Did Arne Duncan Play Favorites In Chicago?

Duncan's staff kept list of politicians' school requests
March 22, 2010 5:01 PM

For several years when U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was Chicago Public Schools chief, his office maintained a list of politicians and others seeking help for applicants to selective schools, former top aide David Pickens told the Tribune today.

The list is being investigated as part of a wider inquiry into allegations of back-door admissions practices at the elite schools, now being conducted by the school district inspector general and part of a federal probe. Until today, the district had not revealed it had kept such a list.

While the list reads as a who's who of influential business people and elected officials, it also includes parents and others who advocated on behalf of students not accepted to the schools through the general admissions process, district officials said.

Duncan's staff was charged with following up on every case - whether parent or politician - typically by calling school principals on the student's behalf to see if there was space for them.

The list was maintained by Pickens, who is currently chief of staff to the president of the Chicago Board of Education. Pickens said the list was created to keep track of all the calls the office received, especially from politicians who often complained to Duncan if their applicants were not accepted.

Pickens said the calls from his office were not directives to the principals - no one was ever told they had to accept a student who his office called about. Pickens said that principals grew tired of all the calls they would get from influential people seeking admission for a student, and that by centralizing the process he could serve as a firewall. He said the majority of the people on the list were rejected by the principals.

Duncan spokesman Peter Cunningham said: "It was up to the principal. This wasn't an alternate route into these schools. It was part of our process of being responsive to people."

Duncan, who was public schools chief in 2001-2008, was unavailable for comment today, his spokesman said.

-- Azam Ahmed

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