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Amanda Rivkin/Polaris

Preferential treatment

Education | Education secretary Arne Duncan has a record for allowing some school choice, just not for all

Issue: "After the revolution," Feb. 26, 2011

When it comes to school choice, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are for it and against it. They've been proponents of charter schools but have opposed allowing parents to use tax-funded vouchers to enroll their children in private schools. In 2009 Duncan and Obama allowed a voucher program for 1,700 low-income students in Washington, D.C.-the first federal program of its kind-to expire, although a U.S. Department of Education analysis last year found it had improved graduation rates by 12 percentage points.

Now House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is pushing a bipartisan effort to resurrect the program. On Jan. 26, Boehner introduced a bill with Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., to open the D.C. voucher program to new students. As debate over school-choice measures moves forward, Duncan's views are likely to receive fresh scrutiny.

The education secretary has suggested that vouchers would ultimately be unfair: "Vouchers usually serve 1 to 2 percent of the children in the community," he said in 2009. "I don't want to save 1 or 2 percent of children and let 98 to 99 percent drown."

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But a newly released report by James Sullivan, the inspector general of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), indicates that during Duncan's tenure as CEO of Chicago's schools-from 2001 to 2008-he allowed school choice of another kind. As chief of the district, Duncan stopped short of using his power to abolish the practice of state and local officials lobbying to get favorite students into elite schools through Chicago's political network. Duncan claims he tried to reform clout-based admissions, but in practice he channeled it.

After years of allegations, Sullivan's report is the first clear admission from the school district that the entry process into the city's top high schools was swarming with "political clout, favoritism, preferential treatment and violations of selection and enrollment practices and policies."

Chicago's nine elite high schools, known locally as selective enrollment schools, are the pride of the city's otherwise troubled public-school system. They offer an advanced education to Chicago's top-scoring students, with an average 86 percent graduation rate in a district where half of students normally drop out. Competition to enter the schools is so fierce that in the 2009-2010 school year, about 16,000 students applied for admission, with only one-fifth as many seats available.

With admission so tough, some parents looked for back channels into the schools, calling selective enrollment principals to explain the merits of their child-or asking an alderman or CPS official to put in a good word, regardless of whether a student had passed the regular admissions exam.

Alan Mather, principal of Lindblom Math and Science Academy, one of the selective enrollment schools, last year told me Chicago aldermen used to call him seeking admission for particular students. Mather said he believed they were contacting him out of a sense of obligation to constituents, and said typically nothing would result from the inquiries: "It just afforded them the opportunity to go back and say, 'I made the call.'" Sometimes Mather forwarded requests he received to Duncan's office.

A spokesperson for Secretary Duncan, Peter Cunningham, who was also a communications director for Duncan in Chicago, told me the pattern of officials pressuring principals to admit students was a situation Duncan inherited: "And so what we tried to do was control it so that the principals didn't feel this pressure from people. Because they were getting the calls directly. So we said, 'Well, let's bring this downtown.'" Duncan's office began maintaining a list of calls that came in on behalf of students from a spectrum of sources, including the offices of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (now a Chicago mayoral candidate), and at least two dozen aldermen.

Cunningham said Duncan recognized the calls were a problem and reformed the admissions process by 2008. Asked if Duncan would have done anything differently in retrospect, Cunningham said he probably would have made the reforms sooner.

Duncan pushed through a new CPS admissions policy in February 2008, seven years after becoming its head, giving the selective enrollment principals the right of "principal discretion," in which they could handpick 5 percent of their students (as some were already doing), but only within certain guidelines: Principals were allowed to enroll students who failed the entrance exam if they had demonstrated other special abilities or had overcome hardship.

Sullivan's report indicates admissions abuses still occurred under Duncan's new policy in 2008 and afterward, with instances of preferential treatment "too numerous to mention." Last year the Chicago Tribune revealed that Duncan's office not only tracked calls, it forwarded the requests to principals-and Duncan was sometimes listed as a sponsor for students. The inspector general's report concludes the admission of at least six students in 2008 "can be directly attributed to influence exerted by the CEO's office."

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