For all the struggles of the Chicago Public Schools, there are a few bright spots in the district. In particular, the city's magnet and selective-enrollment public high schools are very well regarded and high-performing; every desk at these schools is coveted.
But it seems like nothing in Chicago is immune to political pull, and, as many have long suspected, the schools are no exception. According to the Chicago Tribune, CPS kept a long list of elected officials -- including "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" -- who sought special favor for students in the enrollment process.
Admission to Chicago's magnet high schools is conducted by lottery. The selective-enrollment schools, however, judge applicants on the basis of merit and personal background. There is also a murky and subjective "principals' picks" practice that allows principals to circumvent the usual admissions process. This practice was recently reformed by the current CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Ron Huberman.
During much of the tenure of his predecessor, now-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the practice was less above-board, and principals across the district would receive calls pushing applicants. To centralize the process, the Tribune reports, these calls were eventually directed to Duncan's office, which kept a list of everyone who lobbied on behalf of a student.
The Trib obtained some of these log files. About a quarter of callers, it reports, were concerned parents -- new arrivals to the city, parents seeking placement for special-ed students, etc. The remaining 75 percent were "the politically connected," including the above panoply of pols. Ten of the recommendations were made exclusively by Duncan himself, and he co-sponsored at least 40 other students.
Those politicians the paper contacted readily admitted to seeking favor for students, acknowledging it as part of a broken system that rewards the well-connected.
In 2008, former U.S. Sen. Braun sought help for two students, though she said Monday she does not recall placing a call to Duncan's office. [Top Duncan aide David] Pickens said she called him, seeking help getting a student into Whitney Young Magnet High School, and he asked Principal Joyce Kenner to call the former senator back.
Braun said she called Kenner to inquire after one child's mother told her the student's application had been "lost in a computer glitch." Braun said Kenner told her: "I'll take care of it."
The child got into Whitney Young, despite a below-average admission score. The Tribune is not naming any students involved because they are minors and it is unlikely they knew about efforts being made on their behalf.
"This process is not pure, and everyone knows it," Braun said. "The process is a disaster, and quite frankly, I don't have a problem making a call. If the process were not as convoluted as it is, parents wouldn't be asking for help."
David Pickens, then a top aide of Duncan's, told the Sun-Times that every school -- except Northside Prep -- accepted at least a few students through this backchannel.
But even Duncan and Pickens knew where to draw the line. In 2006, the office received a request from former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office, on behalf of an applicant to Walter Payton College Prep.
The notes in the log file read: "STAY AWAY FROM THIS ONE."
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