As a parent with children in the Chicago Public School (CPS) system, I have to admit I wasn’t surprised to learn CPS CEO Ron Huberman had launched an investigation into the use of ‘clout’ to get children of the wealthy and well connected into the system’s elite magnet elementary and selective enrollment high schools.

This comes on the heels of the unfolding scandal in the University of Illinois system with the use of ‘clout’ by University trustees, powerful alumni, donors and elected officials to get favored students into the university undergraduate and graduate programs and law school.

Since 2005 over 800 applicants were admitted to the university who didn’t qualify. As a group they had lower ACT scores and ranked lower in their high school classes than the average student admitted.

University Chancellor Richard Herman recently testified before the commission chaired by former Congressman Abner Mikva investing the scandal that the “clout” lists have existed for decades, meaning this is a way of life for the wealthy and well connected. It begs the question – what’s so different about what happens in CPS and the state university system and the so called ‘legacy’ admissions for the nation’s wealthiest families at the elite private universities?

It goes without saying that whenever you have wealth and influence on the one hand and scarcity of anything on the other, you will have corruption to gain an advantage. Money and influence have corrupted and disfigured every public and private institution and are a part of the inequalities generated by the capitalist profit driven system.

One of the things that has galled the public is that families from working-class and people of color communities are finding it harder and harder to send their children to college because of the economic crisis and skyrocketing tuition. The University system has seen an overall decline in the enrollment of African American and Latino students and in graduate and law schools. Meanwhile the wealthy get the breaks.

In essence we’re dealing with affirmative action for wealthy and well connected white families. Which is exactly why we need genuine affirmative action, to overcome institutional racism and the legacy of discrimination, to regulate and eliminate racial and gender and class bias and ‘clout’ in access to higher education, hiring or promotion.

As long as there is institutional racism and the boards of trustees of the university system are composed of the wealthy and well connected, we will need affirmative action to guarantee working- class, African American, Latino and other people of color, and women access to higher education.

When I took my son for a visit to North Side Preparatory High School in Chicago, one of the schools where “clout” has been most heavily used, I couldn’t help but think what would it be like if every child had access to an education like this. The school was sparkling new, they seemingly had all the resources needed along with a highly trained and committed staff.

Instead, you have thousands of kids trying to get into a few hundred slots citywide. Children and families go through high anxiety and hold their breath hoping to get in. In the end you have a few kids who win and the rest are, well…losers.

The only way to eliminate winners and losers and “clout” is to level the playing field. Although the existence of magnet and special enrollment schools has been justified as a way to overcome racial segregation, the very idea of “elite” magnet schools and ‘selective’ enrollment’ schools creates a two tier educational system and invites corruption. It’s well known the development of these schools fits the growth of gentrification in Chicago.

Statewide, the funding inequity between school systems is vast and growing. Some school systems like the wealthy community of Wilmette, spend $18,000 per student and others like the CPS are able to spend only $7,000. If school funding is equalized, then every school could be like North Side Prep or New Trier High School.

Another solution is open admissions in the university system. Any student who graduates from a high school in the state and meets minimum academic standards should be admitted into the state university system.

Of course being admitted and being able to attend is another problem, both because of tuition cost and capacity. Creating a progressive tax system, taxing the rich and greater federal subsidies for education at all levels could reduce and even eliminate inequalities and the need for tuition.

Education is a right and ought to be free and equal for all.


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.