Duncan’s list and the Chicago Way

As Chicago schools chief, Arne Duncan kept a list of well-connected people who wanted help getting their kids into the city’s top schools. The Chicago way of education — a two-tier system of public schools — starts with Mayor Richard Daley, writes Tribune columnist John Kass.

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.

. . . Daley spent millions upon millions of dollars on new school buildings in low-income neighborhoods. This massive wave of construction endeared him to the predominantly white trade unions: the carpenters, the bricklayers, the electricians who formed his power base on the Far Southwest Side and the southwest suburbs.

Savvy professionals learned how to work the system to get their children into first-tier schools, Kass writes. Low-income, minority students go to second-tier schools where tests scores are low and drop-out rates are high.

Neighborhood activists support the system because they can use local school councils to create “mini-fiefdoms” with “budgets to manage and principals to appoint.”  The public school bureaucracy remains “a patronage base for City Hall and Democratic pols in Springfield, particularly the black legislative caucus.”

So it works great, except for the no-clout kids who are stuck in lousy schools.

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  1. Inigo Montoya says:

    Welcome back, Joanne.

    I’d urge you to consider that the only unusual thing about the Chicago story is the (eventual) transparency of it all.

    This is the story of American schooling almost everywhere, district by district, school by school, classroom by classroom. The kids whose families have resources (money, connections, whatever) work the system to the advantage of their children. Magnet schools, charter schools, specialty schools, tracks within high schools, enrichment programs, and on and on.

    Every indicator shows it: teacher quality, teacher absenteeism, quality of materials, technology, facilities, access to curriculum. Money doesn’t solve it, and there are exceptions of course, but the patterns have always been strong and remain strong.

    Sure, Chicago is a mess, but every state and district ought to take a good look in the mirror.

  2. Oh my God! Politically influential people getting preferential treatment from an organization that’s part of the political process? Say it’s not so!

  3. The kids whose families have resources (money, connections, whatever)

    The ‘whatever’ is parental invovlement and it’s far more prevalent and far outweighs the other factors.

  4. Inigo Montoya says:

    The ‘whatever’ is parental involvement and it’s far more prevalent and far outweighs the other factors.

    Maybe. I do it too for my own kids. Makes sense that schools are more responsive to activist parents.

    But it still doesn’t justify their/my kids getting access to better a education than kids whose parents are not involved.

    If we’re trying to build schools and school systems that build up our society and economy, the “individual parent involvement –> greater individual child opportunity” link serves us pretty badly. It just reinforces existing inequalities and wastes the lives of too many kids in Chicago and everywhere else.

  5. the “individual parent involvement –> greater individual child opportunity” link serves us pretty badly.

    I think you’ve got things assbackwards. The problem is lack of parental involvement. Turn off the excuse machine.


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