Obama’s Challenge
The campaign speaks to "Radicalism."


Stanley Kurtz

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 of 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.