Battling Corruption in America's Public Schools
reviewed by Art McCoy - 2004
Corruption has been publicized in the domains of politics, business, and the family. America's churches have even experienced increasing coverage in this regard. Paralleling the clergy, public education has been commonly viewed as one of the noblest professions in society. Since the efficiency experts in the early 20th century and the Progressive education movement in the mid 20th century, books solely devoted to systemic corruption, abuses, and waste in the American public school system have been sparse. On the whole, media coverage on corruption has been sporadic and on a local level. Consequently, many might find it difficult to accept that there is persuasive systemic corruption and fraud throughout the entire American public school system.
From Thomas Jefferson, to Alexis De Tocqueville, to John Dewey, to William H. Kilpatrick, among others, America's public education system has been acknowledged as a fundamental institution of this nation. Public schooling ensures a prosperous country and great democracy. Millions of people entrust their children and money to the public education system. The 33rd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll (2001) of public attitudes toward public schools found a majority of respondents assigned either an A or a B to the schools in their communities, 62% for public school parents, and 68% when these same parents were asked to grade the school of their oldest child. The Phi Delta Kappa Ninth Bracey Reports (1999), among others, view public schools to be increasingly safe and not prone to corruption. Omitting nearly all of these positive points in Battling Corruption in America's Public Schools, Professor Lydia G. Segal's title alone presupposes that there is systemic corruption in America's public schools as a whole.
Except for the alarmist title of the book, Professor Segal is careful in leveling assertions of corruption at all public schools. Battling Corruption in America's Public Schools is a modern benchmark on battles of corruption in America's three largest public school districts--in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, respectively. Overtones of Segal's Harvard Law education and investigative criminology experience ring loud and clear in her work. As a result, this book is reader-friendly, well-written, substantial regarding corruption in the three urban school districts, and documented in a manner of an attorney making a strong case.
Battling Corruption in America's Public Schools is organized into five parts totaling nineteen chapters, with each chapter being less than fifteen pages. On the first page of each chapter, the paragraphs are over spaced to increase whitespace and readability. There are many helpful subtopics throughout the chapters and great notes for each chapter at the end of the book. Each part of this book is so well-structured that a diligent reader can easily read it entirely in one sitting or read any of the five parts separately as an essay in its own right. Together, these attributes foster great reader-friendliness.
Metaphorically, Segal writes this book using a physician's methodology consisting of pathology, diagnosis, and prescription to create each part and a comprehensive case regarding the pathos or suffering of America's public schools. To this end, Part I is entitled "The Pathology: Laying The Record Bare"; Part II, "The Remedies Tried: The Frenzied Search for Accountability"; Part III, "The Diagnosis: Getting to the Root Causes"; Part IV, "The Wrong Medication: How Not To Fix the Problem"; Part V, "The Prescription: How to Fix the Problem." In conjunction with using a physician's methodology, Segal uses medical terminology, as well as terms from sociology, economics, and criminology throughout the book. Take for instance a passage in Part I where Segal describes a motive for corruption, waste, and abuse:
People who engage in school corruption appear to fall into two categories: those who are out to milk the district and those who commit fraud in order to get their jobs done better . . . . The presence of employees out to swindle their district indicates a deep pathology akin to a disease like cancer, where the patient's own cells attack him. The presence of employees who break rules to get their jobs done connotes a less serious condition akin to, say, boils, where the body is actually trying to protect itself by eliminating toxins through the skin. Something is wrong in both cases. But the response in the second betrays a healthier organism (p. 14).
Considering its style and substance, the passage above reflects some of the best-written lines in this book. In Part III, Segal gives the diagnosis of the problem by giving three root causes for corruption in schools:
Sociologists, economists, white-collar crime scholars, and organization theorists have offered a broad array of theories to explain the existence of systemic deviance in organizations. The theories generally focus on one of three levels of explanation:  the individual and how character traits and choices affect his or her likelihood to offend;  the organization's external environment and how factors such as community values and industry norms influence crime commission; or  the situational factors within the organization and how structural opportunities and incentives may induce misbehavior (p. 63).
