LEADERSHIP….Barack Obama says, “We can’t just tell people what they want to hear, we need to tell them what they need to hear.” But does Obama actually do that? Alexander Russo isn’t so sure after taking a look at a late-90s controversy in Chicago over who should have the authority to fire school principals: local councils or reformist superintendent Paul Vallas?
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.
….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.
….Only after [support for Vallas had collapsed] 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….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.
This is only a tidbit, not an indictment. Maybe it just wasn’t an issue Obama considered important enough to spend political capital on. Maybe he knew Vallas’s effort to wrest control from the local councils was doomed from the start and saw no point in getting involved. Who knows? But it’s still an interesting tidbit.