Corruption Is Rampant in Public Schools

Published June 1, 2005

A new study by the Cato Institute takes an in-depth look at allegations of corruption and abuse of assets in the nation’s public schools, a system built upon the expectation of public accountability. The proper response to such mismanagement, the study’s author says, may be found in providing parents with the opportunity to choose the schools that best meet their children’s needs.

In Corruption in the Public Schools: The Market Is the Answer, published April 20, author Neal McCluskey (a contributing editor for School Reform News) tackled an issue that affects every American in one way or another: public school systems’ efficiency and accountability.

It isn’t that the government isn’t interested in ferreting out corruption in the education system, McCluskey concludes–it’s that the system itself has become so encumbered with rules and regulations that it is more difficult for teachers to educate kids, and much easier for criminals to get away with exploiting loopholes for their own financial gain.

“Regulations governing almost everything a school can do have failed to stop fraud, waste, and abuse but have rendered school districts cripplingly inefficient,” he writes.

Disturbing Examples

Though McCluskey was careful to point out the corruption isn’t universal, it is widespread. He examined hundreds of fraud allegations in his report, ranging from Floridians who misused scholarship money and school vouchers, to New Yorkers hiring at least 25 special-education bus drivers with criminal records, to a Maryland high school giving two A’s and an NC (for noncredit) to a student who wasn’t even enrolled there. Other reports included school officials embezzling money to buy cars and vacations.

Although per-student spending by public schools has nearly tripled in the past 40 years, students’ test scores have continued to decline. While McCluskey admits many factors contributed to that trend, he says the bottom line is that public education is failing students, parents, and teachers alike. In reality, he says, public accountability is largely a myth.

“Public accountability requires that formal rules and regulations be instituted to make sure the people who run and work in the schools know what they can and cannot do and in addition, some sort of apparatus has to be erected to do the watching and enforce the rules and regulations,” he explains. “And it’s not like the rules and regulations remain static; people will always look for loopholes to commit malfeasance if they are so inclined, or to make their jobs easier.

“When people exploit those loopholes, it precipitates the creation of more rules and regulations to cover what the first rules and regulations missed, typically through standardization of procedures and systems. More bureaucrats are then needed to monitor the rules and execute school district functions,” he continues. “Eventually, the maze of rules and regulations becomes so complicated that it’s easy for those who’d do wrong to hide in it, while those who simply want to teach have to struggle mightily to get anything done.”

Competition for All

The answer to that structural problem, McCluskey says, is found in models used by successful schools: choice.

When parents and students have choices, he notes, schools must prove themselves in order to maintain enrollments. Though private schools are not free of corruption, choice creates a built-in mechanism for weeding it out. It’s called, “I’m taking my business elsewhere,” McCluskey notes.

By definition, any school that must attract and keep a student body must make sure it is an effective instrument of education, McCluskey points out, or it will simply shrivel up and fade away, making way for other institutions that can rise to the occasion. School choice makes that happen.

“Choice would provide better accountability because parents would be able to exercise the ultimate sanction: They could pull their kids out of a school that’s been ripping them off or doing a poor job of educating their children,” McCluskey writes. “Not only would that provide swift justice, it would eliminate the need for cumbersome rules, regulations, and bureaucracies that keep our schools–especially our worst schools–from being able to change.”

Wendy Cloyd ([email protected]) is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs.

For more information …

The full text of Corruption in the Public Schools: The Market Is the Answer is available online at