Obama was uniquely well-placed to take the lead in mediating this battle. He had a relatively strong background in community and education issues. He was friends and pickup-basketball buddies with Arne Duncan, who was then in charge of magnet schools (and has since taken over Vallas' job). Obama also knew Vallas, who liked him. Then, as now, he was considered a politician who could unify people and resolve challenging conflicts. And in a racially charged debate like this one—Vallas was a tall white guy who sent his kids to parochial school—it didn't hurt that Obama was black.
To be sure, it would have been no easy feat to bring Vallas and local-school advocates to the table, and there's no guarantee that the effort would have worked. New and unknown to many other Democratic lawmakers, Obama wasn't even on the education committee.
Still. For several months, Obama didn't indicate clearly where his sympathies lay. He didn't join with protesters and other legislators who swarmed public events denouncing the Vallas proposal. He didn't talk to the press about the importance of community engagement for schools or the unfairness of diminishing the influence of the 5,500 elected LSC members. Obama kept tabs on the negotiations through his staff, met occasionally with local-control advocates, and, according to those who were involved, sometimes provided ideas and advice in private. But that was about it. Some local advocates weren't even sure whether he would ultimately be on their side or not. And many worried that without someone like Obama to stop it, the Vallas juggernaut would overrun any opposition.
In the end, support for Vallas' proposal suddenly collapsed, the victim of political infighting within the district. A face-saving provision was added to the existing LSC law that allowed principals to appeal their dismissals to an outside arbitration board, but it was written so narrowly that it was all but unusable. "We put it in there as a fig leaf for Vallas," recalls a legislative staffer who was involved in the negotiations. "It wasn't something that was supposed to be used."
Only after the fig leaf was in place did Obama come out publicly in support of local school councils, making a brief speech (PDF) on the Senate floor to codify the final agreement preserving local councils' authority. To his credit, Obama didn't augment racial division. Vallas was in essence trying to take control away from poor and minority parents. He credits Obama with never having played the race card. "Barack could have taken the bait but he didn't," says Vallas, now head of the New Orleans schools. "He never demagogued the issue."
In being so late to the debate, however, Obama didn't really have to stand up to anyone—not the groups he was affiliated with, not Vallas, not Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. He was just approving the final result. He remained loyal to his roots, but only when it was easy to do so. To some critics, this is exactly the problem. "Obama has no history of standing up to school interests or anyone else," says Dan Cronin, the Republican state senator who handled the 1999 legislation (and recalls little if any involvement from Obama). "If you look at his past record, there's nothing that's particularly bold or creative."
Partisan judgments aside, Obama missed the opportunity to address long-standing questions about unwarranted dismissals of principals or to resolve the conflicted relationship between LSCs and the central Chicago school board. There is still no meaningful way for principals to appeal their dismissals; few have tried, and not one has been reinstated. And the structural conflicts remain between what are essentially two different systems of governance. (New York City avoided this problem by doing away with its community school districts at roughly the same time it gave control of the school board to the mayor.)
Tension between local control and centralized accountability isn't just a problem in Chicago, of course. It's also at the core of the debate over No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that requires annual testing by states in reading and math and mandates publication of test score results for poor and minority students. For more than six years, state and local educators have complained that such mandates get in the way of local control and flexibility.
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. And without strong and unifying national leadership, our troubled public-education system stands little chance of making the dramatic improvements that it needs.