In the passage above, Segal is recognizing the psychological, sociopolitical, and organizational systems contexts of corruption in society, respectively. The use of all three explanations of corruption constructs a long but ideal book on this topic.
Regarding explanation 1, Segal writes (on p. 206) within her 767 notes of documentation, "I do not address microlevel theories about individual psychological traits and propensities toward corruption because I do not have enough data to draw conclusions about them." Regarding explanation 2, Segal writes, within the text, that traditions and local mores uniquely and significantly shape each region in the United States; yet, she excludes detailing much of this context. On one hand, she acknowledges that "societal cultural norms are dynamically interrelated with organizational structure because the values of the larger community affect expectations" in the workplace (p. 64). On the other hand, she argues that sociopolitical contexts of organizations offer an incomplete explanation of school corruption in her opinion (p. 64). Exclusively using explanation 3, Segal focuses on the microeconomic and organizational systems explanations for corruption in public schools (p. 64-65).
From this point onward, the style of the book is still superb; but, its substance is lacking in three ways. First, Segal is purposely missing a historical and sociopolitical context that is mostly apart from schools (proposed by scholars in explanation 2 above). Second, she generalizes solutions for America's public schools from the analysis of three extreme school districts. Third, she poses no implications if nothing further is done to fight this battle against corruption, she does not advise whether this battle can even be won totally, and she does not thoroughly cover the most recent changes and implications in America's three largest school districts since 1997 onward.
Regarding the first point--lacking both historical and sociopolitical non-education contexts-- Segal departs from a physician’s methodology by neglecting the thorough analysis of accessible background information for each patient before diagnosing and prescribing. At a minimum, without considering the psyche of each person (as suggested in explanation 1 above), the patients in this book are each of the communities served by the three school districts Segal uses to document her research--New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. At most, the patient is the American public at large since Segal places a prescription upon all of America's public schools.
American public schools are fashioned by historical and sociopolitical contexts. Within her 767 notes or even the text, Segal could have detailed some historical and sociopolitical contexts in a few paragraphs to help qualify her arguments about public education. Politics, business, the family, and religion provide a healthy sociopolitical context for corruption with broad implications in education:.
In politics, there are significant societal acts of corruption relevant to this book: New York Mayor Jimmy Walker (1920s), Watergate (1970s), and the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal (1990s). In business, instances of corruption with broad social and education implications include the following: the Teapot Dome (1920s), the savings and loan scandals (1980s), the junk bond trading house Drexel Burnham Lambert (1980s), the Enron scandal (exposed in 2001), the WorldCom bankruptcy (2002), and Arthur Anderson scandal (exposed in 2002)--as a result of the illegal prophetic fulfillment of its motto, "helping in ways never imagined." Segal even cites research from the L.A. school district audit by Arthur Anderson, reported by Doug Smith from the Los Angeles Times.
The family has been the scene of countless corrupt, fraudulent, and wasteful acts. Such corruption within many families includes, but is not limited to, physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, and substance abuse. Instances of corruption in religious institutions are innumerable. Despite anticorruption mechanisms and stances of this vocation, corruption is just as pervasive, concealed, and quintessential to religion as oxygen is to humans. To this end, there are at least three corrupt acts in churches that come to mind that are similar to Segal's stories of corruption in education: the Jim Jones cult (1970s), the Jimmy Baker financial scam (1980s), and the Catholic Church priest child molestation crimes (most publicized in the 2000s).
Overall, rich documentation is available on any or all of this contextual information regarding corruption in these four institutions. Segal could have used this information to detail a persuasive pretext for general claims of systematic corruption in the public institution of education, which is isomorphic to the broader society.
