the Annenberg Challenge which ended 12 years ago, or by any of the Challenge records.

The suggestion that Ayers somehow dominated the policy or direction of the bipartisan Challenge Board, imprinting it with radical views, is absurd. The Annenberg Challenge was funded by Nixon Ambassador and Reagan friend Walter Annenberg. Republican Governor Jim Edgar, who wrote to Walter Annenberg to encourage the creation of the Challenge, joined Mayor Daley to announce the formation of the Challenge and his administration continued to work closely on education reform with the Board. John McCain has praised an initiative funded by the Challenge. The Challenge's work is still carried on today through to the bipartisan Chicago Public Education Fund, which coordinates closely Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan and Mayor Daley to improve teacher performance and has included such board members as Illinois Republican Party Chair Andrew McKenna.

The Challenge was established to allocate grants targeted to improve student performance and promote teacher training and leadership development in the Chicago Public Schools. One objective of the Challenge was to improve education for the bottom quartile of students attending Chicago Public Schools — whose reading, math, and basic skills scores improved markedly during the years in which the Challenge invested in city schools. Due to the work of the Challenge and the Fund, the number of board certified teachers in Chicago Public Schools has increased by the hundreds.

As is well known, by the time Barack Obama met him, Ayers was a faculty member at the University of Illinois, and he has held the title of ‘distinguished scholar' the University of South Carolina for many years — Ayers held both positions at universities while Republican Governors served on their Boards of Trustees. The detestable acts that Ayers committed decades before occurred when Senator Obama was 8 years old and the Senator has condemned them in no uncertain terms.

While I've addressed this statement in the “Radicalism” piece, I'll extend my response here.

Let's first review CAC's initial setup. In the first year, 1995, Obama headed the board, which made fiscal decisions, and Ayers co-chaired the Collaborative, which set education policy. During that first year, Obama's formal responsibilities mandated close cooperation and coordination with the Collaborative. As board chair and president of the CAC corporation, Obama was authorized to “delegate to the Collaborative the development of collaborative projects and programs . . . to obtain assistance of the Collaborative in the development of requests for proposals . . . and to seek advice from the Collaborative regarding the programmatic aspects of grant proposals.” All this clearly involves significant consultation between the board, headed by Obama, and the Collaborative, co-chaired by Ayers.

During this initial year of 1995, Ayers also sat as an ex officio member of the board. The Obama campaign is trying to minimize his cooperation with Ayers by counting the number of board meetings where both sat together. That will not do. For one thing, as long as we're counting occasions on which Obama and Ayers were together, the Obama campaign omits Obama's appearances before the Collaborative, when it was co-chaired by Ayers. In 1995, Obama and Ayers also sat together on the board's Governance Committee, with at least one independently scheduled meeting, and who knows how many others. Ayers and Obama were also part of a group of four instructed to draft the bylaws that would govern CAC. Surely that endeavor would have involved significant interaction between them. Then there's the question of unrecorded meetings of both the board and the Collaborative. For example, the archives contain an intriguing note indicating that, although a CAC board meeting took place on July 25, 1995, “No minutes were recorded.” Were Ayers and Obama both present at that meeting? More important, what took place there?

The partnership between Ayers and Obama is about much more than the number of occasions on which the two were recorded together in the same room. As CAC board chair, Obama was essentially authorizing the funding of Ayers's own educational projects, and the projects of Ayers's radical allies. And especially in CAC's first year, Ayers was largely in charge of the process. One of CAC's own evaluations notes that during 1995, CAC was a “Founder-Led Foundation.” That is, Ayers was not merely an ex officio board member that year, but as the key founder and guiding spirit of CAC, he was effectively running the show.

This is consistent with what I found in the documents, which, for example, show Ayers not only speaking for the Collaborative before the board, but speaking in place of absent board members when they couldn't be present to make a report. In general, in 1995, Ayers seems to be deeply involved in the work of every important body and committee at CAC. Of the three CAC founders, Ayers, Anne Hallett, an urban school advocate, and Warren Chapman, a state school reformer, only two, Ayers and Hallett, were Collaborative co-chairs and ex officio members of the board. And in a letter, Hallett describes herself as “joined at the hip” with Ayers. Clearly Ayers was the senior partner o
f the pair, given his prominence as an author, and as a national spokesman for educators consciously committed to politicizing their classrooms. Ayers is not only an activist, but a sort of father-figure to radical educators, authoring not only books of his own, but editing collections of like-minded authors, and putting together coalitions of educators, as he did at CAC. Hallett and Ayers may have co-chaired the Collaborative and together been ex-officio on the board, but this was largely Ayers's show.

So when CAC's own evaluators call 1995 the period of the “Founder-Led Foundation,” they are essentially saying that, in 1995, Ayers was the most powerful individual at CAC. The Obama campaign treats that suggestion as “absurd,” yet it is effectively made by CAC's own evaluators. This needs to be kept in mind when considering the Obama campaign's minimization of the Ayers-Obama connection that year. Ayers's outsized role at CAC also needs to be kept in mind when considering the Obama camp's claim that Deborah Leff and Patricia Graham first suggested Obama's name as board chair. Given the degree of Ayers's power at this early stage, it's hard to believe that the ultimate decision on Obama's elevation to the board was not made by Ayers himself. After all, Ayers and his immediate ally, Michael Klonsky, would end up seeking major financial support from CAC for their own “Small Schools” network. Ayers could not have been indifferent to the choice of board chair, since his own funding, and that of his many allies, would depend on it.

