Federal investigation targets Chicago Public Schools

Federal authorities have launched an investigation into the admissions practices at Chicago's selective enrollment schools, the Chicago Tribune has learned.

Federal officials recently served a grand jury subpoena on Chicago Public Schools seeking information about the admissions process, sources said. Chicago Board of Education President Michael Scott confirmed Saturday that the district recently received a federal subpoena, but declined to elaborate because of the investigation.

The federal investigation comes as Chicago school officials launched an internal probe of admissions practices at highly competitive selective enrollment schools after finding irregularities at some schools.

The district's law department noticed problems with the high school admissions process two months ago, school sources said. Last month, schools chief Ron Huberman announced the start of an internal probe of all 52 application-based elementary and high schools, citing an unspecified problem at one high school.

The announcement came a week after the Tribune began making inquiries into the admissions process. After the Tribune wrote about the federal probe Saturday, Mayor Richard Daley spoke out against any use of unfair influence in the admissions process, but said he has no idea if clout actually factored into enrollment decisions.

Daley said he is confident that Huberman is effectively investigating any problems. "No one should use money or clout or influence to get their child into any school," the mayor said at a news conference on an unrelated event on the South Side.

The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment.

The subpoena to the Chicago school system comes against a backdrop of a federal investigation into admission practices at Illinois universities.

Federal prosecutors subpoenaed three state universities, including the University of Illinois, seeking any evidence that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his power brokers gave applicants an unfair edge. The federal probe came after a Tribune investigation uncovered that U. of I. gave special treatment to applicants with powerful patrons such as lawmakers, donors and trustees.

Competition to get into the city's premier selective enrollment schools is fierce. Thousands of students apply for hundreds of openings at the schools considered the crown jewels of the city's public school system.

Entry into the magnet schools is supposed to be through randomized lottery. Admission to selective enrollment high schools and gifted elementary centers is supposedly based on merit.

The district has long allowed magnet school principals to handpick up to 5 percent of their students. Last year, they extended that right to principals at the nine selective enrollment high schools, even though some principals acknowledged they were already doing it. The principals can consider only extenuating circumstances such as a special talent or family crisis, not the applicants' political ties.

But whispers have long swirled that some students get spots in these top-flight schools not by chance or merit, but by whom their parents know or how much money they make.

The principal selection practice has generated much of the controversy, as many parents argue that unqualified applicants are getting in.

sbanchero@tribune.com

aahmed@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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