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Battling Corruption in America's Public Schools

reviewed by Paul L. Tractenberg - 2006

coverTitle: Battling Corruption in America's Public Schools
Author(s): Lydia G. Segal
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674017544, Pages: 257, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

We probably all would readily agree that corruption is bad and that corruption affecting the education of our children, especially our most needy and vulnerable children, is doubly bad.  The big question is what we can do about it that will improve the educational prospects of those children.  Unfortunately, we seem to live in a time when corruption is running rampant in all sectors of our society.  It is hardly limited to our urban public schools.  Indeed, the breathtaking scale of corporate corruption at Enron and its ilk may dwarf even the corruption Lydia Segal describes in her book, Battling Corruption in America’s Public Schools.

Professor Segal’s book has already been praised in some book reviews for its disclosure of corruption, waste, and mismanagement in the nation’s three largest school districts—New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago—and for its proposed solution of vesting greater operational responsibility at the individual school level.

Regarding the first of these two prongs, Professor Segal has an informed but specialized perspective.  After interning for Edward Stancik at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Rackets Bureau, Professor Segal followed Mr. Stancik to the New York City school district after Stancik became Special Commissioner for Investigations.  In the preface to her book, Professor Segal informs us that:

For three years, from 1991 through 1994, I led dozens of investigations as special counsel, interviewed many witnesses under oath, listened to numerous conversations secretly recorded by confidential informants, and contributed to developing the office’s policies on various legal issues, ranging from sting operations to protecting confidential informants. (p. xiii)

The inside information to which Professor Segal was privy, as well as her broader research into the details of corruption in mega-school districts, proves to be both a strength and a weakness of her book.  She tells many long, lurid stories of corruption, especially involving the New York City schools, often drawn from personal experience.  In the earlier chapters, these are interspersed with similar, if somewhat less detailed, stories from Los Angeles and Chicago and with more theoretical or academic references mostly from the public administration and criminal justice literatures.  In later chapters, though, Professor Segal’s book becomes primarily a series of prosecutor “war stories” from New York City, only loosely connected by promises that from knowledge of such abuses flow the solutions.

Professor Segal’s description of corruption, to which she devotes more than three-quarters of her book, suffers from several problems.  Her time line sometimes confuses the reader by jumping back and forth between relatively contemporary events and those occurring 15 or 20 years ago.  Indeed, in an effort to provide a broader historical perspective, Professor Segal even describes corrupt behavior dating back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sometimes involving municipal governments not school districts.  What that historical perspective discloses is that some degree of corruption seems to be a constant, despite numerous reform efforts including alternating systems of centralization and decentralization.  It may well be that Professor Segal’s proposal is the latest, but hardly the last, in the pendulum swings of corruption reform efforts, with decentralization offered as the antidote to the poison of centralization only to be followed, as it has been in New York City and Chicago, by extreme centralization in the form of mayoral control.  

A related source of confusion for the reader is the ambivalence that Professor Segal manifests about decentralization and centralization as structures for the control of corruption.  Although she winds up proposing a system that depends upon substantial decentralization of operating authority to the school level, some of her harshest criticisms are leveled at what she characterizes as the failed political decentralization of the New York City schools.  Although she decries the abuses of Tammany Hall style governance and expresses grave doubts about the wisdom of placing unrestrained authority in a single official, she has many good things to say about the “radically recentralized” (p. 194) plan under which Mayor Michael Bloomberg will single-handedly control the mammoth New York City school district.

A final problem with Professor Segal’s documentation of corruption is that she fails to place in a helpful context the corrupt behavior she describes in such great detail.  She provides her readers no estimate of how the level of corruption, waste, and mismanagement in the largest public school systems compares to the level in other school districts; charter schools; private schools, especially those receiving public funds via vouchers; other governmental agencies, local, state and federal; and the private sector.  She provides her readers with no estimate of how contemporary levels of corruption, waste, and mismanagement compare with levels in times past.

Of course, one might take the position that any corruption is too much, but Professor Segal does not.  She recognizes that, given human nature, corruption cannot be eliminated entirely.  Indeed, she seems intrigued by, even supportive of, Merten’s theory that a certain degree of corruption is desirable (p. 28).  And she finds that to be especially true when the “corruption” is by school administrators she characterizes as well-meaning because they have chosen to ignore “bureaucratic” rules that, in their view, impede rather than advance effective education.

Professor Segal’s single-minded focus on corruption in the largest urban public school districts has been lauded in some quarters as path-breaking, as essential to meaningful reform.  She has become something of a darling of conservatives, whose position long has been that corruption, waste, and mismanagement are the really consequential problems plaguing urban school districts, not unequal and inadequate funding levels.  In fact, that argument has been one of the main defenses of some states whose school funding systems were challenged in the courts for their failure to deal equitably and adequately with urban school districts.  Most courts have rejected that claim, and the New Jersey Supreme Court probably has done so most directly and resoundingly in Abbott v. Burke.

Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that support for Professor Segal’s book came from the Smith Richardson and John M. Olin Foundations, two major funders of conservative causes, or that Professor Segal spoke about “corruption in education” at the 2004 annual meeting of the New York Conservative Party Political Action conference, sharing the platform with some conservative luminaries.

I wonder whether, wittingly or unwittingly, Professor Segal’s book will do more harm than good for the urban schools she professes to care so deeply about.  For example, one reviewer read her book as detailing “how only a small percentage of the money allocated to students in our public schools actually gets used by them due to corruption and waste” (Review by Betsy Combier available at http://www.ideallives.com/)  I found no such assertion in Professor Segal’s book, but fear it will nonetheless play into the hands of those who seem determined to demean public schools.

This is a crucial time for public education, especially in the nation’s cities. School funding reform and educational adequacy litigation have experienced unprecedented success during the past 15 years, but judicially required reforms have been slow in coming and subject to attacks from many quarters.  These include an assortment of interests often grouped under the banner of “school choice”—those who claim that school choice for minority students in struggling urban schools is the next great civil rights frontier, those who want vouchers to support struggling Catholic schools or to respond to the “double taxation” complaints of middle- and upper income parents, those who ardently support charter schools (even those operated by private for-profit companies), those who believe “the market” and privatization are superior ways to deliver any product or service, and those who want to simultaneously reduce the size of government and the taxes necessary to support public programs.

As to Professor Segal’s second prong—solving the problems of corruption in the largest urban school districts, she recommends a tripartite approach:

The use of independent inspectors general;

Systematic efforts to change school and district culture by, among other things, reducing the role of unions and civil service protections, and privatizing various functions  or at least threatening to do so; and

Vesting greater responsibility and autonomy in individual schools and their principals within a policy structure created at the state or district level.

Professor Segal provides a conceptual connection among these three reform proposals, but she fails to make clear whether or not she considers all three absolutely necessary for reform.  Indeed, although she suggests a few “best practices” exemplars for each of her three recommendations, she identifies no school district where all are in place.

As with virtually all reform proposals, the devil lurks in the details, and that is very much true of Professor Segal’s.  Taking her proposals one by one, the strong recommendation for an “independent inspector general” seems, at first blush, unexceptionable.   Obviously, Professor Segal’s substantial experience working in such an office has convinced her of its value.  Even for those of us who have not had the benefit of her experience, how could we cavil about assigning oversight responsibilities to an independent entity to ensure that large school districts are honestly and efficiently administered?  

Alas, though, the details do intrude on that facile reaction.  For example, what does it mean for an inspector general to be “independent?”  Clearly, there are limits to an inspector general’s independence.  Someone must appoint, fund, and oversee the work of an “independent inspector general.”    If that oversight entity is the district’s board of education, as Professor Segal suggests is the case in Los Angeles, how effective is the “independent inspector general” likely to be at policing district-level corruption, waste, or mismanagement?  Suppose, though, the oversight entity is the city’s mayor, as it is in New York City?  Given Professor Segal’s recitation of the history of mayoral corruption in New York City and Chicago, such oversight hardly seems a guarantee of meaningful independence, or, for that matter, competence of an inspector general.  

Under the best of circumstances, a truly independent and competent inspector general could play a positive role.  But, come to think of it, under the best of circumstances with honest and competent district administrators carrying out their responsibilities, presumably there would be little or no need for an independent inspector general.  Of course, Professor Segal suggests that cannot happen because the top-down systems in large urban school districts don’t permit well-meaning administrators to do their jobs effectively, and that is why she also recommends changes in the culture and operational structure of large urban school districts.

Professor Segal’s proposals for climate change seem clearly her most ideological.  Reducing the role of unions and of civil service protections while increasing privatization, could have come out of Karl Rove’s playbook.  In effect, what Professor Segal contemplates is a kind of deregulation of urban public schools.  In a broader sense, her recommendation would roll back progressive ideology that favored strong unions as a counterweight to management power and civil service as protection against unfettered management discretion in hiring and firing.  Ironically, civil service protections, originally instituted as a bulwark against corrupt management, are in Professor Segal’s sights because she believes they contribute to a corrupt overly centralized system in large urban school districts.  At one point, in advocating heightened performance accountability, Professor Segal recommends that “reformers should strip managers and as many employees as possible of restrictive job protections such as civil service” (p. 173).

Professor Segal offers little or no evidence that these kinds of changes actually would alter the climate in large urban school districts for the better.  Presumably, you either accept it as an article of faith or you don’t.  Periodically, Professor Segal makes her beliefs clear.  For example, speaking of central office reform, she advocates instilling “a culture of helpfulness and service, much as the private sector instills in its employees” (p. 174).

The final element in Professor Segal’s reform plan, with an independent inspector general providing stewardship over a more management-oriented climate, is to vest far more day-to-day discretion and responsibility in schools and their principals.  Of course, this would be subject to an ongoing central role in the form of district or even state policies and inspector general oversight.  Professor Segal prefers school-based management because, in her view, far less corruption, of a malignant rather than benign sort, occurs there.  Presumably, this is because principals care more about the educational performance of their schools and behave accordingly.  

