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Preferential treatment

"Preferential treatment" Continued...

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

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.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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