By Frank James

In most places, it helps to be connected. Chicago is certainly no exception. Indeed, it has a reputation as a place where skids and palms are routinely greased.

So when you learn that when Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama's Education Secretary, headed Chicago Public Schools his office kept a list of VIPs seeking special consideration for applicants to one of the city's most selective public schools, it isn't really all that surprising, is it? That's the way things are done in Chicago. It seems like vintage Chicago.

A Chicago Tribune story makes it sound as though Duncan had a legitimate reason for maintaining his list. He was trying to centralize the requests in order to insulate principals of the highly sought after schools from pressure from politicians and well-connected parents. Given Chicago's historic reputation for corruption, the circumstances surrounding this list certainly don't sound as bad as they could.

As the Tribune reports:

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.
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.
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. 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.
Pickens said the calls from his office were not directives to the principals -- no one was ever told they had to accept a student. Often, students did not get any of their top choices but were placed in larger, less competitive, but still desirable schools such as Lane Technical High School.
Duncan has remained mum on the list. "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. "It's just a way to manage the information."

If this were like the University of Illinois admissions scandal, where political clout clearly got less qualified candidates into the school Duncan, and by extension, Obama could potentially have a big problem on their hands.

But no one appears to be publicly levying such charges. Still, this bears watching to see if anything more comes of it.

categories: Education, Obama Administration

11:49 - March 23, 2010