Professor Segal also might have supported her preference for school-based management by highlighting the enhanced opportunities it provides for parental and community involvement in their local schools. Others have, but she does not.  In fact, she is dismissive of both “political” decentralization and community control, and of school-based management as it has been practiced because, in her view, empowering parents, students, community representatives, and teachers, rather than principals, thwarts meaningful accountability.

As with her climate change proposal, Professor Segal doesn’t muster much persuasive evidence in support of her particular school-based management proposal.  Occasionally, she invokes charter schools as supporting her position; indeed, a key chapter in the “prescription” part of her book is entitled “Transforming Entire Districts into Charter School Districts” (p. 170).  However, that short chapter, despite its provocative title, never actually mentions charter schools or describes what a “charter school district” would look like or how it might be created.  Instead, the chapter focuses on the organizational theories of a micro-economist and his preference for “M-form organizations” over “U-form organizations.”

Ironically, Professor Segal does imbed in her next chapter, dealing with her main “best practices” model, a brief discussion of how M-form schools resemble charter schools and how the M-form concept is about turning the entire district into a “charterlike entity” (p. 178).  By that she means “every school in the district would become a charter school, and as many central office units as feasible would become semiautonomous, charterlike units” (p. 178).  Professor Segal’s only explanation of how such a radical transformation might occur is by reference to the Edmonton, Alberta, school district.

Since Professor Segal is basing so much of her proposal on charter, or “charterlike,” schools, it may be instructive to consider what we know about their performance.  With the possible exception of Edmonton, I’m unaware of any models for a charter district; nor presumably is Professor Segal.  She makes passing reference to school-based approaches in a few U.S. urban public school districts, especially Houston and Seattle, but she quickly concludes that they don’t provide “best practices” models either because their experience or their data compilation is too limited.  

As to the performance of individual charter schools, there’s not much systematic evidence about whether they’re more or less prone to corrupt behavior than other schools or school districts; and the jury is still out on the extent to which charter schools will improve the educational achievement of students.  The prevailing view, in both regards, seems to be that some charter schools have performed excellently, others disastrously, and most are in between (rather like the profile of mainstream public schools).  

So, finally, by the process of elimination, Professor Segal is left with one possible “best practices” model—the Edmonton, Alberta, school district; and it is the subject of her book’s penultimate chapter.  To her credit, she recognizes that there are sufficient differences between Edmonton and the United States’ largest urban school districts to raise questions about the relevance and usefulness of Edmonton’s experience.  Specifically, she acknowledges that Edmonton’s encouraging record “needs to be viewed through the lens of its culture and size” (p. 188).  Edmonton is a relatively new city without a history of “political machines, organized crime and municipal corruption” (p. 188).  It also is a city and school district whose demographics are far different than those of large U.S. cities and school districts.  It is overwhelmingly white and Christian, and its student population is between 70,000 and 80,000, enough to rank it as a good-sized, but hardly super-large, urban district.  By contrast, New York City has almost 1.1 million public school students, virtually 16 times as many as Edmonton.  Finally, the Canadian educational system is fundamentally different in important respects than the combined federal-state-local system under which large urban districts such as New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles function.

This goes a long way toward making the case that Edmonton isn’t a very apt “best practices” model at all.  Still, we may have something to learn from its experience.  Professor Segal is attracted by its record of transforming itself from a top-down system to a performance-based system “driven by quasi-market pressures and customer needs” (p. 178).  In general, we in the United States should be more open to informing ourselves about, and drawing on, the educational experiences of other countries, as we remain mindful of the dangers of uncritically embracing educational theories, programs, and practices from elsewhere on the assumption that they will work here.  

Professor Segal should be given credit for raising important questions about urban education in our country’s several largest districts.  Her book would have made a much more important contribution, however, if it had been more balanced and had taken a harder look at what we actually know and what we have yet to learn about the enormously complex job of improving education in our biggest cities.  Perhaps a greater focus on how individual schools, their principals, and “performance” as the primary accountability measures would reduce corruption and improve educational performance.  But we should have a solid basis for believing that before we jettison civil service and other job protections and replace them with corporate management and market ideology and theorizing.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 5, 2006, p. 912-918
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12140, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 5:15:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Paul Tractenberg
    Rutgers School of Law, Newark
    E-mail Author
    PAUL L. TRACTENBERG is the Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor and the Alfred C. Clapp Distinguished Public Service Professor of Law at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, where he has taught since 1970. His main academic and professional focus is education law and policy. In 1973, he established the Education Law Center, a public interest center that provides legal assistance and representation to students and their parents. Since 1980, ELC has represented more than 350,000 urban students as plaintiffs in Abbott v. Burke, New Jersey's landmark case that the New York Times has called the most important education decision since Brown v. Board of Education. In 2000, Professor Tractenberg established the Rutgers-Newark Institute on Education Law and Policy, an interdisciplinary research project that has tackled many of the cutting edge education law and policy issues in New Jersey and the nation. Over the years, Professor Tractenberg has consulted, spoken and written widely on virtually every major education law and policy issue.
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