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EDUCATIONNEWS.ORGLydia Segal draws on her 10 years of undercover investigation and research in over five urban school districts, including the three largest, New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and the two most decentralized, Houston and Edmonton, Canada, to provide, in her new book Battling Corruption in America's Public Schools, the details of the corruption, theft, fraud, and patronage that has overrun our public school establishment for several decades. There is no question that anyone who is interested in school reform -this means anyone who pays taxes, is a parent or guardian of a child attending school and/or who works toward a goal of establishing an education system that puts children first - must read this book.
Ms. Segal's research and information on the education establishment's 'dark' side outrages the reader, and incites us to demand change. Her book therefore, is much more than a book, it is a call to action. We cannot be bystanders any longer to the systemic abuse she so vividly describes, and we will never be able to listen in the same way ever again to school Principals, Superintendents, school custodians or district board members as they request more money "to help the children." The book's detailed reports on the corruption and crime in our public schools, supported by 52 pages of interview notes, references and specific examples, provide irrefutable evidence that the current failures of our nation's public schools are not due to the lack of money but the impossibility of getting the money to the children who need it and for whom the money is allocated in the first place.
Recent statistics show that students of all ages are not learning what they need to know, schools are overcome with violence, teachers are demoralized, and yet billions of dollars are literally shovelled into the system every year. The New York City school system receives $13.3 billion every year; Los Angeles, $7 billion; and Chicago, $3.6 billion. Where does this money go? We have all asked this question as we have walked through school hallways dodging the paint falling off the walls and ceilings, watching our children sitting on broken chairs, using bathrooms without running water or toilet paper, and struggling to achieve their personal best without the services and resources they are supposed to have.
Battling Corruption in America's Public Schools is the first book ever to systematically examine school waste and corruption and how to fight it. Ms. Segal, an undercover school investigator turned law professor, documents where the money goes, how waste and fraud embedded in the operation of large school bureaucracies siphon money from classrooms, distort educational priorities, block initiatives, and what we can do to bring badly-needed change. She describes in detail 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, and how city school systems scoring lowest on standardized tests tend to have the biggest criminal records and most payroll padding. Coding problems, the procurement process, compartmentalization and opacity of information leave administrators with only two options: good corruption (which ultimately helps the kids) and bad corruption (which never helps anyone but the perpetrator and his/her allies and accomplices). Indeed, the system fights those who try the good corruption route.
Ms. Segal argues that the problem is not usually bad people, but a bad system that focuses on process at the expense of results. Decades of rules and regulations along with layers of top-down supervision make it so hard to do business with school systems that they encourage the very fraud and waste they were designed to curb. She tells us about how the "godfathers" and "godmothers" (the school board members) obtain jobs for their "pieces" in order to protect the systemic waste and fraud from being dismantled or exposed. Fortunately, she writes, there are good people involved in the corruption as well who must violate the rules in order to get their jobs done. Nonetheless, absurdities abound: school systems following rules to save every penny spend thousands of dollars hunting down checks as small as $25; it takes so long to pay vendors for their work that some have to bribe school officials to move their checks along; caring Principals who want to fix leaky toilets may have to pay workers under the table because submitting a work order through the central office could, and often does, take years. Meanwhile, those who pilfer from classrooms get away with it because the pyramidal structure of large districts makes schools inherently difficult to oversee.
What makes Battling Corruption in America's Public Schools a must-read is not only the fascinating - and depressing - details of the systemic wrong-doing but also Ms. Segal's suggestions for reform, based on the proven track records of school systems across North America that have successfully reduced waste and fraud and have pushed more resources into schools. The pathology of the corruption suggests the remedy, Ms. Segal says, which is decentralization of power into the schools and the hands of the Principals. Distilling what successful school systems have done, Segal advocates new forms of oversight that do not clog up school systems and recommends giving principals more discretion over their school budgets as well as holding them accountable for job performance. She argues for "autonomy in exchange for performance accountability" as part of a bold, far-reaching plan for reclaiming our schools. Her conclusion is logical and convincing.
Everyone who reads this book will find his or her perception of public school education changed forever. We cannot accept any longer that a generation of children has been abused by a system that is so full of greed and corruption without screaming "stop!" and "Your game is up!"