Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Clout goes to high school

March 23, 2010

Chicago Tribune

"We didn't want to advertise what we were doing because we didn't want a bunch of people calling."—David Pickens, former top aide to Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan

[Ed. note - Duncan is now Obama's Secretary of Education]

The quote says it all. CPS officials maintained a secret list to track requests from politicians, businessmen and other VIPs who wanted to get students admitted to one of the city's elite high schools. Most parents didn't know they could appeal to Duncan's office for a closer look, and that's the way school officials wanted it.

It's one more example of how things are done in Illinois: One set of rules for people with clout, another set for everyone else.

Getting into one of Chicago's nine selective-enrollment high schools is a fiercely competitive process, with tens of thousands of students vying for a few thousand slots. Admission is based on a point system, but principals have limited discretion to enroll students who wouldn't normally make the cut.

For years, some parents have complained that well-connected neighbors were able to access those few spots through back channels. Last summer, a handful of public officials acknowledged they had used influence to get friends and relatives admitted. A federal investigation was launched in July, and Duncan's replacement, Ron Huberman, ordered an internal investigation and an outside audit. The district's clout list, maintained over several years under Duncan, was obtained by the Tribune this week.

Those on the list include House Speaker Michael Madigan, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, former White House social secretary Desiree Rogers and half of the Chicago City Council. The initials "A.D." — Arne Duncan, Pickens says — appear dozens of times. Duncan's mother and his wife also appear as sponsors.

Pickens says Duncan told him to create the list to centralize the calls that were previously fielded by principals. Pickens and his staff screened the requests and passed some of them on to principals, who are allowed to hand pick up to 5 percent of their students based on criteria including leadership, family hardship and extracurricular activities.

Pickens, now chief of staff to the Chicago Board of Education president, and Duncan, now U.S. secretary of education, say their referrals were not meant as directives to the principals to admit certain students.

That's the same argument made by defenders of the University of Illinois' "Category I" system, the shadow admissions track for politically connected applicants. Last year, the Tribune's "Clout Goes to College" series revealed that hundreds of them got special consideration because of pressure from lobbyists, lawmakers and other power brokers.

That scandal eventually led to the resignations of the university president, chancellor and six of nine trustees. But many of the politicians who intervened on behalf of applicants defiantly denied any wrongdoing. There was no arm-twisting, they insisted; it was all "constituent service." The documents showed otherwise: Category I applicants had higher acceptance rates, despite lower ACT scores and class ranks. In other words, clout trumped merit.

It's impossible to draw (or rule out) such a conclusion from the CPS list. Entries, which list the applicant's VIP sponsor and contain check-off boxes to track the progress of the request, are often incomplete or marked "pending." Among those that were completed, roughly 43 percent were marked "yes" or "done."

So, no, having an alderman for an uncle doesn't guarantee your kid will get into Whitney Young. It doesn't matter. The students whose names appear on that list have a leg up on those who don't. CPS has no business running that sort of racket.Selective-enrollment high schools are among the biggest incentives to keep parents from sending their kids to private schools or fleeing to the suburbs. But parents aren't going to stay if the system is being gamed. Competition is already steep, and the families who have no clout — or who decline to exercise it — are at a disadvantage. They deserve a fair and honest system. They didn't get one.

One big difference between the U. of I. and CPS: When Huberman learned about the problem, he moved immediately to fix it. He has taken significant steps to create a fair and transparent selection process. Principals are required to document contacts from anyone lobbying for an applicant, and classify the contact as appropriate or not. They have to document any contact from CPS brass. Their discretionary picks will be reviewed by a panel and the CPS inspector general will have a role in that review. Huberman's goal is to restore faith and preserve some discretion in the admissions process. He has taken good steps.

We haven't heard the last, though, about the history of clout in the schools.

Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune

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