Any Chicago parent who watches a son or daughter compete for a spot in one of the city’s few elite public high schools knows how stressful and challenging it can be.
In some neighborhoods, it’s also a long shot.
In low-income Englewood, for example, where students struggle on admissions tests, only 6 percent attend a selective enrollment high school.
In affluent North Center, where scores are higher, it’s 54 percent.
CPS tries to level the playing field in disadvantaged neighborhoods like Englewood by admitting students with lower test scores, but that inadvertently led to a scam the inspector general revealed recently in his annual report:
A North Center family got their teen into a selective enrollment high school by lying — claiming, ironically, to live in Englewood — and that’s only one of at least a dozen cases the IG documented of students from the suburbs or affluent neighborhoods fudging addresses to literally steal a seat from a low-income kid.
It’s not only galling, it may be just the tip of the iceberg, considering the IG’s limitations: Only 18 staff members to watch a system with more than 400 schools, 400,000 students and a $5.7 billion budget.
By comparison, Cook County government, with a budget of $3.5 billion, has 20 staffers in its IG office.
Even with his constraints, Inspector General Nick Schuler was instrumental in developing the corruption case against former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and he’s uncovered other misconduct.
So it’s disappointing CPS leadership hasn’t always responded aggressively enough to the problems he’s identified, allowing some to linger for years without taking action.
A recent example: A Better Government Association investigation of stolen CTA bus cards that CPS purchases and distributes to low-income students. It’s a problem that comes up year after year in inspector general reports, only to be met with yawns.
Official response to the IG’s evidence of selective enrollment fraud has also been lackluster: CPS does a poor job of collecting back tuition from suburban families that use fictitious Chicago addresses, and many of the students are allowed to stay in the school even after they’re exposed; or if they’re expelled, they can re-enroll later.
Schuler concludes the absence of clear, tough consequences for lying and cheating favors the wrong students.
He says CPS officials and principals seem more sensitive to children whose parents lied than the “truly deserving Chicago students who were deprived of the enrollment slots they merited.”
Some critics suggest that CPS do away with elite schools because they skim the cream from neighborhood schools, but good students deserve academic options that stimulate and motivate them, so it makes more sense to systematically and proactively fight fraud.
That means tracking changes in student addresses more effectively, requiring additional proof of residency, and expelling cheaters from selective enrollment schools after billing their parents for back tuition.
Expulsion is harsh, but it’s an important lesson and a valuable deterrent.
This is about fairness. Students from affluent neighborhoods are more likely to get into selective enrollment schools because they’re better prepared and test higher, and even if they don’t get in their parents often have the option of a private or parochial school.
Top students from low-income neighborhoods have fewer options, so a loss of even one seat in a selective enrollment school to a cheater is one too many.
Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.
Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: @andyshawbga