(This post was co-authored by Evelyn B. Stacey, education policy analyst for the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, California)

 “Rigged, murky and unfair” is how many Chicago parents describe the city’s public schooling application system, according to the Chicago Tribune. “Whispers have long swirled that some children get spots in the city’s premier schools based on whom their parents know…the well-connected also sought help through a shadowy appeals system created in recent years under former schools chief Arne Duncan.” While superintendent, U.S. Education Secretary Duncan instructed his aide David Pickens to keep a log of parents requesting special public-school placement. The Tribune explains,

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. … 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… [adding] 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.

Duncan was Superintendent from 2001 to 2008 (the longest serving superintendent to date), but instead of increasing access to high-quality schools for all Chicago residents, he contributed to an inequitable system. Secretary Duncan isn’t the only one creating firewalls between good schools and students.

More than 80 percent of Congress members and the president choose private schools for their own children, or choose elite public schools in expensive neighborhoods as Secretary Duncan did when he moved to D.C. Meanwhile, elected officials killed the successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program that helped less advantaged children escape the dysfunctional and dangerous D.C. Public Schools system and attend private schools.