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."
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."
The report recommends abolishing principal discretion altogether, but that's unlikely to happen. Principal discretion remains popular among Chicago parents and principals because it creates a way for siblings or disadvantaged kids to get into a top school.
It seems Duncan gave principals permission to handpick students because he believed some disadvantaged students could excel if given a shot at a better school. And that's what voucher proponents say the D.C. voucher program can offer. The argument that vouchers are unfair because they only benefit a few students, the proponents will argue, seems disingenuous in light of what Duncan allowed in Chicago.
A bigger problem: giving politically connected kids an advantage. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Springfield, Ill., and Senate Majority Whip, crafted the legislative language in 2009 to kill the D.C. voucher program. That did not stop him from successfully lobbying to get a staffer's relative into a selective enrollment high school in Chicago.
School districts in some other cities, such as New York and Washington, have established a network of high-school choice like Chicago's selective enrollment program-using a mix of charter, public, and elite public schools that only admit top-scoring students. Some critics say this multi-tiered approach-with regular schools and selective schools competing for students-could foster the same problems as in Chicago, with parents or politicians trying to game the admissions system. That doesn't mean that selective enrollment programs are all bad, but that they need consistently proper oversight: The admissions policy CPS adopted after Duncan left Chicago, for instance, added rules to eliminate political influence.
Charter schools, many of which do not require admissions testing, have played a big role in local school reform across the nation in the last decade, and Duncan's pro-charter policies (he quadrupled the number of them in Chicago) have earned him praise from school-choice advocates and ire from teachers unions. Unlike Chicago's selective enrollment schools, which are managed by the school district, charters are privately run but with district funding and oversight, and often without union pressures.
As a school-choice option, charters remain a point of contact between the Obama administration, Republicans, and the broader public. In a survey last year, the Indianapolis-based Foundation for Educational Choice found that voters in six states were three times more likely to support charters than oppose them. Most favored vouchers as well. -with reporting by Emily Belz in Washington, D.C.
Battle to the top
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has spent the past year trying to drum up support for a rewrite of No Child Left Behind, George W. Bush's education policy. The administration's "blueprint" for reforming the policy aims to improve teacher accountability, measure student growth more accurately, and among other things, expand charters. In his State of the Union last month, President Obama called on Congress to "replace No Child Left Behind with a law that's more flexible and focused on what's best for our kids." But it's unclear to what extent legislators will cooperate: Neither political party has complete internal agreement on education reform and school choice options, and even the nation's two major teachers unions are divided on Duncan's policies. The GOP's "A Pledge to America" last year made no pledges about education.
Many Republicans agree No Child Left Behind is flawed, but some, like Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the new chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, prefer to deal with its problems incrementally, in separate bills instead of a sweeping overhaul. Kline and some other conservatives say they want less federal involvement in education policy, not more, leaving more decision-making power in the hands of local officials.
Democrats face an uphill battle already to persuade GOP lawmakers to spend more money on new education policy. The administration already has on the table $4.35 billion for its Race to the Top program and $650 million for Investing in Innovation programs, which offer federal grants to states and districts that meet reform goals. Obama and Duncan want Congress to provide funding to the programs through 2011-but they may have to concede on issues like vouchers to get it. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was one of the chief architects of the 2001 No Child Left Behind and isn't likely to see Congress abandon it easily. Boehner has Democratic support on the D.C. city council, and demonstrated the level of priority he assigned to the voucher plan when he invited several District students in the program to be his State of the Union guests. They sat on the front row of his box.