kitchen table math, the sequel: but some are more equal than others

Thursday, March 25, 2010

but some are more equal than others

Taken almost in entirety from Richard Fernandez at the Belmont Club: though I left out one part of the murkiest side of this story.

The Washington Post says the discovery of a special list through which the Chicago elite might have gotten their kids into good schools shows how a system can be gamed to provide one kind of service for the haves and and another for the have-nots. “Public” systems run on guidelines and not all of them are published. Chicago faced a resource allocation problem. According to the WaPo most Chicago schools “face huge academic challenges” which meant that many parents didn’t want their kids in ordinary schools. They were “dissatisfied with neighborhood schools” and so need to “jockey for a limited number of slots in well-regarded magnet schools, out-of-boundary schools or selective public schools that base admissions on criteria such as grades and test scores.” But the VIPs couldn’t really be expected to line up. One solution: a front door and a backdoor. That’s why Duncan’s list was secret, referring to a special list maintained by current Secretary of Education who then ran the Chicago school system. It contained a list of connected parents and special schools. Some school officials they denied there was any correlation between these two columns whatsoever. If there was a backdoor the rear entrance had no visible signs.

“We didn’t want to advertise what we were doing because we didn’t want a bunch of people calling,” CPS official David Pickens admitted to Tribune reporters Azam Ahmed and Stephanie Banchero, who broke the story.

But those who could read the secret writing could find it. John Kass of the Chicago Tribune described the special glasses needed to understand the way things really work in the Windy City. He says the Daley dynasty designed it some things to be hard to see, unless you had the spectacles. “Today, I’m not going to rip on Daley. Instead, let’s focus on his brilliance, in creating Chicago’s two-tiered public school system. It bound the professional class to him and maintained him in power.” His Honor figured that the way to keep the professional class on his side was to corrupt some of them. So he built a two tier system, like a building with an executive washroom and a sewer. Those who wanted to use the executive washroom needed to find it. Most of all, they needed a key. Those who didn’t play could join the crowd or they could slip into their own environment where everyone was comfortable with everyone else amid the freshly changed linen and scented soaps. Kass explains:

The mayor knows how it works. He etched it into Chicago’s civic infrastructure years … 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.

Members of the professional class wanted city life. But they wanted their children educated. They became clients of Daley’s first tier. …

… education in the second tier remains abysmal. High school dropout rates are still around 50 percent, yet much higher when magnet schools are exempted. But even as tens of thousands of kids drop out to become calcified in the permanent underclass, the second tier still supports the mayor.

It’s not just about education. It is about jobs and patronage. Top teachers either fled or were lured to the top schools. But middle-rung teachers and below are the backbone of the teachers union.

The neighborhoods were rewarded with local school councils to elect, and budgets to manage and principals to appoint. By allowing the locals to run their mini-fiefdoms, Daley bound neighborhood activists to the system.

They were no longer beefers outside City Hall. They’d bought in.

Daly discovered the great rule of demagoguery. Convince those who’ve never eaten pâté de foie gras that the swill they are eating is it. Serve the real pate to those who already know what it tastes like. It was a system that would have been instantly familiar to former Soviets. World class academies for the nomenklatura, shacks on the banks of the Volga for those on the outs. Mayor Daley has indignantly denied the special list was used for playing favorites. He argued that just because there was a VIP entrance doesn’t mean anyone actually used it. The Chicago Sun Times reported that “Daley said there was nothing wrong with former Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan’s office maintaining such a log because ‘no favoritism’ resulted from it.” One official, Office of Compliance Chief Anthony Boswell, whose children qualified for a magnet school after moving in from Denver said that while it made him look bad, he didn’t actually know if he received preferential treatment.

Boswell’s children ended up on the waiting list for Mark Sheridan Elementary Math and Science Academy, a South Side magnet school where admissions are based on a lottery, but were subsequently admitted in time for the 2008-09 school year. Those admissions have also drawn the attention of the school system’s inspector general.

“Tony has no knowledge of anybody inside city government, outside city government or from the moon calling to get his kids in to Sheridan school,” Boswell attorney Jamie Wareham said. “He can’t say it didn’t happen. But he didn’t ask for it, and he wasn’t aware of it.”

The Chicago school saga is fascinating for the penumbra which it throws over the possible management of Obamacare, whose architects hail from the same city as Daley Education. What if like Chicago, there were a fist of cold steel and rotting flesh beneath the velvet glove? Who could ever prove it? Daley has already denied that the VIP list was ever used by VIPs. Nobody ever called nobody about nothing.

Daley didn’t exactly force parents at swordpoint to bend their knees and kiss his regal garments. His genius here is more coercive, not the force of the warrior, but the subtle work of the arborist. They eagerly graft their branches to his trunk.

The first-tier kids go on to top colleges, the parents sing Daley’s praises. The second-tier workers are rooted firmly in the status quo. And the tree blooms and bears fruit, mayoral election after mayoral election.

It’s pâté de foie gras and if you don’t know it, what’s the diference. Is everybody happy? A permanent majority. All hail the future


Catherine Johnson said...

Are "recent comments" gone for you guys?

Niels Henrik Abel said...

Business as usual for Chicago pols. The real surprise is that anyone is surprised at the way the Chicago machine works.

Catherine Johnson said...


tax credits


money for homeschooling

Anonymous said...

What most middle class parents in Chicago are seeking when they have their children apply for the magnet and selective schools is classmates that are not two grade levels or more behind. If the teachers are also good, all the better. But many would choose humdrum teachers, in a grade-level or better classroom, over high octane teachers trying to teach to a large number of children with serious remediation needs in the same room as children already on grade level.

TerriW said...

Catherine: re: "money for homeschooling" -- you are going to find that many homeschoolers do not want money.

Reason? Government money has strings attached. We (and by this "we," I mean my family) are opting out of gov't schools because we think gov't schools have made bad choices in curricula and pedagogy.

What's going to be the cost of that gov't money? That you can only use certain curricula on an approved list? Or that the publishers must be secular**? Home visits? Submit your educational plan to the local district for approval? Frankly, I'd rather have the freedom to make our own educational choices. (I guess I chafe a little at the idea of being advised by or having to give account to folks who I think have just terrible, terrible educational ideas.)

** This is actually an issue in, I think, California -- and can cause problems for even secular homeschoolers. Let's face it -- Evangelicals and the like were the pioneers of modern homeschooling and the majority of mature resources are geared towards them. Many of their materials can easily be adapted for secular use. We do it every day and it is, truly, no big deal.

TerriW said...

Catherine: "recent" comments has been going in and out for me.

Catherine Johnson said...

I can certainly imagine that - BUT absence of money doesn't give you any freedom, either. In NY you have to submit all kinds of stuff and pay your way.

My sister had her daughter in 'public home schooling' in CA (it's not called homeschooling; it's a home tutoring option that was probably invented for working or sick kids - ?)

I think her daughter checked in with a bricks-and-mortar school maybe once a week & then was self-taught at home. There may have been a teacher who visited their house.

My sister picked all the curricula & the state paid! No restrictions at all.

(She didn't want to homeschool & was only doing what she was doing because their public schools were impossible.)

TerriW said...

Yeah, the states control homeschooling requirements currently, so ... well, some states have it better than others. Here in MN, it isn't too onerous (especially if you, the teacher, have a 4 year degree), but I do occasionally miss Texas' hands-off policy.

I'm surprised that your sister had no problems having the state pay for materials -- well, unless all of her materials were secular, or published by secular companies. (I have heard stories of people having trouble having even secular resources from companies with obviously non-secular names being reimbursed.)