Follow the Money to Find School Scandals

Commentary

FEB. 22, 2012

By CHRIS REED

The proposal of a Democratic assemblyman to keep students from eating at food trucks instead of school cafeterias is ostensibly about public health, obesity and food safety. But while nanny state motives may be in play, it’s also easy to see this as the latest conscience-free effort to keep as much money as possible coming to public schools by any means necessary. Districts statewide face a constant struggle to find enough money for the salaries and benefits of their adult employees.

In that sense, targeting food trucks is just like targeting charter schools’ funding. It’s all about preserving the status quo — and one more example of the pervasive moral bankruptcy that the California education establishment displays whenever it comes to money or accountability.

The examples are legion, from the appalling to the mundane.

In Los Angeles Unified School District, a junior high teacher who taunted a suicidal young boy over the incompetence reflected by his failed attempt to slash his wrists didn’t even lose his job.

Also in LAUSD, at Miramonte Elementary School, allegations about gross misbehavior by teacher Mark Berndt weren’t taken seriously until disgusting photos of students were turned over to authorities by a commercial photo developer. Even after the scandal exploded, district officials paid off Berndt rather than trying to go through the teacher-protecting discipline system.

This is no surprise given the larger context. Pacific Research Institute education scholar Lance Izumi found that in all of the 1990s, only one LAUSD teacher was fired after district officials completed the disciplinary process — one!

This is the norm throughout the state, as barriers meant to stop what teachers union officials called capricious management decisions ended up being barriers to the most basic management.

Students Last

This adult employees-first mindset is everywhere.

In Sacramento, the California Teachers Association and California Nurses Association fought bitterly if unsuccessfully against a bill that would have allowed school personnel to administer treatment to students suffering epileptic seizures. Creating a need for more union jobs mattered more that keeping students alive.

With test results, if they show progress, they are hailed and touted as reasons to leave schools and teachers alone.

But if test results disappoint, the education establishment points to studies blaming the quality of the students being taught and hinting atBell Curve”-style explanations for their poor performance.

But when California voters balk at paying more for schools, the reverse race card is brought out. When it comes to increasing funds for schools, affluent older white voters who pay much of the taxes in the Golden State often say they’re worried about a lack of accountability and a resistance to reform. But we’re told these concerns are actually a reflection of the historical evidence that school finance policies are one more way that whites keep minorities down and that aging Caucasian voters in California repeatedly demonstrate they don’t care about the needs of minority children.

Yet the social justice talk associated with the education movement vanishes when it comes time to bully poor students and their families into paying fees for school activities that the California Constitution says must be provided free of charge.

Imaginary Numbers

When it comes to federal funding for public education, schools are happy to feed at the trough. But when it comes time to honor the policy obligations that are attached to the funding, school districts and K-12 “stakeholders” complain raucously about micromanagement.

There are even scams that the public isn’t broadly aware of, such as those involving the basic funding mechanism for California schools. Districts are reimbursed based on the Average Daily Attendance at campuses, with reimbursements being higher for troubled and pregnant students than for regular students.

What does this disparity lead school officials to do? You guessed it. To classify more students as troublemakers and as pregnant to get more money.

In 1995 and 1996, when I was a columnist for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario, I did several interviews with an investigator for the state Department of Finance who said ADA fraud was rampant. Subsequent poking around led me to two school principals who wouldn’t go on the record because of fear of ruining their careers, but who said that some districts made up numbers as they went along.

It also appears that some districts report receiving less in local property taxes than they actually get to maximize their state funding under Proposition 98 formulas. In 2007, state finance officials revealed that districts statewide didn’t report $300 million they had received, a story that barely even garnered headlines.

What’s going on? Back in 1995, the state investigator told me school officials likened their attempts to cheat the state to “victimless crimes” — not fraud.

But then this is the mindset that justifies all corner-cutting by the California education establishment: They hold the moral high ground, so anything goes — fraud; hypocrisy; amoral behavior; gross inconsistency; tolerating gross misconduct, etc. — because the greater good is being served.

Perhaps 15 years ago, when schools were in better shape financially and when the failings of the education status quo weren’t so relentlessly obvious, this claim to behave amorally for the greater good might not have seemed so ridiculous.

But in an era in which struggling school districts routinely spend almost every last dollar on the pay and benefits of adult employees, it is ludicrous.

If a private institution behaved in such relentlessly self-serving and dishonest fashion, it would be a pariah. Its financial manipulations would put its executives at risk of incarceration. Its failings at its core mission would lead to massive job turnover and endless soul-searching. Its constant resistance to basic accountability measures such as assessing job performance would be derided as hopelessly backwards and counterproductive.

Appalling

But while individual issues and scandals often draw the proper response, no one ever connects the dots on all the different ways the California education establishment behaves in unscrupulous and dishonest ways. The cumulative picture is appalling.

Trying to keep food trucks away from schools to prop up student spending at cafeterias, while pathetic, is relatively minor. Yet it precisely reflects the anything-goes fervor of the school status quo movement.

How long before someone proposes locking up parents whose kids miss school and thus cost districts the ADA money they need to pay teachers’ salaries?

Don’t scoff. Not only am I not being facetious, this is already law in California. Parents of a student who misses 10 percent or more of school days can be jailed up for up to a year.

This is what it’s come to in the Golden State.

Connect the dots, people. Connect the dots.

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