Corruption in education

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by Brandon Perry
For New Pittsburgh Courier

(Editor’s Note: This is part three of a four-part series from the Indianapolis Recorder dealing with the abuse of power)

(INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.)—You go to school to be educated—at least that’s the plan. But the fact is that corruption is one of the last things families expect when a loved one is enrolled in an educational institution.

Educators and the faculty they work with—whether at the grade school, high school or university level—are expected to conduct themselves with integrity and fairness.

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CHARGED—Former dean Cecilia Chang is charged with abusing students and embezzlement at St. John’s University.

Sadly, however, that is not always the case. Abuse of power can be found in education, just as it can in every other sector of society.

“We don’t really like to look at it, but the truth is that no school system or institution is immune from corruption,” said Dr. Armand Fusco, a former school superintendent and nationally recognized expert on education reform. “The problem is that it is hidden from view by self-protection and denial from administrators.”

Indeed, cases of abuse of power in education are found in headlines about incidents both far away and close to home.

Earlier this month, federal authorities charged Cecilia Chang, a former dean at St. John’s University, with helping students obtain scholarships, then threatening to take them away unless the students did personal chores for her. In a separate case, Chang was accused of embezzling $1 million from the university.

Also, this month, a teacher in Mishawaka, Ind., in the northern part of the state was accused of putting duct tape on the mouth of an 8-year-old autistic student. He was allegedly called out in the middle of a game during gym class and forced to run around the gym during the rest of the class with the tape over his mouth.

“His classmates witnessed this and thought it was hilarious, and it really humiliated my son,” the student’s outraged mother, Rita Burnett, said in a statement. “It’s abuse. If I were to do this to my own child and he came to the school and said something to the principal, CPS would be on me in a heartbeat for doing this.”

Nate Evans, former superintendent of Covington Schools (in Southern Indiana), resigned and was charged with forgery, theft and perjury in November after investigators discovered financial irregularities related to excessive spending of more than $2 million of the district’s funds.

“After my own experience as a superintendent and in uncovering corruption, I wouldn’t be surprised if some degree of abuse of power is festering in all school districts,” said Fusco, who led districts in Connecticut and Massachusetts before writing the book School Corruption: Betrayal of Children and the Public Trust.

According to the Anti-Corruption Resource Center, which has examined abuse of power in educational institutions worldwide, there are several common types of abusive practices in education.

Prominent examples of abuse of power in schools include embezzling grants and other funds intended for schools (for personal use), publishing inflated student enrollment numbers and test scores to obtain more funding, using school property for private commercial purposes, discrimination against students or other faculty and harassing students verbally, physically or sexually.

Other common forms of abuse of power include favoring children from certain communities for admission while subjecting others to extra payments, nepotism (giving jobs to unqualified relatives), and issuing teaching positions or certifications in exchange for bribes or favors.

Fusco said such practices often lead to poor achievement among students, a high dropout rate and low quality teaching.

“They are often the reason behind the shameful statistics we see about low test scores, achievement gaps between White and minority students and the over 25,000 failing schools we have across the country,” he said. Most educators and their faculty associates are hardworking and upstanding, but experts say mechanisms must be put in place to stop those who abuse power.

“Solutions can range from structural reforms that reduce the opportunity for abuse of power and improvements in management and oversight, to stronger sanctions to deter corrupt behavior,” said Stephen Heyneman, a professor of education policy at Vanderbilt University who is known nationally for his research on the topic.

Heyneman said administrators, parents and students must work together to build school systems and universities that provide equal access to opportunities, fairness in distribution of curriculum and materials, high standards of conduct and transparency in management of resources.

Fusco, the education reformist, said parents in public school districts must demand accountability from members of their school board, and encourage them to set policies that will lead to measures preventing abuse in the classroom, documentation of school assets and independent auditing to ensure that resources such as budgets, grants, petty cash funds and student fees are being used properly.

On the secondary level, similar oversight at colleges and universities can be provided by boards of trustees and directors.

“Parents and all taxpayers need to understand that local boards have the obligation to set policies that protect students and manage resources wisely,” Fusco said. “Still, boards cannot do the job alone. Citizens must monitor the places where their children are being educated, and demand answers and action.”

(If you have questions or comments contact Brandon Perry at Brandon-recorder@indy.rr.com)

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