When I first started reading this Slate piece by Alexander Russo ("Chicago School Days: Obama's lackluster record on education"), I felt my head spinning. Not only would I have to reassess my admittedly optimistic views of Barack Obama, I'd also have to concede that Russo might (in this case, at least) know what he's talking about.
Then I finished the article and reclaimed my equilibrium. As it turns out, I wouldn't have to change my mind on either front.
Here's the rub. Russo dives into an important dispute from a decade ago that is little known to national audiences: whether Chicago's local school councils???a.k.a., "mini school boards"???should have the power to fire school principals, as a 1988 law allows. At issue was an ugly history of minority-dominated boards firing white principals for little reason other than their race. By the mid 1990s, Paul Vallas, Chicago's then-superintendent, wanted to strip the boards of this authority because he was tired of good principals getting thrown under the bus. As a state senator, Obama shadow-boxed around the issue, Russo claims, and then eventually sided with the local boards once the issue was resolved in their favor (not surprising for a former community organizer).
I don't know whether Russo captured that part of the story accurately or not, but his analysis for what this could mean for NCLB is preposterous:
Based on Obama's actions in Chicago in 1999, it's hard to imagine him taking charge of the continuing debate over whether and how No Child Left Behind should be renewed. Forced to take a side, Obama's record suggests that, ultimately, he would be sympathetic to local autonomy. But there's not much evidence to show that he would be able to help mend deep and abiding schisms between testing hawks and local-control advocates.
But local autonomy, Chicago-style, is school autonomy. It's about "power to the people"???at a very, very local level, more akin to charter schools than typical school boards. Outside of Chicago, "local control" is about district autonomy???and is promoted mostly by Republicans and status quo types who don't want the feds pushing them around. The "testing hawks" are mostly liberal groups like Education Trust that want to use federal power to bust the school district oligarchy to give power to the people???poor and minority parents. So to argue that Obama would side with the pro-school board, generally conservative "local control" types over the liberal testing hawks acting on behalf of minority communities is... well, it's typical Russo.
It's nice to feel back to normal again.