Secondly, Segal diagnoses and prescribes a generic medication to all of America's public schools based on generalizations from her research and fieldwork in three extreme school districts--New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago Public School Systems. Of the nearly 15,000 school districts in America, these three school districts are outliers in many ways. The distinctive characteristics of these districts are their size, urban geography, and heterogeneous elements (ethnically, needs-based, resources, positions, values and traditions, philosophies, etc.):
· New York City School District (NYCSD) is the largest district in the country with 1.1 million students, a $13-billion budget, 140,000 employees, and over 1,200 schools;
· Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) is the 2nd largest district in the country with 750,000 students, a $7-billion budget, 80,000 employees, and 900 schools;
· Chicago Public School District (CPS) is the 3rd largest district in the country with 500,000 students, a $3.5-billion budget, 45,000 employees, and 600 schools (p. 5).
Reflecting on NYCSD's uniqueness alone based on Segal's research, many states in America and some small countries in the world have a lesser budget. NYCSD is the second-largest food provider in the country delivering 850,000 meals per day in a school year and 300,000 per day during the summer. Custodial workers having the potential to earn legally over $100,000, which is more money than some physicians, lawyers, and many educators make. NYCSD has the largest bus transportation contract in the nation. Nonetheless, it is from her research and experience in NYCSD, as well as, LAUSD and CPS that Segal broadly diagnoses problems--such as ineffective oversight, information overload, inaccurate information, and inherent opaqueness--and prescribes solutions for all public schools in America.
This book offers several practical solutions, most of which are familiar to education scholars and officials. In Part V, Segal prescribes the following ideas "to fix the problem of corruption" in public school systems:
1. Education officials should establish independent inspectors general positions to work in needed districts for internal audits, investigations, subpoenas, testimonies, program evaluation, outcomes assessment, and risk management (p. 162).
2. Individuals should use media publicity to increase the awareness of corruption (p. 160).
3. Top management should remove as much of the dominant coalition as possible (p. 165).
4. Top management should eliminate as many abusive work rules as possible and move to a more performance-based accountability system (pp. 165-174).
5. Education officials should increase privatization of jobs within school districts (p. 168).
6. Education officials should restructure the school district to place power (downward) into the hands of those in the proper positions, particularly the school principal (pp. 170-176).
7. Ultimately, American public schools should model Canada's Edmonton Public School system, using the M-Form structure as opposed to the U-Form structure (the title of chapter 18, "The Edmonton Model," pp.176-186).
8. The title of the last chapter expresses it best; individuals ought to "Loosen the Controls and Trust."
Finally, the defects of Segal's physician analogy is that after diagnosing this patient with a cancerous and boil-like corruption, she does not fully detail the implications--on students, employees, parents, teaching and learning, and student achievement--of not treating these illnesses. She fails to address the probability of totally ridding the illnesses plaguing the patient. As a law scholar, Segal seems to know that law does not equal order. She might know that law and obligatory prescriptions rarely if ever fully render what is usually desired, which is order. Segal cites Robert Klitgaard's position of allowing for an "optimal level of corruption" (p. 75), which sees sacrifice as a substantive stint forever present within society. With this element added, many scholars might concur that the equation for battling corruption is more complete. In the words of Roberto Calasso (1994), "[o]rder is law plus sacrifice."
Some individuals may pose tolerating certain amounts of abuse, waste, and even fraud as a sacrifice for order in schools. Professor Segal, among others, however, proposes placing the power with the school principal and other people within the schools who have their pupils' best interest in mind. Despite the chilling effect of Segal's content, many principals, among others, may thank her for this apology and even refer to her work to better schools for the sake of increasing student achievement, which Segal lightly addresses.
Calasso, R. (1994). The ruin of Kasch. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Bracey, G. (1999, October). The ninth Bracey report on the condition of public education. Phi Delta Kappan, 147-168.
Rose, L. C., & Gallup, A. M. (2001, October). The 33rd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 41-58.