The politics of reform in three cities

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Late last year, three writers hired by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation went calling in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia to inquire about the impact that the Annenberg Challenge had had on the public schools in those cities. At several key offices, they were turned away. In Philadelphia, officials of the teachers union refused to talk, except to explain that they figured the Fordham report “would be framed as an argument for government-funded vouchers.” That’s what Chicago Annenberg officials figured, too; they didn’t talk either.

Fordham, which is headed by academic and advocate Chester E. Finn Jr., is a leading proponent of charter schools, vouchers and standards-based reform. However, the case studies it sponsored are, for the most part, straight-forward explorations of who did what with Ambassador Walter Annenberg’s money (about $50 million each in Chicago and Philadelphia and $25 million in New York City) and what a variety of knowledgeable observers make of it.

Education activists in those cities undoubtedly will argue with points of analysis in the studies. However, the descriptions of the programs, their leaders and the politics engulfing them ring true. Engagingly written, the stories catch the pulse of school reform in the country’s first, third and fifth largest urban school systems. For that, they are worth the time even of those who have been dismissive of Annenberg, figuring that $50 million spread over five years in a school system (Chicago’s) with a $3-billion budget is nothing to get excited about.

Writing about New York, policy and data analyst Raymond Domanico shows us four education- reform organizations, including those of luminaries Deborah Meier and Seymour “Sy” Fleigel, pushed into an uneasy coalition as the political landscape changed radically. “Come January [1993], no one that they had been used to working with would be in either City Hall of the chancellor’s office,” writes Domanico.

The groups shared a belief in small schools but had different ideas about how to promote them. As Annenberg draws to a close, Domanico writes, they succeeded mainly in strengthening themselves, which he judges as “not a bad thing.” The partners, he says, “will be in a position to continue to nudge the system even when the Annenberg money is gone.”

In Philadelphia, Annenberg money helped power the ambitious reforms of Supt. David Hornbeck, who has jumped from one political swordfight to another since his arrival. This March, though, he caught a break: A new mayor, once opposed to his plan, ousted his most outspoken critics on the School Board.

“For now, at least, it appears that Hornbeck has bought some more time for Children Achieving,” notes writer Carol Innerst. “But the odds are great that history will repeat itself and that Philadelphia’s new mayor will eventually want a superintendent of his choosing, one who will surely arrive with his own school-reform plan.”

For Chicagoans, the only local news is that there was competition for the Annenberg grant, which went to a coalition of education-reform groups. Proposals also came from the mayor’s office and the school system, which “likely contributed to the chilly relationship between the Challenge and City Hall,” Finn and Marci Kanstoroom, the foundation’s research director, write in their afterward.

Policy analyst Alexander Russo makes much of the disconnect between the Challenge and CEO Paul Vallas. “In the end,” he writes, “the Challenge’s function as foil or counterweight to the Vallas initiatives may prove to have been its most significant impact …”