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It’s no coincidence that the public schools in Ayers’s hometown have come closer than any other large American school district to living out the ideals of social-justice education. Ayers played an instrumental role in creating the “local school council” structure that emerged during school reform in Chicago in the 1990s, and though the LSCs have now been stripped of much of their autonomy, he continues to see them as a hope for successful reform in the CPS system. “There were all these dire predictions that the keys to the asylum were being handed over to the inmates,” he says, “but all we did was create in Chicago neighborhoods what you have in Glen Ellyn: parents controlling their schools. People who hate on school boards are hating on democracy.”
Though some of the LSCs were faulted for corruption, pettiness, and mismanagement, Ayers says, “the corruption was nothing compared to what you saw at the central office.” Mostly, he says, the councils used their budgets to hire more teaching aides, provide greater security, and buy new teaching materials.
In 1995, after five years of schools’ being governed largely by the local school councils, the CPS system was again restructured, with Mayor Daley taking direct control over a largely recentralized administration. When Duncan replaced Paul Vallas in 2001, he began a series of initiatives—closing failing schools and replacing them with new, smaller schools, including numerous charter schools—that evolved into what is now called the Renaissance 2010 program, which sets forth a goal of creating 100 high-performing public schools in designated communities of need by 2010.
The LSCs Ayers champions are far less powerful than they once were, and money from his Annenberg Challenge grant proposal stopped coming into the district in 2001. His grown children—sons Malik, Zayd, and Chesa Boudin, the last raised by Ayers and his wife, the law professor Bernardine Dohrn, following his parents’ incarceration for committing murder while members of the Weather Underground—attended the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, rather than public schools. In an official sense, Ayers is an outsider. Although this position leaves him open to criticism as a mere ivory-tower critic, rather than someone who is doing the actual work of reform, he sees his role as that of an academic—he refers to himself as a “thinker, analyst, trainer of teachers.” And Ayers himself still casts a large shadow within the district. In fact, his ideas are often cited as the philosophical underpinnings for new initiatives. “Renaissance 2010, the small schools movement,” says Edward T. Klunk, from the CPS Office of High Schools and High School Programs. “Bill Ayers influenced all of that. He’s there.”
Now, with the Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan leading the department of education, will Ayers’s views find their way to a larger, national audience? Ayers says his relationship with Duncan, as with Obama, is more of “knowing him from the neighborhood” than working with him as a colleague. “I’ve never actually sat down with him and talked policy,” Ayers says.
Overall, Ayers is deeply skeptical of the Renaissance 2010 initiative. He compares the closing of failing schools to the demolition of public housing projects, saying, “People are suspicious that when you close this up, there’s going to be nothing to replace it. And, with public housing, they were certainly right to be suspicious.” (In fact, for the most part, those fears have not been realized. Under Duncan’s administration, 61 schools were closed, while 75 were opened.) While Ayers is careful not to condemn the charter school movement in general, he objects to what he calls the “privatization” of some schools, turning them over to educational management companies that oversee them via special charter arrangements. His criticisms seem to have been a thorn in Duncan’s side.
In 2006, Duncan wrote a long, personal response to a journal article Ayers and another small-schools advocate had written, criticizing the program. Duncan urged the two academics to “embrace” the policy. (Duncan declined for this article to comment further on Ayers’s work.)
For his part, Ayers says he has never been an embracer and, anyway, “CPS policies in the past have not warranted even a tepid hug.”
In some sense, it would be impossible for a big school district to live up to Ayers’s ideals. His philosophy resists standardization and aggregation—he derisively refers to this need to find a single, right way to do things as a “Walmart” approach to education—in favor of unique approaches for every “learning community.” This neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach is the sort of thing that makes conservatives and business-minded thinkers nuts: As they work to find solutions that “scale,” Ayers reminds them of all the places where their ideas won’t fit.
Though he praises Duncan for being a pragmatist, Ayers sees the new secretary of education as being fundamentally limited by a need to find a single set of “right” answers. Indeed, he responded to Obama’s appointment of Duncan to the cabinet position with an essay, published on The Huffington Post, in which he described Duncan and the other top candidates [Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and Paul Vallas] for the job as “four failed urban school superintendents,” who “have little to show in terms of school improvement beyond a deeply dishonest public relations narrative.”
“That was a little mean,” Ayers laughingly reflects now, though he seems to be positioning himself to take up a kind of loyal opposition role outside the Duncan-led department of education.
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Forty years after the turbulence of the late sixties, Ayers insists he has no particular investment in what kids grow up to advocate for, just as long as they find a way to engage with society and work for the betterment of their community. He insists that “teaching for social justice” contains no partisan agenda, but he gives himself away slightly when asked about local school boards that, say, want to keep evolution and sex education out of the curriculum. That sort of empowered local control, he makes plain, is not what he has in mind. “Inquiry, imagination, evidence, and argument are essential,” he says curtly. “I don’t feel like those are ideological. All you’re doing is asking questions.”
As an example, Ayers describes the anti-obesity measure sponsored by Arkansas’s former governor Mike Huckabee that required report cards in Arkansas public schools to include a student’s body mass index (BMI) in addition to his or her grades. Ayers takes it as an article of faith that any right-thinking person would find this measure ridiculous. “Surely,” he says, “‘Is he fat?’ doesn’t belong in the same category as ‘Can he read?’” But instead of launching a highly visible protest or simply refusing to fill in the box, he says, he would involve his students in a discussion of the requirement.
“Here’s what I’d do, if I were a teacher in Arkansas,” he says. “I’d develop a curriculum for my kids that looks at who thought up this BMI measure, who’s got the contract for serving lunches in our school, what kind of physical education do we have, how many sports teams are available to join. You generate a pedagogy of questions. That’s what good teachers do.”
His guiding principle, he says, is that society should want for all its children exactly what the most privileged and wise parents are always saying they want for their own kids: an educational experience in which their child is seen and recognized as an individual. “I can’t imagine I’m saying anything that anyone really disagrees with,” he insists pleasantly, sounding far more like the concerned grandparent he now is than the radical outlaw he once was.