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Federal Opinion

Of Secret Lists and Special Treatment

By Rick Hess — March 24, 2010 3 min read
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I am among those (including, apparently, Rep. David Obey) warning that failure to sensibly insulate Race to the Top (RTT) from political officials and pressure poses risks to the credibility and sustainability of the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s ed reform agenda.

Now, in a development ripe with irony, Chicago Breaking News has raised a ruckus in Chicago with its report that then-Superintendent Arne Duncan’s staff kept a list of politicians’ school requests. The report has raised concerns about political favoritism and lack of transparency.

Chicago Breaking News reports:

While many Chicago parents took formal routes to land their children in the best schools, the well-connected also sought help through a shadowy appeals system created in recent years under former schools chief Arne Duncan. 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."

The list only surfaced due to a federal probe and related internal investigation, as the district had not previously revealed the list’s existence. The keeper of the list was reportedly David Pickens, a top Duncan aide, and now chief of staff to the president of the Chicago Board of Ed.

Duncan has not said anything about the list. His spokesman, Peter Cunningham, would only assert, “We never pressured principals or told them what to do or said this person needs to be considered over this person.” He explained, “It’s just a way to manage the information.”

That claim would seem to contradict the report that the initials “AD” (which Pickens has identified as standing for Arne Duncan) are listed 10 times as the sole person requesting preferential admissions treatment and as a co-requester “about 40 times.” It was also reported that Duncan’s mother appears as a sponsor, as does “KD” (whom Pickens identified as Duncan’s wife Karen).

Pickens has acknowledged the list was kept confidential and that most unconnected parents never had a clue they could appeal to Duncan’s office for special treatment. His explanation? “We didn’t want to advertise what we were doing because we didn’t want a bunch of people calling.”

Let’s see. Assertions that questionable decisions are just sensible management. Declarations that, of course, Duncan and his team would never exert pressure or tell people what to do. Surprise that anyone might doubt these assurances. At least some plausible grounds for concern that scarce public resources were used to serve private political ends. The decision to limit transparency justified on the grounds of administrative convenience. These are precisely the concerns skeptics have flagged when it comes to RTT. And, as with this blow-up, the question isn’t necessarily whether anything improper was even done--it’s that public officials can take steps that aggravate or alleviate these kinds of concerns. Whether due to hubris, a hurried pace, or something else, Duncan and his team haven’t seemed to trouble themselves much on this score.

I’ve said it before. Duncan strikes me as a decent guy. And he’d hardly be the first superintendent to dole out some plum school slots in order to curry political favors. But a lack of attention to buffering public programs against temptations and worrisome appearances, a habit of playing it fast and loose with promises of transparency, and the tendency to assume that the larger world will cheerfully presume that his virtue is safeguard enough are not ways to allay concerns about immense, novel, and politically sensitive expenditures of borrowed funds.

Addressing these concerns will likely prove an increasingly sensitive challenge as RTT unspools, and will prove vastly greater still with the enormous variety of claimants and entities at play in i3. Maybe this flash from the (fairly recent) past will prod Duncan and his fellow Chicagoans at ED to start paying more attention to ensuring that promising early sparks of RTT and i3 don’t wind up looking more like the ashes of Reading First when 2014 rolls around.

UPDATE: An alert reader informs me that Duncan did mention the “school request” brouhaha while talking to some students yesterday. Slightly over 45 minutes into the session, he explained that he was being “responsive to everybody” and assured the audience that there had been “zero” special treatment. You can view the video here.

You know, it wasn’t all that long ago (less than two years, actually) that progressives argued for being skeptical of self-serving claims by Bush Administration officials and said we needed more transparency, straight talk, and humility-- fewer bland “nothing to see here” assurances-- from government officials. They were right. Wish someone would remind Duncan or P.R. honcho Peter Cunningham about that.

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