The New York Times
By TAMAR LEWIN and MONICA DAVEY
Published: March 23, 2010
When Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, was chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools, his office kept a log of nearly 40 pages listing the local politicians and business people and others who sought help getting children into the city’s most selective public schools.
According to an article Tuesday in The Chicago Tribune, which first obtained and reported on the confidential log, those who sought such help included 25 aldermen, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office, the State House speaker, the state attorney general, the former White House social secretary and a former United States senator.
A spokesman for the Department of Education said Tuesday that the log was a record of those who asked for help, and that neither Mr. Duncan nor the aide who maintained the list, David Pickens, ever pressured principals to accept a child. Rather, he said, the creation of the list was an effort to reduce pressure on principals.
“Arne Duncan asked David Pickens to respond to all of these requests, some of which came from him, some from lots of other people, as a way to try to manage a process that was putting a lot of pressure on principals,” said Peter Cunningham, who handled communications for Mr. Duncan in Chicago and is now assistant secretary of the Department of Education. “This was an attempt to buffer principals from all the outside pressure, to get our arms around something that was burdensome to them. It was always up to the principal to make the decision. Arne never ever picked up the phone.”
Mr. Pickens was not available for comment Tuesday, said Monique Bond, a spokeswoman for the Chicago schools.
According to The Chicago Tribune, about three-quarters of those in the log had political connections. The log noted “AD” as the person requesting help for 10 students, and as a co-requester about 40 times, according to The Tribune. Mr. Duncan’s mother and wife also appeared to have requested help for students.
“The fact that his name might be next to some of these names doesn’t mean he was trying to get the kid in a school,” Mr. Cunningham said. “He was only asking after someone said, ‘Hi, Arne, is there any way to get into this school?’ ”
Mr. Cunningham said he did not believe principals would have felt any special pressure because Mr. Duncan was the source of the inquiry. “We were always very clear with them that it was up to the principal to make the decision,” he said.
Some of those reported to be on the list confirmed Mr. Cunningham’s assessment. Steve Brown, a spokesman for Representative Michael J. Madigan, the speaker of the State House and chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, acknowledged that Mr. Madigan had, indeed, “from time to time gotten requests from constituents and passed them along.”
From there, Mr. Brown said, it was entirely up to school officials. “They make the decision,” he said. “There’s absolutely nothing untoward.”
He said he was unaware of precisely how many such requests Mr. Madigan might have made, or whether the students had been let into the schools they wanted.
Among those on the list was former Senator Carol Moseley Braun. A spokesman for Ms. Braun said she had no comment.
Admission to top Chicago schools has long been a competitive and murky process, with longstanding rumors of abuse. Mr. Duncan created a formal appeals process in 2008, and when he left to join the Obama administration, his successor, Ron Huberman, created a system to stop the gaming of the system.
The existence of the list surfaced amid a federal investigation, according to The Tribune. A spokesman for the Department of Education said Tuesday that the investigation stemmed from a case involving a school principal after Mr. Duncan left.
In July, Mr. Huberman announced an internal investigation of the city’s 52 application-based elementary and high schools. The president of the Chicago school board, Michael Scott, who had been subpoenaed in the federal investigation, committed suicide in November.
Tamar Lewin reported from New York, and Monica Davey from Chicago. Sam Dillon contributed reporting from New York.