Is “Principal Discretion” Legal?

August 6, 2009

What if the principal discretion provision isn't legal, no matter how closely it's followed?  Why even allow discretion when all the other considerations are

already lotteried -- siblings, race, etc. -- and the waiting lists are

already there, too?

It's not just a theoretical question.  These are public schools, and there's a clearly established procedure for getting into them that is supposed to be fair and equitable and, until recently, in compliance with integration goals. And yet, the current discretion policy doesn't even require principals to take kids off the lottery waiting lists or to limit discretionary picks to those that would further integration goals. 

Hell, the current language isn't even clear about whether the five percent applies to offers of admission, available spots, or actual enrollment, which creates a very loose situation when it comes to counting discretionary admits. 

The only real justification I can think of is the deeply seated notion that clout in Chicago -- like bribery in some other places -- simply can't be prevented. 

It can only be limited.

But that doesn't make it legal, and I'm surprised that the legal eagles at CPS didn't consider this before expanding the program, that the USDOJ didn't try and force the city to end it, or that a disgruntled parent hasn't challenged a provision that effectively reduces the number of available lottery spots in highly-coveted schools. 

Without a clear justification or obvious public good, giving principals five percent discretion is like

telling kids that they can cheat on tests five percent of the time, or

telling teachers that they can come to school drunk  five percent of

the time. It's a mulligan, a "get out of jail" card.