New Jersey Lawmaker Takes a Stand against Cheats

Published November 1, 2008

Recent reports of New Jersey teachers and administrators padding their salaries and retirement packages by receiving bogus degrees from unaccredited and suspect online universities has spurred state Senate President Richard J. Codey (D-Essex) to action.

Codey in mid-August asked the state department of education to create new rules prohibiting teachers and administrators from getting pay increases or job perks for degrees from unaccredited universities. In early September, State Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy sent each school district guidelines on how to identify potential diploma mills.

According to Codey’s office, the state education department will soon announce new rules guiding salary increases, tuition reimbursements, and other perks for educators who pursue higher education. Under the new policy, such bonuses will be granted only to those earning degrees from institutions that pass the state’s accrediting criteria. And that’s just the beginning.

“I believe the severity of the situation warrants further investigation by the attorney general,” Codey wrote in an August 18 press release. “How can you tell me someone who sends in their resume and writes a two-page paper to receive a secondary degree is not knowingly gaming the system?”

Cheaters Won’t Prosper

Many experts second Codey’s sentiment about the knowingly deceptive approach some educators took in obtaining degrees from diploma mills.

Under the school system’s pay structure, educators who earn advanced degrees or a certain number of college credits will receive an automatic raise in pay, additional contributions to retirement packages, and tuition reimbursement. Because of this, many educators are suspected of taking the easy route by getting degrees from questionable online universities.

It is unknown how many New Jersey educators have taken degrees from such institutions.

“I think a lot of educators who got these degrees are going to say they thought it was real, but I don’t buy that,” said Alan Contreras, a national expert on diploma mills and administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization.

“Almost all of these degrees in question are doctorates, so that means the people getting them have at least one degree [already],” Contreras continued. “That means they know what a degree program is really like. So for them to say that they didn’t know anything was suspicious about the programs is a tough sell. Plus, it’s easy to find out whether a school is accredited.”

Matter of Emphasis

Although Codey is outraged by the apparently frequent abuse of diploma mills, many education experts are not batting an eye at the revelation.

“No one should be surprised that it was discovered that teachers and administrators got degrees from diploma mills,” said Gregg Edwards, president of the Center for Policy Research of New Jersey, a Bloomsbury-based think tank focused on fiscal policy.

“It’s a result of too much emphasis on advanced degrees to get an increased salary,” Edwards continued. “As a teacher, the only way to get a promotion in pay is through seniority or attaining credits in graduate courses. That puts a lot of pressure on them, and some succumb to doing it the easy way. I assume if you had a system that didn’t put so much emphasis on getting advanced degrees, you probably wouldn’t have this problem.”

Call for Systemic Change

Edwards recommends school systems do away with pay increases based on advanced degrees, arguing they almost never improve students’ educational outcomes except in math and science. The incentive money would be more effective if used to attract better teachers or reward those who improve the measured academic performance of students over a school year, he said.

Codey finds it appalling that many educators who utilized diploma mills failed to focus on making improvements in their classrooms and instead used the degrees to boast about their new “credentials.”

“It’s completely and utterly ridiculous that people at the top of our educational system are being paid, rewarded in fact, for a degree that for all intents and purposes comes from a fake university,” Codey wrote in the release. Essentially, these administrators pay a few grand for a degree, and then they are entitled to annual pay raises worth up to several thousand dollars, not to mention more pension credits because their salary has been bumped up.

“The biggest insult is that some of these people insist on being called ‘doctor’ after they buy their Ph.D. online. That’s about the equivalent of Colonel Sanders claiming he has real military experience,” Codey wrote.

Aggressive Approach

In dealing with educators who have abused the degree-based compensation program, education experts say an aggressive, straightforward approach is needed, especially for administrators.

“Unlike classroom teachers, superintendents are less of a protected class,” said Derrell Bradford, deputy director of Excellent Education for Everyone, a free-market education reform group based in Trenton. “People see superintendents as free agents, and are more apt to say they are making too much money over teachers. I think there could be some potential caps on superintendent salaries.

“When it comes to our high-poverty districts, the state department of education has said they will do what they can about educators who have contracts based on these fake degrees. People need to start confronting these administrators, either formally or informally, about their actions in order to stop this,” Bradford continued.

Pressing for Investigation

Codey says he will push for the return of any monetary benefits teachers and administrators have reaped from obtaining diploma-mill degrees.

In late August he sent a letter to the state attorney general’s office requesting an investigation to find out whether administrators knew they were fudging their qualifications in order to get public funds, which became a criminal offense in the state last year.

“What this says to students is that the very people who are entrusted with establishing educational rules for course work, diplomas, and academic integrity have lost all legs to stand on as they themselves have cheated the educational system by undermining the legitimate degrees of their colleagues and of course students,” Codey wrote in an August 25 press release.

“This is a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ policy that the taxpayers are being forced to fund,” Codey continued. “It’s wrong, and once we find out exactly who is benefiting from these cash-and-carry diplomas, we’ll continue to put pressure on them to return these unearned perks.”

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.