Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Gaming Chicago's education system

I had rather liked Arne Duncan and thought that he was taking a relatively innovative approach to the Department of Education, especially for a Democrat. At least he has said the right things about the importance of quantifiable standards and support for charter schools, but now comes this story from his time as the head of Chicago's schools. Apparently, he and his staff kept a secret list of well-connected Chicago politicians and their friends who had made requests to get around the complicated admissions process to get their kids into the best Chicago schools.
While many Chicago parents took formal routes to land their children in the best schools, the well-connected also sought help through a shadowy appeals system created in recent years under former schools chief Arne Duncan.

Whispers have long swirled that some children get spots in the city's premier schools based on whom their parents know. But a list maintained over several years in Duncan's office and obtained by the Tribune lends further evidence to those charges. Duncan is now secretary of education under President Barack Obama.

The log is a compilation of politicians and influential business people who interceded on behalf of children during Duncan's tenure. It includes 25 aldermen, Mayor Richard Daley's office, House Speaker Michael Madigan, his daughter Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, former White House social secretary Desiree Rogers and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.

Non-connected parents, such as those who sought spots for their special-needs child or who were new to the city, also appear on the log. But the politically connected make up about three-quarters of those making requests in the documents obtained by the Tribune.

Often a sponsor's request was rejected. Principals responded that a student's scores were too low, or that the school was full. In other cases, the student hadn't even taken the required admissions test, and therefore could not be considered, according to the documents.

The list surfaced amid a federal probe and an internal investigation into admissions practices at the city's top high schools. Until Monday, the district had not revealed it had kept such a list.

The list was maintained by a top Duncan aide, David Pickens, currently chief of staff to the president of the Chicago Board of Education. Pickens said he created the log at Duncan's behest to track the flood of calls pouring into district offices from parents, politicians and business leaders trying to navigate the system's mysterious and maligned application process.

But Pickens acknowledged the list was kept confidential. The vast majority of parents who follow the system's school application process never knew they could appeal to Duncan's office for special consideration.
This just stinks. Think of all the parents whose kids didn't get into the desired school and who didn't know enough well-connected Chicago pols to get around the system.

As Ed Morrissey writes, this is bald corruption."

I hope that, in Illinois at least, this will be more than just another story about typical Chicago corruption. People should be outraged and I fear that this slime will cover Duncan also. Whether Obama cares is another question.

Glenn Reynolds adds in,
Prediction: There’ll be special “lists” for powerful people who need kidney transplants, too.
As a commenter reminds us, Illinois just saw a scandal in their admissions process for the University of Illinois where well-connected parents were able to get their children into the university even if they didn't really qualify academically.
Hundreds of applicants received special consideration in the last five years, according to documents obtained by the Tribune under the state's Freedom of Information Act. The records chronicle a shadow admissions system in which some students won spots at the state's most prestigious public university over the protests of admissions officers, while others had their rejections reversed during an unadvertised appeal process.In one case, a relative of Antoin "Tony" Rezko, the now-convicted influence peddler for former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, got admitted after U. of I. President B. Joseph White wrote an e-mail stating that the governor "has expressed his support, and would like to see admitted" Rezko's relative and another applicant.

White's message to the university chancellor was passed on to admissions officials on the same day they entered a rejection decision for the Rezko relative. "He's actually pretty low," replied an admissions officer, referring to the applicant's ACT score and other credentials. "Let me know when the denial letter can go out."

Instead, the relative was admitted.

Since 2005, about 800 undergraduate students have landed on the clout list for the Urbana-Champaign campus. It's unknown how many would qualify for entry on their own, but their acceptance rate is higher than average. For the 2008-09 school year, for example, about 77 percent were accepted, compared with 69 percent of all applicants.
And the Illinois legislature just voted down a bill to elect the trustees for the university instead of having the governor appoint them. They wouldn't want to give up their opportunities for finagling the system, would they?

Hmmm. A clout list - sounds quite similar to Duncan's clout list for the public schools in Chicago.