Insider

More of a Challenge Than They Thought
Tons of money, a raft of top civic leaders and the best intentions are apparently no instant cure for the deeply ingrained problems of public education. More than a year after Houston was chosen as a recipient of a $20 million grant from a national foundation to bolster local public schools, the board formed to administer the Houston Annenberg Challenge [HAC] has been shaken up and its executive director dismissed.

The grant from the Philadelphia-based Annenberg Foundation, through its Institute for School Reform, had been paired in a two-for-one arrangement with local sources, including the Brown Foundation, to create a $60 million endowment to fund local education projects. So far, about $1.5 million has been distributed to "beacon schools" in five Houston-area districts.

A troubleshooting team from the Annenberg Institute will visit Houston next month to evaluate and audit the effectiveness of the local administration of the grant. While a Houston Challenge official downplayed the significance of the visit, The Insider obtained correspondence between the national project overseers and Houston officials that offers a distinctly different outlook.

In a missive addressed to now departed Houston Challenge executive director Delia Quintanilla, national coordinator Barbara Cervone sounded a warning note about the upcoming review. Acknowledging that it is an unusual step, Cervone explained that "it reflects our serious concerns about the leadership, coherence and pace of the Annenberg effort in Houston -- concerns that compete with the forward strides HAC has made in the past year."

Cervone then added ominously, "The recommendations of the review team and the HAC's ability to make changes in a timely manner will affect the Annenberg Foundation's -- and Institute's -- enthusiasm for long-term support of the Houston program."

In advance of that review, local organizers ousted Quintanilla two weeks ago and shook up the board, bringing in high-powered downtown attorney Jonathan Day as chairman. Day is a partner in the firm Mayor Day and a legal adviser to the Metro Transit Authority board and the Port Authority board. Andrea White, the wife of former state Democratic party chair Bill White, remains president of the Houston Challenge, and Maconda Brown O'Connor, vice president of the Brown Foundation, also continues as a board member. New trustees include developer Jenard Gross, Victory Packaging chairman J. Victor Samuels and attorney Harry Gee Jr.

Day, who chaired his first meeting of the board two weeks ago, downplays the problems in the Houston effort. "The concern is getting the grant program organized, to increase the rate at which we're getting the dollars out and put to productive use," says the lawyer. "There's no concern, to my knowledge, about the way the money's been invested to date."

Annenberg senior project manager Dr. Gail Levin says the foundation "made an investment in the Houston Challenge on the basis of a very fine proposal that was submitted to us.... It is our intention and the intention of the Houston Challenge leadership to ensure that the thrust of that proposal, its priorities, goals, outcomes, are just as they were indicated." Levin refused to specify what parts of the original proposal had not been fulfilled.

HAC has awarded grants to so-called beacon schools in five area school districts. Participating in the Houston Independent School District are Browning, Poe, Scott and Helms elementary schools and Lanier Middle School. Under the grants, as much as $100,000 can go to an elementary school, $150,000 to a middle school and $200,000 to a high school. Some local critics say the grants have been too small to create real change.

Walter Annenberg, a 90-year-old former publisher and diplomat, created the foundation. It set aside $500 million in 1993 for grants to urban and rural school districts to reverse the decline in national public education. The effort has had mixed results, with some of the projects dogged by mismanagement and clashes between proponents of different educational philosophies.

Theodore Sizer, a noted public-education reformer who initially directed the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, quit two years ago. Critics note that promised annual evaluations of the challenge grants have not been forthcoming.

"The Annenberg Challenge simply increases the money flow to a system that diverts grants to serve the interests of politics and bureaucracy," education columnist Patrick Reilly wrote recently. "By reducing the need for tax revenues that might have been allocated to similar projects, the challenge enables administrators and non-teaching personnel to fill their pockets with the largess of school reform."

A source familiar with the Houston Challenge says there was tension between proponents of child-centered individual-learning techniques and those pushing state-mandated testing to meet objective standards. That led to infighting on the local board about where to spend the grant money.

Day says he just wants to get on with the mission of improving public education and forget past difficulties. "The problem is to get focused and get a clear vision about where we want to go from here, as opposed to any sort of regrets or recriminations about where we've been," explains the attorney diplomatically. "The question is to get mobilized to really invest this money wisely."

Dangerous Liaisons
Appointing an unpaid gay community liaison might seem like fairly noncontroversial stuff if you happen to be Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, whose 18th District is one of the most liberal in the nation and includes a large gay and lesbian constituency. Unfortunately, Lee's choice of politically ambitious plaintiff's attorney Andres Pereira for the role stepped squarely on the toes of another veteran legislator with close ties to the gay community, state Representative Debra Danburg.

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