Belmont Club

"It's For the Children"

But whose children? The Washington Post says the discovery of a special list through which the Chicago elite might have gotten their kids into good schools shows how a system can be gamed to provide one kind of service for the haves and and another for the have-nots.  “Public” systems run on guidelines and not all of them are published. Chicago faced a resource allocation problem. According to the WaPo most Chicago schools “face huge academic challenges” which meant that many parents didn’t want their kids in ordinary schools.  They were “dissatisfied with neighborhood schools” and so need to “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.” But the VIPs couldn’t really be expected to line up. One solution: a front door and a backdoor.  That’s why Duncan’s list was secret, referring to a special list maintained by current Secretary of Education who then ran the Chicago school system. It contained a list of connected parents and special schools. Some school officials they denied there was any correlation between these two columns whatsoever. If there was a backdoor the rear entrance had no visible signs.

“We didn’t want to advertise what we were doing because we didn’t want a bunch of people calling,” CPS official David Pickens admitted to Tribune reporters Azam Ahmed and Stephanie Banchero, who broke the story.

But those who could read the secret writing could find it. John Kass of the Chicago Tribune described the special glasses needed to understand the way things really work in the Windy City. He says the Daley dynasty designed it some things to be hard to see, unless you had the spectacles. “Today, I’m not going to rip on Daley. Instead, let’s focus on his brilliance, in creating Chicago’s two-tiered public school system. It bound the professional class to him and maintained him in power.” His Honor figured that the way to keep the professional class on his side was to corrupt some of them. So he built a two tier system, like a building with an executive washroom and a sewer. Those who wanted to use the executive washroom needed to find it. Most of all, they needed a key. Those who didn’t play could join the crowd or they could slip into their own environment where everyone was comfortable with everyone else amid the freshly changed linen and scented soaps. Kass explains:

The mayor knows how it works. He etched it into Chicago’s civic infrastructure years … When first elected in 1989, Daley eagerly reached out to those in the city’s predominantly white professional class. They were edgy and many were considering leaving Chicago.

In response, the mayor built top magnet and college prep high schools, pushing through work-rule changes to attract the best teachers. He produced the schools that nervous white-collar voters demanded.

Members of the professional class wanted city life. But they wanted their children educated. They became clients of Daley’s first tier. …

… education in the second tier remains abysmal. High school dropout rates are still around 50 percent, yet much higher when magnet schools are exempted. But even as tens of thousands of kids drop out to become calcified in the permanent underclass, the second tier still supports the mayor.

It’s not just about education. It is about jobs and patronage. Top teachers either fled or were lured to the top schools. But middle-rung teachers and below are the backbone of the teachers union.

The neighborhoods were rewarded with local school councils to elect, and budgets to manage and principals to appoint. By allowing the locals to run their mini-fiefdoms, Daley bound neighborhood activists to the system.

They were no longer beefers outside City Hall. They’d bought in.

Daly discovered the great rule of demagoguery. Convince those who’ve never eaten pâté de foie gras that the swill they are eating is it. Serve the real pate to those who already know what it tastes like. It was a system that would have been instantly familiar to former Soviets. World class academies for the nomenklatura, shacks on the banks of the Volga for those on the outs. Mayor Daley has indignantly denied the special list was used for playing favorites. He argued that just because there was a VIP entrance doesn’t mean anyone actually used it. The Chicago Sun Times reported that “Daley said there was nothing wrong with former Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan’s office maintaining such a log because ‘no favoritism’ resulted from it.” One official, Office of Compliance Chief Anthony Boswell, whose children qualified for a magnet school after moving in from Denver said that while it made him look bad, he didn’t actually know if he received preferential treatment.

Boswell’s children ended up on the waiting list for Mark Sheridan Elementary Math and Science Academy, a South Side magnet school where admissions are based on a lottery, but were subsequently admitted in time for the 2008-09 school year. Those admissions have also drawn the attention of the school system’s inspector general.

“Tony has no knowledge of anybody inside city government, outside city government or from the moon calling to get his kids in to Sheridan school,” Boswell attorney Jamie Wareham said. “He can’t say it didn’t happen. But he didn’t ask for it, and he wasn’t aware of it.”

A former Duncan aide, Peter Cunningham, seconded Daley’s assertions. He portrayed the list as an altruistic attempt to keep the bigshots from strong-arming the school principals. Concerned about … what exactly? … Duncan interposed himself as a human shield. “This was an attempt to buffer principals from all the outside pressure, to get our arms around something that was burdensome to them. It was always up to the principal to make the decision. Arne never ever picked up the phone.” There is some ring of truth to this. You definitely needed a human shield, or preferably Class IV body armor against the kinds of forces that stalked the corridors of the school system. One person has already committed “suicide” in connection with investigations into Chicago school corruption. The NYT says:

Admission to top Chicago schools has long been a competitive and murky process, with longstanding rumors of abuse. Mr. Duncan created a formal appeals process in 2008, and when he left to join the Obama administration, his successor, Ron Huberman, created a system to stop the gaming of the system.

The existence of the list surfaced amid a federal investigation, according to The Tribune. A spokesman for the Department of Education said Tuesday that the investigation stemmed from a case involving a school principal after Mr. Duncan left.

In July, Mr. Huberman announced an internal investigation of the city’s 52 application-based elementary and high schools. The president of the Chicago school board, Michael Scott, who had been subpoenaed in the federal investigation, committed suicide in November.

Scott died in November of 2009, having fallen dead near the Chicago river after shooting himself in the head. Breaking news on that day reported:

The death of Chicago school board president Michael Scott has been ruled a suicide by the Cook County medical examiner’s office, but police said this afternoon they are continuing to look into the death and that detectives are still “early on in the investigation.” …

Scott was found with a gunshot wound to the left side of his head, according to authorities. His body was found early this morning at the water’s edge of the Chicago River behind the Chicago Apparel Center at 350 N. Orleans along the north branch of the river, police said.

He apparently fell forward after shooting himself, and a .380-caliber gun was found under the body, police sources say. No note was found at the scene and detectives are trying to track down the gun’s registration, police said….

Rev. Jesse Jackson spent much of the day with Scott’s relatives today … U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the former chief of Chicago Public Schools, released a statement: “I am shocked and saddened by the sudden death of my friend and colleague Michael Scott. Michael cared passionately about public education and made many courageous decisions as President of the Board.”

Dozens of other prominent citizens of Chicago expressed their surprise and dismay at the fall of this civic giant. Yet behind the accolades and the flowers for the deceased there was the disturbing suggestion of titanic and shadowy forces. The Chicago school saga is fascinating for the penumbra which it throws over the possible management of Obamacare, whose architects hail from the same city as Daley Education. What if like Chicago, there were a fist of cold steel and rotting flesh beneath the velvet glove? Who could ever prove it? Daley has already denied that the VIP list was ever used by VIPs.  Nobody ever called nobody about nothing.  John Kass says that’s the genius of it:

Daley didn’t exactly force parents at swordpoint to bend their knees and kiss his regal garments. His genius here is more coercive, not the force of the warrior, but the subtle work of the arborist. They eagerly graft their branches to his trunk.

The first-tier kids go on to top colleges, the parents sing Daley’s praises. The second-tier workers are rooted firmly in the status quo. And the tree blooms and bears fruit, mayoral election after mayoral election.

It’s pâté de foie gras and if you don’t know it, what’s the diference. Is everybody happy? A permanent majority. All hail the future.

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