The [Tuesday] Papers
Why do they write these things down?
That's the exasperated refrain I always hear from one particular friend when the latest clout list goes public.
But the answer is clear: Because there are so many public officials to satisfy - and all their friends and family - that no one except the late Mayor Richard J. Daley could keep it all in their head. These days it takes a spreadsheet.
And so it goes with Chicago's very own Education Secretary, who couldn't possibly have been expected to memorize all those requests to squeeze the kids of the connected into the city's elite (public) schools.
"While many Chicago parents took formal routes to land their children in the best schools, the well-connected also sought help through a shadowy appeals system created in recent years under former schools chief Arne Duncan," the Tribune reports.
"Whispers have long swirled that some children get spots in the city's premier schools based on whom their parents know. But a list maintained over several years in Duncan's office and obtained by the Tribune lends further evidence to those charges. Duncan is now secretary of education under President Barack Obama.
"The log is a compilation of politicians and influential business people who interceded on behalf of children during Duncan's tenure. It includes 25 aldermen, Mayor Richard Daley's office, House Speaker Michael Madigan, his daughter Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, former White House social secretary Desiree Rogers and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun."
It was Chicago's own Race to the Top.
"The list was maintained by a top Duncan aide, David Pickens, currently chief of staff to the president of the Chicago Board of Education. Pickens said he created the log at Duncan's behest to track the flood of calls pouring into district offices from parents, politicians and business leaders trying to navigate the system's mysterious and maligned application process."
Rather than fix a process that even the city's elite couldn't figure out, Duncan kept a list.
"But Pickens acknowledged the list was kept confidential. The vast majority of parents who follow the system's school application process never knew they could appeal to Duncan's office for special consideration.
"'We didn't want to advertise what we were doing because we didn't want a bunch of people calling,' Pickens said."
The last thing we wanted was a bunch of people calling. Except those who did.
"Pickens said that principals grew tired of getting calls from influential people seeking admission for a student, and that by centralizing it, he could serve as a firewall."
Or, and I'm just spitballing here, another solution could have been to tell influential people to stop calling. Or just say sorry, can't help. Or you could centralize a system with a list.
"After getting a request, he or another staffer would look up the child's academic record. If the student met their standard, they would call the principal of the desired school."
So their solution to navigating a mysterious and maligned process was to create yet another mysterious and maligned pathway. For those in-the-know.
"Pickens said the calls from his office were not directives to the principals - no one was ever told they had to accept a student."
The calls were just points of information. From the CEO of CPS. It's not like they kept a list. Er . . .
"'We never pressured principals or told them what to do or said this person needs to be considered over this person,' said Duncan spokesman Peter Cunningham."
No one ever should have felt like a call from the CEO's office about a politically connected student whose name appeared on a secret list constituted pressure in any way!
"It's just a way to manage the information," Cunningham said.
Right. A clout list.
"The initials 'AD' are listed 10 times as the sole person requesting help for a student, and as a co-requester about 40 times. Pickens said 'AD' stood for Arne Duncan, though Duncan's involvement is unclear. Duncan's mother appears as a sponsor, as does 'KD,' whom Pickens identified as Karen Duncan, Arne's wife."
But again, no pressure. Instead of using "AD" they could have just as easily used "CPS." Except they didn't.
"Many of the politicians named on Pickens' log acknowledged that they made calls on students' behalf because this is how the system works in Chicago. They weighed in on behalf of relatives, friends and campaign workers."
This is how the system works in Chicago. You know, like social promotion.
"Whenever anybody asked me - whether it was a relative, a distant relative, a next-door neighbor or the guy across the street - I would write letters," said Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th).
Realtors took to touting as a benefit to living on Burnett's block that it furnished additional educational opportunities for the children.
Burnett told the Tribune, by the way, that he has since ended the practice. Not that there was anything wrong with it. It's just that now the feds are snooping around and maybe there was something wrong with it.
"In 2008, former U.S. Sen. Braun sought help for two students, though she said Monday she does not recall placing a call to Duncan's office. Pickens said she called him, seeking help getting a student into Whitney Young Magnet High School, and he asked Principal Joyce Kenner to call the former senator back.
"Braun said she called Kenner to inquire after one child's mother told her the student's application had been 'lost in a computer glitch.' Braun said Kenner told her: 'I'll take care of it.'"
"The child got into Whitney Young, despite a below-average admission score."
Also the result of a "computer glitch."
"This process is not pure, and everyone knows it," Braun said. "The process is a disaster, and quite frankly, I don't have a problem making a call. If the process were not as convoluted as it is, parents wouldn't be asking for help."
The Chicago Way: Game the process instead of fixing it.
"Kenner, who has testified under subpoena in the federal investigation, said the admissions problems are 'old news.'"
Old news to her, she knew about the list!
"'There is a new framework in place for principal discretion,' she said in her e-mail response. 'I think we have an opportunity to move on from this issue.'"
Her e-mail account refused to answer further questions.
"Burnett requested consideration of a student in 2008 whose test score did not get him into Whitney Young. The log suggests the principal offered the student future enrollment as a consolation and notes that Burnett 'was OK with that offer.'"
And the commission that came with it.
"Michael Madigan's office said he considered his involvement a part of constituent services."
A) Michael Madigan's office can talk?
B) Do constituent services come with laundry and a Continental breakfast?
"Lisa Madigan's spokesperson said she supported a longtime family friend."
Um, yes. That's the problem.
"Daley's office also appears on the list. The logs indicate that in 2008 a mayoral staffer made inquiries on behalf of a new out-of-town Daley hire.
"'We just offered our help, as you would for anyone who was moving from out of state with his family to work,' said Lori Healey, Daley's then chief of staff."
A) It's part of the city's Welcome Wagon program; call 311 for details
B) It's a good way to show a new city employee how things work around here
C) We like to indebt new city employees to the mayor as quickly as we can
"But there was never a commitment to get (the hire's) kids into a 'good school' or a particular school or anything of that nature."
It's not like throwing the mayor's name around could possibly impact something like that. Even though that was the point.
Finally, this classic:
"Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office made a request in 2006 on behalf of a student who wanted to get into Walter Payton College Prep but the log carried this notation, 'STAY AWAY FROM THIS ONE.'"
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Posted on March 23, 2010
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