The Education of Barack Obama

Former Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas has long been rumored to be a future U.S. Secretary of Education, but don’t expect that to happen in an Obama administration, despite their common hometown roots.

Vallas told the New York Post this week that Obama’s chairmanship of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge was a failure.

“There was a total lack of accountability. If you went back and asked, you’d be hard-pressed to find out how the money was spent,” Vallas said.

A 2003 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, considered the authority on public education outcomes in Chicago, concluded that the Annenberg project was ineffective.

“Very little of the money found its way directly into the classroom,” Vallas said.

Ironically, according to Vallas, much of what Annenberg funded were programs in direct opposition to the accountability Mayor Richard M. Daley and Vallas were trying to bring to the schools, centralizing authority that had been dispersed through local school councils that made enforcing standards and hiring and firing principals difficult.

Last spring, however, crack education reporter Alexander Russo, who writes the District 299 blog for Catalyst Chicago and This Week In for Scholastic, wrote about Obama’s “lackluster” education record for Slate, noting that local school council advocates opposed to Vallas were also not well-served by Obama.

“School reform advocates in Chicago have of late been heralding Barack Obama as a champion of local school councils, Chicago’s hyperlocal system of school governance,” Russo wrote. “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.

Reading Russo’s Slate report recently reminded me of similar stories about Obama such as The New York Times Sunday Magazine’s cover piece on his economic philosophy that concluded it was hard to discern. (At the same time, his leadership style – and this may be an Alinsky thing – seems to be wait for everyone else to air their views and then, essentially, serve as moderator, or as The New Yorker once put it, The Conciliator.)

In the epic legislative battle in Chicago that pitted Vallas against local school councils, Russo reports, Obama was MIA.

“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.”

Russo notes that both Vallas and the local school councils were looking to Obama for leadership – indeed, as a unifying force. But Obama largely remained on the sidelines.

“Only after the fig leaf was in place did Obama come out publicly in support of local school councils, making a brief speech on the Senate floor to codify the final agreement preserving local councils’ authority,” Russo writes.

“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 does have a champion in the Chicago education community, however: schools superintendent Arne Duncan, who was in charge of the city’s magnet schools under Vallas, and then replaced him in 2001. Obama and Duncan are old Hyde Park friends and basketball buddies (Duncan was co-captain of Harvard’s basketball team and played professionally in Australia).

It would be Duncan, then, not Vallas, on the short list for Education Secretary of an Obama administration.


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