(CNSNews.com) – William Ayers, a one-time leader of the Weather Underground domestic terrorist group that in the 1970s took credit for bombing the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol, became the founder of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois-Chicago in 1992 and was the group’s co-director through 2002.
During those years, the Smalls Schools Workshop received at least $800,000 from the Chicago Annenberg Challenge--an organization that Ayers also helped found and that Barack Obama chaired starting in 1995.
Ayers’s group, promoting public schools with themes such as peace studies, multiculturalism and environmentalism, was one of several liberal organizations that tapped into the Annenberg dollars. Others included a left-leaning legal group and an organization with a significant focus on voter registration. The organization gave out a total of $49.2 million over five years as a means of leveraging matching grants from public and private sources for education initiatives.
The stated mission of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC) was to improve the public schools in Chicago, by disbursing millions to 94 different projects consisting of schools partnering with non-profit groups.
Many of the non-profits identified in publicly available Internal Revenue Service 990 documents filed by CAC from 1998 to 2002 had decidedly left-leaning agendas. (CNSNews.com obtained the 990 forms for CAC directly from the IRS for the years 2000-2003, and from Guide Star, a Web site that tracks non-profit information, for 1998-1999.)
The Chicago version of the Challenge began in June 1995, using $49.2 million to leverage 2-1 matching funds from private and public sources to disburse a total of $147 million to Chicago schools and partner organizations. In other words, the CAC would provide one-third of a total grant to a network of schools and the other two-thirds would be provided by a separate organization.
At the time, Obama, the Chicago lawyer who became chairman of the CAC, told the Chicago Tribune, “If we're really going to change things in this city, it's going to start at the grass-roots level and with our children.”
The relationship between Obama and Ayers has been an issue in the presidential campaign because Ayers admitted to being involved in the Weathermen, who bombed the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol in the 1970s. According to the New York Times, “federal riot and bombing conspiracy charges against him were dropped in 1974 because of illegal wiretaps and other prosecutorial misconduct.” He remains unrepentant about the bombings, however. “I don’t regret setting bombs,” he told the New York Times in 2001. “I feel we didn’t do enough.”
The $49.2 million grant to Chicago was part of a national effort by the Annenberg Foundation, which was started by Walter Annenberg, who was a former publisher of TV Guide and the Philadelphia Inquirer and served as President Nixon’s ambassador to Great Britain.
The Foundation allocated $500 million for five years’ worth of grants to 18 school districts across the country that included New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, South Florida, and Chicago. Walter Annenberg himself announced the philanthropy campaign in a high-profile ceremony at a White House in December 1993.
The money from the Chicago program was designed to benefit 210 public schools, but the money was not give directly to individual schools for fear it would be used to pay down budget shortfalls. Instead, schools were required to form networks with other schools, share ideas and resources, then form a partnership with a university, non-profit, or business organization to be eligible for a grant.
The fact that grants went to nonprofit organizations as opposed to the schools themselves should not raise alarm, said Mark A. Smylie, who co-authored a 2003 report by the Consortium of Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago that was highly critical of the CAC.
“These organizations are fiduciary organizations. The Annenberg Foundaton did not want most of the money going directly to the schools,” Smylie told CNSNews.com. “The goal was for schools to work in action with other schools. The logic was that school improvement transcended administrations.”
Ayers and Friends
The Chicago Annenberg Challenge was divided into a fiscal arm, run by the 10-member board which Obama chaired, made up of business and civic leaders and educators. Ayers chaired the policy arm called the Chicago School Reform Collaborative, which included parents, teachers, citizens and reformers. The Collaborative reviewed proposals for CAC grants and made recommendations to the board.
The “small schools” concept promoted by Ayers with the help of the CAC grants focuses on public schools that usually have no more than 500 students. In Chicago, some of these schools conformed to Ayers’ leftist political vision.
According to a directory published by the Chicago public schools in 2004, the small schools in the city included:
- The Peace School, which “integrates topics of peace across the curriculum. Methods include combining literature and social studies units and studying peace holidays, peace organizations and peacemakers throughout the global community.”
- The Global Village school, which “has a diverse student population with a curriculum focused on high academic standards and global citizenship for students.”
- The Al Raby School, named for a former civil rights leader and environmentalist, which has a “focus on community and the environment” and “intends to graduate citizens who are equipped to tackle social justice and environmental issues.”
- Meanwhile, the Cesar E. Chavez Multicultural High School, named for the famous labor leader, is “designed to include experiential learning excursions and internships.”
Many other small public schools in Chicago have no apparent political tilt. These include, for example, the Chicago Mathematics and Science Academy, the Computer and Science school and the Finance Academy.
Between 1998-2002, a liberal group known as Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI) received $375,000 from CAC for its work with a network of schools called the Coalition of Schools for Better Education, which was its key recipient of Annenberg grants.
BPI describes itself as “a public interest law and policy center that addresses compelling issues of social justice and quality of life in the Chicago region.” It lobbies and litigates on public and affordable housing issues, as well as education.
In 1998, BPI’s program received a $75,000 grant from the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. That increased to $150,000 in 1999. In 2000, Annenberg gave the BPI education program another $115,000. When the Annenberg program was nearing a conclusion in 2001, it gave another $35,000 to BPI for the Coalition of Schools for Better Education.
E. Hoy McConnell, executive director of BPI, deferred comment about the BPI school program to Jeanne Nowaczewski, who was the director of the public education and staff counsel for BPI from 1995 through 2001, the time of the Annenberg grants.
