Reading, Writing and Radicalism

Conservatives have been heartened in recent days by the decision of the McCain campaign to unleash Sarah Palin, who has now taken on the traditional attack role that the VP nominee often plays. Her job has been to cast doubt on the character and judgment of Barack Obama, in part by focusing on his relationship with former Weather Underground terrorist William Ayers. In a recent series of stump speeches, Palin has focused on Obama’s “pallin around” with the “domestic terrorist”, and describing Ayers as one of Obama’s “earliest supporters” who hosted Obama’s political kick-off meeting in 1995 at his home in Chicago. She has been equally dismissive of the Obama campaign’s claims that Obama was unaware of Ayers’ radical past when they met in the 1990s, saying “this is about the truthfulness and judgment needed in our next president, and Barack Obama doesn’t have it.”

Though Palin’s attacks have been effective in raising the visibility of the Obama-Ayers relationship, they haven’t gone far enough. In fact, a critical element of Obama’s experience with William Ayers has largely been overlooked: the far-left radicalization of Obama’s views on education. These ideas – which include elements of social justice theory and education “reparations” — are likely to be a defining force in the education policy on an Obama administration.

Stanley Kurtz has done an excellent job in reporting the Obama-Ayers relationship as it concerns education reform in Chicago, and it bears some attention here. Kurtz recently outlined at the National Review Online the substantive work that Obama and Ayers did on education that was consistent with Ayers’ goals for social change, and that had the effect of “channeling” Ayers’ revolutionary ideas into the education system, primarily as a way of influencing kids and their parents to question authority:

Nor does Ayers see his education work as a repudiation of his early radicalism. On the contrary, Ayers sees his education work as carrying on his radicalism in a new guise. The point of Ayers’ education theory is that the United States is a fundamentally racist and oppressive nation. Students, Ayers believes, ought to be encouraged to resist this oppression. Obama was funding Ayers’ “small schools” project, built around this philosophy. Ayers’ radicalism isn’t something in the past. It’s something to which Obama gave moral and financial support as an adult.

Proof of these radical goals shared by Ayers and Obama can be found in the recently opened records of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC), a foundation that poured more than $100 million into the hands of community organizers and education activists to “improve” Chicago’s public schools. In early 1995 as a very young and inexperienced lawyer and community organizer, Obama was appointed the first Chairman of the Board, which handled primarily fiscal matters. Ayers co-chaired the foundation’s other key body, the “Collaborative,” which shaped education policy.

Kurtz’ research on the CAC board meeting minutes as reported recently in the The Wall Street Journal shows conclusively that Obama and Ayers had a close working relationship; Ayers sat as an “ex-officio member of the board Mr. Obama chaired through CAC’s first year” and also served on the board’s governance committee with Obama, and “(also) worked with him to craft CAC bylaws.” In addition, Kurtz discovered that Ayers made “presentations to board meetings chaired by Obama” and “spoke for the Collaborative before the board, while “Obama periodically spoke for the board at meetings of the Collaborative.”

This is hardly the arms-length relationship that Obama has described repeatedly during the campaign; rather, it appears that Obama and Ayers worked closely on policy for the CAC at the highest level – including the development of strategy and tactics for promoting the CAC’s educational and political agenda.

In addition, the practical considerations of the CAC’s distribution of funds – of which Obama was clearly a driving force as Chairman of the Board – was focused on those groups that fit both Ayers’ social goals and Obama’s community organizing roots. In this way, Kurtz again outlines how Obama was able to funnel millions of dollars into the communities where he was actively engaged in political activities, including his long-time association with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN):

*The CAC translated Mr. Ayers’s radicalism into practice. Instead of funding schools directly, it required schools to affiliate with “external partners,” which actually got the money. Proposals from groups focused on math/science achievement were turned down. Instead CAC disbursed money through various far-left community organizers, such as ACORN. *

The radical orientation of Ayers as an “educational reformist” should be well known, as he has written more than a dozen books on the subject and has been a leading educational scholar and advisor in Chicago for the past two decades. Ayers was recently elected vice-president for curriculum for the 25,000-member American Educational Research Association — the nation’s largest organization of education-school professors and researchers. His work with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has been highly emphasized by the Obama campaign as a form of “legitimization”, and Daley was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying “People make mistakes. You judge people by their whole life”.

Daley’s view is likely based on a politician’s appreciation for Ayers’ role in doling out $100 million in grants within the city during the 1990s rather than any deep analysis of Ayers’ political or educational views – none of which have changed since the 1960s. Ayers continues to describe himself as a “radical, leftist, small ‘c’ communist”, and has written that he believes “teachers should be community organizers dedicated to provoking resistance to American racism and oppression”. He sees teaching as a natural extension of the quest for social justice – which he feels requires a revolution in the capitalist economic, political and education system. In a speech given in November, 2006 before Hugo Chavez and the World Education Forum in Caracas, Venezuela, Ayers said the following:

*As students and teachers begin to see themselves as linked to one another, as tied to history and capable of collective action, the fundamental message of teaching shifts slightly, and becomes broader, more generous: we must change ourselves as we come together to change the world. Teaching invites transformations, it urges revolutions small and large. La educacion es revolucion! *

It is in this context that the Obama-Ayers relationship should be viewed. While the Ayers’ terrorist connections are significant retrospectively, his education goals that were actively endorsed and sponsored by Barack Obama are prospectively even more important.

