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Education Wed Mar 24 2010

Big Bill Thompson, Clout Lists, and Local Control

Arne Duncan is a disaster. His model for school improvement (e.g., "privatize it") is a failure, as even former staunch supporters of charter-focused reform like Diane Ravitch are realizing:

If this plan is enacted as proposed, it will eventually become just as toxic as NCLB. Only we won't know it for another five years or so after the evidence of devastated schools and communities has accumulated.

It's not too late, Secretary Duncan, turn back and offer a helping hand, not a death sentence. Send help, not a firing squad.

Now a story is gurgling in the local press about former Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan's involvement in clouting kids into better schools. Duncan hasn't responded to the report, as I could find, but the evidence is fairly damning that Duncan exploited the discretionary powers of magnet and selective-enrollment school principals to admit kids outside of the usual channels. (Consider this psychic fuel in our on-going quest to have Arne Duncan justify his existence).

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.

Non-connected parents, such as those who sought spots for their special-needs child or who were new to the city, also appear on the log. But the politically connected make up about three-quarters of those making requests in the documents obtained by the Tribune.

This is nothing new. But it is one of the things that democratic control of schools by local school councils (LSCs) was meant to monitor and rectify. The specter of patronage in the school system has become more ominous as privatization has wrecked this democratic oversight and and created regional charters that suck funds from existing public schools. Charters of course cannot be governed by local school councils, and with little public oversight and no contract regulating the workplace, operate with little regulatory scrutiny.

With no civil service style workplace regulations and no democratic oversight, you can bet that a school district infected with fly-by-night charter schools will operate according to the political as much as the economic market. Charters dependent for their very existence on the political will of state legislators, the Mayor, and City Council, will be influenced by clout calls for admissions--and clout calls for professional positions.

The Board of Education is already a shockingly undemocratic body; not only is it essentially an arm of the Mayor's office given his power to appoint members and his iron-fisted control of the City Council, but literally none of the members are educators, so they don't reflect the District. The only thing mitigating this top-down control was the (nevertheless limited) local school councils. As they disappear, management falls out of professional control with public guidance into purely political control.

The ramifications of that can be serious. Consider when Mayor "Big" Bill Thompson, the last Republican Mayor of Chicago, consolidated control of the School Board and tried to chase out educators not in line with his quasi-nativist uber-patriotic "America First" platform.



Thompson's heavy handed actions against schools superintendent William McAndrew caused a national sensation and resulted in a major lawsuit against the school district and national shame for the city, all to enforce a political ideology in the schools. The civil service protections found in union contracts, and the institution of local, democratic control were created after long struggles to root out just these kinds of problems. The trend towards privatization is not progressive or visionary, but reactionary, seeking to undo reforms dearly won.

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alanmarks / March 24, 2010 4:28 PM

I don't agree in particular about Ravitch is just another "elite educator" her credentials and creditability are all based on "academic research" she has never taught a class in more than 40 years. We don't need anymore of her type and Duncan..well resignation is the best option for him.

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