In September 2001, Nowaczewski left BPI to become director of the office of small schools for the Chicago Public School system. She currently works for the Illinois chapter of the American Bar Association. Nowaczewski could not be reached for comment after several phone and e-mail messages.
Howard Learner, the former general counsel for BPI, went on to become one of the top environmental policy advisors for Obama’s presidential campaign.
Meanwhile, in 1998, Ayers’s brother, John Ayers, was head of an organization called Leadership for Quality Education, a charter-school and small-school advocacy group. That year, CAC gave Leadership for Quality Education an $85,000 grant. Leadership for Quality Education says its four main goals are accountability, charter schools, small schools, and principal training.
Another group called Grassroots School Improvement received $350,000 from CAC between 1998-2002. This group was operated by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN.
ACORN has been heavily involved in voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts.
In 1995, Obama represented ACORN in a lawsuit against the state of Illinois over enforcement of federal law involving voter registration issues for low-income people, according to the Associated Press.
Also, this year, the Obama presidential campaign paid $800,000 to an ACORN subsidiary, called Citizen Service, Inc., to operate “get out the vote” efforts, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
In 1998, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge gave $65,000 to ACORN’s Grassroots School Improvement project. In 1999, CAC gave the Grassroots School Improvement project $135,000. In 2000, CAC gave Grassroots School Improvement project $100,000. And in 2001, CAC gave the Grassroots School Improvement $50,000.
The Chicago Teachers Union, an arm of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, received $116,000 CAC grant in 1998 for the Professional Practice Schools Network--a continuing education program for teachers. The CAC gave this teachers’ union another $100,000 in 2000 and another $115,500 in 2001.
Another recipient of CAC money was the Community Renewal Society (CRS), whose website says it “empowers people to build just communities by working to eradicate racism and poverty. It does so by informing, organizing, training, and encouraging individuals and communities in sustained and strategic efforts.”
The organization had two school programs: Successful Schools and the Education Resources Reform Directory, according to the IRS documents. Annenberg gave Successful Schools a total of $55,000 in grants in 1998, 2000 and 2001. Education Resources Reform Directory received one CAC grant of $75,000 in 2001.
The funding for the Education Resources Reform Director, CRS spokesman Al Shaw told CNSNews.com, was primarily to help fund the organization’s magazine, Catalyst Chicago. Shaw said that Obama, as an elected official, provided interviews to the magazine and occasionally “served in an advisory capacity on their committee. He also periodically was a presenter or speaker at various Community Renewal Society events because of the alignment between the issues he worked on and our organization worked on.”
Last year, the Rev. Calvin Morris, executive director of the Community Renewal Society, praised liberal activist and former Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton, telling the Chicago Tribune that “Al has been good about appealing on a deeper grassroots level.”
Thomas Ayers, the father of William and John Ayers, once served on the CRS board of directors. The senior Ayers died last year.
The Cross City Campaign for Urban School reform is a national organization based in Chicago. It also carries out efforts in Baltimore, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia and San Francisco. The group’s Web site says it is “a national network of school reformers that support efforts to create high-quality schools that ensure polices and practices that move authority, resources and accountability to the school level.”
Anne Hallett, executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, assisted Ayers in 1994 in securing the Annenberg Foundation’s grant to Chicago.
CAC gave Cross City $25,000 in 1999, $50,000 in 2000, and another $50,000 in 2001 respectively. According to GuideStar, the Open Society Institute, chaired by George Soros also gave Cross City $100,000 in 2002.
Another Annenberg recipient was Bethel New Life, a faith-based community service organization. It received a total of $120,000 in Annenberg money in grants doled out in 1999, 2000 and 2001. The funds were used to help students entering a vocational high school that has since shut down, according to Mildred Wiley, the senior director at Bethel New Life.
Wiley said Bethel New Life focused on “retreats with teachers, parental training and engagement, teaching and leadership.”
“We established a network of teachers to sharpen our goals,” Wiley told CNSNews.com. “The school closed, but we did establish a network.”
Bethel New Life’s website describes its goals as “holistic, understanding the connections between a decent place to live and a living wage job for healthy families, and child care, quality education, transportation and access to health care for sustainability. …Seek justice for all people, advocating and impacting systems so that there might be fairness, opportunity and a future regardless of color, economic status or nationality.”
The largest CAC grant recipient was Northeastern Illinois University, which received $2.4 million from 1998 through 2002 for its partnerships that included the Hispanic Alliance for Career Advancement; a professional development center for principals called the Leadership Academy for Urban Network Chicago (LAUNCH) and the Middle School Initiative Network.
The second largest grant recipient was the Chicago Public Education Fund (CPEF), which calls itself a “venture philanthropy” organization received $2.2 million in CAC grants from 1998 through 2002. When CAC closed down in 2002 it gave its remaining $1,416 to CPEF.
“We consider ourselves a non-partisan organization. We have education leadership priorities, which we believe cross party lines,” Kristen Tschantz told CNSNews.com.
Facing History and Ourselves -- a national organization that works with schools and museums and has an office in Chicago -- tries to teach decision making by looking at history. It received a $240,000 CAC grant in 1998, $237,000 in 1999, $85,500 in 2000 and $50,000 in 2001.
Facing History and Ourselves attempts to show participating students the face of injustice in historical events and current urban problems.
“The work I did with Annenberg was in 2000 and I worked directly in the classroom,” Chuck Myers, a senior program director for Facing History as Ourselves. “It allowed us to work with virtually every member of the teaching staff.”
William Ayers, a one-time leader of the Weather Underground domestic terrorist group that in the 1970s took credit for bombing the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol, became the founder of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois-Chicago in 199