And this is where things get interesting. While it is obvious that Ayers will not have a formal role in an Obama administration, it is equally obvious that Obama’s experience with Ayers and the CAC will animate his education policy as president. The Obama Campaign’s primary education adviser is Linda Darling-Hammond, a Professor of Education at Stanford University, and well-known expert in school design and teacher training. Hammond has been mentioned as a possible Secretary of Education in an Obama administration, has been a vocal supporter of traditional teacher certification programs, current union control of public education and opposes charter school programs. She also has been a vocal critic of the implementation of the current No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

More importantly, she is an advocate of a race-based paradigm for education that fully embraces the concept of “education debt” – a form of reparations for generations of racial bias perpetrated by White America. Hammond argued forcefully last year in the liberal magazine The Nation, for example, the importance of “pay(ing) off the educational debt to disadvantaged students that has accrued over centuries of unequal access to quality education.” The concept of education debt is an idea laid out in 2006 by Professor Gloria Ladson-Billings of the University of Wisconsin, the then-president of the American Education Research Association and actively supported by Ayers. Ayers wrote himself in January of 2008 on his website the following:

The dominant narrative in contemporary school reform is once again focused on exclusion and disadvantage, race and class, black and white…the monster in the room: white supremacy. Gloria Ladson-Billings upends all of this with an elegant reversal: there is no achievement gap, she argues, but actually a glancing reflection of something deeper and more profound—America has a profound education debt. The educational inequities that began with the annihilation of native peoples and the enslavement of Africans…transformed into apartheid education, something anemic, inferior, inadequate, and oppressive. Over decades and centuries the debt has accumulated and is passed from generation to generation, and it continues to grow and pile up.

Further, the long-standing professional relationship between Ayers, Darling-Hammond and Ladson-Billings – and thus Barack Obama — is well established. As legal analyst Steve Diamond writes at No Quarter, a chapter called “Education for Democracy” by Darling-Hammond appeared in a volume co-edited by Ayers called “A Light in Dark Times”. In addition, a chapter co-authored by Ladson-Billings on “racing justice” appeared in a book co-edited by Ayers called “Teaching for Social Justice: A Democracy and Education Reader”. Ladson-Billings wrote the foreword to Ayers’ book “To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher” and Ayers and Ladson-Billings are co-editors of “City Kids, City Schools: More Reports from the Front Row” just published. All have been consistent in support of a radical education reform program.

Linda Darling-Hammond’s piece in The Nation is an excellent illumination of what may underscore education policy under a President Obama. She makes abundantly clear that she supports the notion of education reparations and that this should be paid in part by a wholesale revamping of NCLB to focus on more on investment and less on testing – modifications that the Obama Campaign’s education platform also supports . She calls for a “New paradigm for national education policy…guided by dual commitments to support meaningful learning on the part of students, teachers and schools; and to pay off the educational debt, making it possible for all students to benefit from more productive schools.” This is education code-speak for vast sums of money to be poured into minority schools and community programs to atone for past sins.

The Ayers-Hammond approach to education debt has been essentially supported by Barack Obama on the campaign trail. In fact, Obama has spoken repeatedly about the need for reparations to make amends for the past oppression of minorities. On “Meet the Press” in July he said:The biggest problem that we have in terms of race relations, I think, is dealing with the legacy of past discrimination which has resulted in extreme disparities in terms of poverty, in terms of wealth and in terms of income…And that involves investing in early childhood education, fixing the schools in those communities, being willing to work in terms of job retraining. And those are serious investments.

Obama’s education platform as outlined at his campaign website is full of community-focused programs that will be ripe targets for massive “reparation” investments in a reformulated NCLB. His K-12 Education Fact Sheet discusses at length the expansion of Head Start programs, universal preschool and includes “enlisting parents and communities to support teaching and learning”, including “school-family contracts” and a massive school redesign project that includes increased funding for teacher recruitment and retention. It is a blueprint taken almost whole-cloth from one written by Darling-Hammond that calls for a “Marshall Plan” for teaching and the institution of a more authoritarian structure for driving curriculum development, testing and investment. Like Ayers’ own admiration of Venezuela’s centralized educational dictatorship, Darling-Hammond has expressed support for countries such as Singapore that have instituted highly structured systems that are the antithesis of school choice – signaling what will certainly be a strong emphasis on the unionized public education system in the U.S. under an Obama administration.

The real impact of the Obama-Ayers relationship is not in Ayers’ radical past but rather in his radical present. The influence that Ayers’ has had on Obama’s view of education during his time at the Chicago Annenberg Challenge can be seen in his appointment of Linda Darling-Hammond as his primary education advisor, and signals what is certain to be radical reform at the core of Obama’s education policy as president. This will include more investment into the current public school monopoly at the expense of free market solutions like vouchers and charter schools, and a more aggressive social change agenda that will result in greater control by unions and community organizations – all orthodox elements of the William Ayers radical agenda.