This brings us to the ethical concerns that led to a restructuring of the relationship between the CAC board and the Collaborative after 1995. The Obama camp points to this shift as if it quiets questions about the Obama-Ayers relationship. In fact, the post-1995 restructuring of CAC more urgently raises such questions. Precisely because Collaborative members like Ayers were themselves up for CAC grants, stronger barriers had to be created between the board and the Collaborative. So after 1995, Ayers appears to have lost his ex officio status on the board, and the Collaborative lost its theretofore prominent role in advising the board on grant applications.

I found little explicit discussion, in either board or Collaborative minutes, about the need for this major structural change. Could the unrecorded July 25, 1995, board meeting have addressed the issue? That meeting would have taken place just as the responses to the initial “Request for Proposals” were coming in. At that point, it would have been evident that many Collaborative members were seeking money from CAC itself. This was at the high point of Collaborative's power, before CAC had an executive director in place. Perhaps discussion of the “self-dealing” issue, and the need to make structural changes, began at that meeting. The specific question of what happened at the unrecorded July 25, 1995 meeting is only speculation, of course. But we do know, from internal and external evaluations of CAC, that ethical concerns did in fact lead to a formal demotion of the Collaborative's power after 1995.

While the appearance of self-dealing receded after CAC's first year, the reality may still have been in place. Evaluators, both internal and external, have criticized CAC for over-committing its funds in 1995, and also for doing far too little to demand accountability from grant recipients, very much including the initial batch. Many of the initial grantees continued to receive funds for years. Evaluators consistently note the lack of flexibility in grants, and complain that the huge 1995 commitments, with relatively few changes in follow-on years, significantly undercut CAC's impact and effectiveness.

So although Ayers may have lost his formal position on the board after 1995, and while the Collaborative he co-chaired may have surrendered its formal influence over the grant-making process, grant decisions Ayers put in place when he was effectively running CAC were respected for years by the board. And according to internal and external evaluations, this appears to have been greatly to the detriment of CAC. Why, then, did the board, chaired by Obama, adhere so assiduously to the funding decisions and strategies put in place by Ayers in 1995, even after CAC's formal structure changed?

I'll have more to say about that issue down the road, but you can read the key evaluations for yourself. (See Dorothy Shipps et al.,”The Chicago Annenberg Challenge: The First Three Years,” here; Alexander Russo, “From Frontline Leader to Rearguard Action: The Chicago Annenberg Challenge,” here; and Mark A. Smylie et al., “The Chicago Annenberg Challenge: Successes, Failures, and Lessons for the Future, Part ,1 here and especially Part 2, here.)

The Obama camp denies CAC's radicalism by pointing to the fact that this foundation was funded by Nixon Ambassador and Reagan friend, Walter Annenberg. Moderates and Republicans often support Annenberg activities, it's true. Yet the story of modern philanthropy is largely the story of moderate and conservative donors finding their funds “captured” by far more liberal, often radical, beneficiaries. CAC's story is a classic of the genre. Ayers and Obama guided CAC money to community organizers, like ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and the Developing Communities Project (Part of the Gamaliel Foundation network), groups self-consciously working in the radical tradition of Saul Alinsky. Walter Annenberg's personal politics don't change that one iota.

The fact that Ayers and other tenured radicals hold power at our universities is in no way negated by the presence of Republican appointees on university boards of trustees. Ayers's radicalism is undeniable. He remains unapologetic for his bombings of the 1960s. Even now, he refuses to rule out violence as a resort. His education writings are deeply politicized and filled with exhortations to “resist” America's racist and oppressive social system. In 2006 — along with his wife and fellow former-terrorist, Bernardine Dohrn, and Jeff Jones — Ayers released, Sing A Battle Song, a collection of intensely radical writings from the Weather Underground. Ayers makes it clear in that book that, while he is embarrassed by some of the Weather Underground's rhetoric, he still adheres to the same ideas. Beyond its strictly historical interest, Ayers and his co-editors make a point of hoping that their old writings would be “of use to new generations of militant activists and organizers.” By directing CAC funds to groups like ACORN and the Developing Communities Project of the Gamaliel Foundation, Ayers was supporting just such militant activists and organizers.

The Obama campaign notes that during the CAC years, achievement test scores improved markedly in the Chicago public schools. That's true, but deeply misleading. The real source of improvement was the leadership of accountability-oriented Chicago Public School (CPS) CEO, Paul Vallas, who began to reform CPS in 1995, the year of CAC's founding. Vallas established clear standards, began high-stakes testing, ended social promotion, forced thousands of students to attend summer school to advance a grade, and put failing schools on probation. That's what pushed up Chicago test scores. CAC's own final evaluation carefully compared stud
ents at schools with Annenberg projects and schools without. According to CAC's own report: “There were no statistically significant differences in student achievement between Annenberg schools and demographically similar non-Annenberg schools. This indicates that there was no Annenberg effect on achievement.” It also indicates that Annenberg failed, not because it's altogether impossible to improve urban schools, but because CAC's heavily politicized community-organizer partners weren't any good at doing so.

The Chicago Annenberg Challenge stands as Barack Obama's most important executive experience to date. By its own account, CAC was a largely a failure. And a series of critical evaluations point to reasons for that failure, including a poor strategy, to which the foundation over-committed in 1995, and over-reliance on community organizers with insufficient education expertise. The failure of CAC thus raises entirely legitimate questions, both about Obama's competence, his alliances with radical community organizers, and about Ayers's continuing influence over CAC and its board, headed by Obama. Above all, by continuing to fund Ayers's personal projects, and those of his political-educational allies, Obama was lending moral and material support to Ayers's profoundly radical efforts. Ayers's terrorist history aside, that makes the Ayers-Obama relationship a perfectly legitimate issue in this campaign.

– Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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