Last year, I met an eighth-grader from Lake View who was applying to Northside College Prep and Walter Payton.
“What if you don’t get in?” I asked him. “What if you end up having to go to Lake View High?”
“Oh, man, I would never go to Lake View High,” he said. “We’d move to the suburbs before I went to Lake View High.”
His family was Jewish. Catholic school was not an option. And that's the mindset among families in Chicago when it comes to schools. The college prep schools keep well-to-do families in Chicago. You get in, or you go away.
So why is anyone surprised that Arne Duncan, Mayor Daley’s handpicked schools chief, kept a clout list of aldermen, Board of Ed members and other big wheels who wanted to get their kids into one of the city’s coveted college preps?
Twenty years ago, Education Secretary William Bennett called Chicago’s schools the “worst in the nation.” Chicago still has some of the worst schools in the nation. But now, it has some of the best, too.
Chicago’s public high schools are a vastly unequal, two-tier system -- made even more unequal by the fact that magnet schools pull the smartest kids out of neighborhood high schools. We have Whitney Young. But we also have Fenger.
Making sure that well-to-do, well-connected parents aren't forced to Fenger-ize has been an important part of the city’s revival under Mayor Daley. It’s said that Lake View used to be full of strollers. Now, it’s full of bicycles, because parents are no long fleeing to Northbrook once their children turn five.
Of course, now that the list is public, Daley will have to quash the practice. Otherwise, every parent whose brilliant son or daughter is denied entry to Whitney Young will assume the spot was taken by an alderman’s kid.
That will destroy confidence in the magnet school system and reinforce parents’ worst suspicions about life in Chicago -- making Northbrook look even more attractive.