Duncan had VIP list of requests at Chicago schools

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010

When he led the Chicago schools, Arne Duncan kept a list of all the big shots who asked for help in getting certain children into the city's best public schools.

A spokesman said Wednesday that Duncan, who is now U.S. education secretary, used the list not to dole out rewards to insiders but to shield principals from political interference.

Spokesman Peter Cunningham said Duncan did not intervene in admissions decisions at selective schools during his tenure of 2001-09 as chief executive of the nation's third-largest school system. "We would just simply forward the requests [to principals], and say, 'Look this is your decision,' " Cunningham said. "We were very explicit about that."

The list, long kept under wraps, was disclosed this week by the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper reported that nearly 40 pages of logs it obtained show admissions requests from 25 city aldermen, Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and his daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, as well as an education aide in the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley. The mayor denied that his office tried to pull strings in admissions decisions, according to the newspaper.

The list was said to include some people who were not especially well-connected. The newspaper reported that there was no evidence that principals were forced to admit unqualified students.

Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said it was probably a mistake for Duncan to keep such a list. He said the best response to a request for help with admissions is a polite referral to a publicly posted policy on selection criteria and application procedures.

"I fully understand the kind of pressures you could get into in a Chicago or an inner-city situation, where you have huge political pressures -- the mayor, the police chief, very important people that put pressure on you. . . . But that's not something you get involved with in any way, shape or form," said Domenech, a former Fairfax County schools superintendent. "The answer is: 'No, that's not anything I can help with. There is a procedure, and good luck.' "

The admissions scramble in Chicago highlights the enduring divide in big-city schools between academic haves and have-nots. Of more than 400,000 students in Chicago, most attend public schools that are not selective.

The city's school system has improved somewhat in recent years. But like most cities with high rates of poverty, Chicago faces huge academic challenges, including test scores and graduation rates far below the national average.

That means many parents who can't afford private school tuition and are dissatisfied with neighborhood schools jockey for a limited number of slots in well-regarded magnet schools, out-of-boundary schools or selective public schools that base admissions on criteria such as grades and test scores. In the Washington region, such pressures are especially familiar to parents in D.C. and Prince George's County public schools.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) faced a barrage of questions in August when the mayor's twin sons enrolled in a prestigious Northwest Washington elementary school with a waiting list that was not the designated school for his neighborhood. Rhee would not discuss the specifics of Fenty's case.

But officials eventually disclosed that the rationale for the transfer was to allow the mayor's sons to be in separate classes and that the neighborhood school would not have been able to meet that need. Neither of the D.C. schools at issue had selective admissions.

When Duncan took the helm in Chicago in 2001, Cunningham said, his initial policy was to tell anyone who asked about admissions to selective schools to call the schools directly. But that became problematic, he said, because Duncan heard that the callers were becoming a burden to principals. Some of them apparently claimed to principals that Duncan had weighed in on behalf of certain applicants, which Cunningham said was untrue.

So Duncan asked for a list to be kept, Cunningham said, to help manage the requests and keep callers off the backs of principals. In 2008, the spokesman said, the school board adopted a policy that made explicit that principals had a certain amount of admissions discretion but required them to justify in writing why a student would be admitted ahead of others with better academic credentials.

Of the episode, Cunningham said: "It says we need more great schools. The demand for great schools is high, and we just have to keep working hard to create as many options as possible."

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