Educate All Students, Support Public Education

March 24, 2010

Chicago Scandal Emerges From Duncan Years: Practice of Saving School Seats for the Elite

Filed under: Arne Duncan — millerlf @ 2:09 pm

When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ran the Chicago Public Schools, he kept a secret list of those who hoped to clout children into the city’s top-tier public schools.

“We didn’t want to advertise what we were doing because we didn’t want a bunch of people calling,” CPS official David Pickens admitted to Tribune reporters Azam Ahmed and Stephanie Banchero, who broke the story.

Chicago Tribune

Mayor Daley denies role in lobbying schools

Logs show several admissions requests from his administration

Mayor Richard Daley denied Tuesday that his office had any role in an underground process to lobby on behalf of students applying to the city’s best public schools, even though secret logs indicate several admissions requests came from his administration.

Former schools chief Arne Duncan tracked admissions requests over several years, creating a lengthy, detailed compilation of politicians and influential business people who intervened on behalf of children during his tenure. The lists, used mostly in appeals cases, also show inquiries from unconnected parents looking to place their children.

There is no evidence that principals were forced to admit unqualified students. Indeed, many students were still rejected after making the lists. Documents obtained by the Tribune chronicle calls and requests coming into Duncan’s office in 2006 and 2008, though it’s unclear if the documents are complete for those years.

The nearly 40 pages of logs show requests from 25 aldermen, House Speaker Michael Madigan and his daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Applications that district officials say were backed by Duncan’s wife, mother and a personal trainer at a downtown athletic club where he played basketball appear, as well.

There also were references to a Daley education aide making requests, including a 2008 entry seeking admission for the daughter of a prominent zoning attorney to Augustus H. Burley School, a magnet elementary that focuses on writing and literature. The student was No. 5 on the wait list at the time and it’s unclear if she was admitted, according to the log.

The student’s father works at DLA Piper, the powerful law firm where Daley’s nephew is a partner.

A firm spokesman declined comment on the admissions request.

“It’s a private matter involving a family member,” spokesman Jason Costa said.

The logs also indicate that about six weeks before the Burley request the same Daley education aide made inquiries on behalf of a recent city hire.

A lawyer for the employee said his client made acceptance into quality schools a condition of his family’s relocation from another city and his relatives were placed in a highly regarded school. However, Lori Healey, then Daley’s chief of staff, told the Tribune no such promise was ever made.

The mayor maintained that position Tuesday when asked what role his administration played in the lists.

“No role, in the sense that, no role,” he said.

School officials have acknowledged that the lists were kept secret to prevent the central office from being inundated with appeals. The vast majority of parents who followed the system’s school application process never knew they could ask Duncan’s office for special consideration.

Though he defended Duncan’s use of the logs, Daley said the appeals process should not have been kept secret.

“That’s the problem,” Daley said. “How do you (publicize it)? That’s what they have to work on.”

Competition to gain admission to the city’s premier schools is fierce, with thousands of students applying for openings every year.

Cynthia Flowers, whose three children attend selective schools in the district, said “to find out there is a list is another big pill to swallow.”

While the normal application process worked for her daughter, Cydia, who was just accepted to Whitney Young Magnet High School, Flowers said many parents end up going to private schools or leaving the city if their children aren’t admitted to the elite schools.

“To see who was requesting and which favors were denied just kind of speaks to the back-door politics of Chicago,” said Flowers, who works for the nonprofit Black Star Project and chairs a committee for fairness in the admissions process.

Chicago Public Schools chief Ron Huberman eliminated the lists after Duncan resigned to become U.S. Secretary of Education. Huberman has said he would implement a series of changes to prevent people from gaming the admissions process.

The mayor said he expects CPS to develop a “system fair to everyone.”

“All students should be accepted on their merit, nothing else,” Daley said.

Stacy St. Clair, Todd Lighty, Jodi S. Cohen and Hal Dardick contributed.

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