The Pitfalls of Political Decentralization and Proposals for Reform: The Case of New York City Public Schools
Segal, Lydia, Public Administration Review
A powerful movement toward government devolution is underway in the nation. Frustrated with the limitations and inefficiencies of big bureaucracy, a growing chorus of reformers from different ideological backgrounds calls for the loosening of bureaucratic constraints. Reformers want states and localities to have more control over their affairs and front-line workers to be empowered (Dubnick, 1994).
As devolution proposals gain momentum, reformers should consider New York City's 26-year experience with public school decentralization. Although there are differences between contemporary devolution proposals and New York's school decentralization (which emerged during the racial turmoil of the civil rights era), there are also similarities. Both desire to bring government closer to local constituents. Both propose to increase local officials' discretion over hiring and other functions. Both assume that smaller government will spur greater citizen involvement and that enhanced discretion will unleash employees' creativity to better serve the community.
The passage of New York's school decentralization law in 1969 marked one of the nation's most ambitious experiments in community government: a radical form of political decentralization that generally involves transferring decision-making authority from bureaucracies to locally elected lay boards (LaNoue and Smith, 1973). The idea of community control, which initially found form in federally funded antipoverty programs that sprang up in the nation's cities in the mid-1960s, was to give inner-city minorities influence over remote, unresponsive bureaucracies staffed largely by whites (Yates, 1973). The hope was that government would be forced to be accountable. States and cities soon followed suit, decentralizing a variety of programs. Foremost among them were the public schools.
An important, unintended consequence of political decentralization was corruption. With vast reservoirs of jobs and money, community programs soon became centers for power and patronage, harking back to Tammany Hall (see, e.g., Reeves, Collier, Phallon, and Severo, 1974). The pitfalls of community control are illustrated by New York's experience with school decentralization, where program vulnerabilities in the context of politicized, often poor, urban communities led to unintended widespread and systematic corruption (Segal, 1995). A majority of the city's 32 school boards carved their districts into fiefdoms where jobs were doled out to loyal campaign workers, lovers, and family or sold for cash.
The ideological and historical context out of which school decentralization arose in New York created an environment hospitable to corruption. Community control was viewed not merely as a means to an end, but an end in itself. Politically empowering the poor was intended not only to force government to address their needs, but also to give them the political skills and self-esteem to enable them to integrate into mainstream society (Altshuler, 1970). In the school decentralization context, political goals such as ethnic succession and averting a racial crisis were the legislation's immediate aim. Improving pupil competency was only a long-range goal (State Charter Revision Commission, 1974, 32-46). This is only a step away from a world where power is the only goal, and long-term educational goals are lost in the tumultuous fray of local politics.
A closer look at what happened in New York shows structural vulnerabilities in decentralization that might occur anywhere if proper safeguards are not in place. Despite the examination of decentralization's pitfalls, it is not the intention of this analysis to advocate centralization, which has its own hazards.
Decentralization Hopes and Aspirations
Decentralization followed over a decade of turbulence in which minority school enrollment grew dramatically, citywide reading scores plunged, and dropout rates rose. During most of the 1950s, reformers pinned their hopes for improvement primarily on racial integration. The Board of Education came up with a number of proposals to integrate schools. However, in the face of bitter resistance by white parents and teachers, the board repeatedly gave excuses, leaving behind a string of broken promises. Citizens, particularly minorities, increasingly perceived the board as an entrenched bureaucracy concerned with perpetuating its own power (Rogers, 1968; Viteritti, 1983).
By 1966 community control became the rallying cry of New York school reformers. The Ford Foundation added impetus to the idea of community-controlled schools by establishing three demonstration districts in the city. Although community control meant abandoning integration efforts, by the late 1960s New York activists had come to see integration as an implicit rejection of minority culture. Schools that were predominantly minority were branded as inferior simply on the basis of their racial makeup (Ravitch, 1974, 295-298). Community control, on the other hand, affirmed minority values by enabling schools to reflect them.
The decentralization plan called for 31 (now 32), nine-member school boards, elected every three years from their districts, to oversee the city's 750,000 elementary and middle schools pupils. High schools and a host of other programs remained under the control of the central bureaucracy. Local boards were to hold educators accountable by controlling district jobs, budgets, programs, and policy. Boards could hire almost all staff from principals to nonpedagogical employees (informally called "non-peds") such as $12,000- to $15,000-a-year paraprofessionals who assist teachers in class or $8,000-a-year school aides who monitor halls and lunchrooms. Although teachers remained outside board patronage, boards controlled their promotions.
The Reality of School Decentralization--A Close-Up
Although some advocates wanted schools to become centers of political activism and local employment (Rogers and Chung, 1983, 2-3), the widely shared, long-range goal was always to improve education. Few anticipated the extent to which schools would be turned into patronage mills.
Yet over two decades of exposes by grand juries, investigators, civic watchdog groups, and journalists reveal that in many districts patronage has completely eclipsed education. As one board member from Brooklyn's District 27 put it in a secretly recorded conversation for the Joint Commission on Integrity in the Public Schools (called the Gill Commission after its chair, James Gill, and established in 1988 to study city schools): "I'm a political leader, that's why I'm here.... I make sure my people get f--ing jobs" (Joint Commission, 1990a, 9). Children, meanwhile, have been pushed out of the picture: "I've never heard the word `children' or `education' enter into our discussions in the last few years.... With anybody," another board member laughingly told an informant cooperating with the commission (Joint Commission, 1990a, 41). Investigations reveal that this type of corruption is endemic in a majority of the city's 32 school districts.
To appreciate the extent to which the ideal of community control has been twisted, it is helpful to look at a close-up of how school boards hire principals. Such hires are regarded as critical to community-controlled education because of principals' potential impact on generations of schoolchildren. One of the most dramatic examples of this was a 1993 investigation by the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District into Community School District 12, an impoverished area in the South Bronx that ranked second to last in citywide test scores (Special Commissioner, 1993a). Through numerous informants, particularly board member Ed Cain, the report exposed widespread wrongdoing.
In 1991 as a result of an early retirement incentive, 46 principalships and assistant principalships opened up in District 12, presenting a tremendous opportunity to renew educational vitality. Instead, the opportunity was wasted as a six-member majority alliance on the board, known as the caucus, began an all-out struggle for the vacancies and awarded them to campaign workers, friends, and lovers. The positions were divvied up in a series of secret meetings, at which every opening was brought up for negotiation, as the different factions in the caucus sought to improve their positions in the district. The superintendent, jockeying to secure the votes to renew his contract, mediated between the different sides and helped ensure that no one got more than his or her fair share. Parents and the board minority, which the caucus did not need to consult to pass its initiatives, were left in the dark.
The pathology is illuminated by the language used to refer to board members and their spoils. Board members who obtained jobs for people were known as their "godfathers" and "godmothers." The people for whom they obtained jobs were called their "pieces." Pieces earned their jobs through nepotism, sexual favors, and bribes, but the most common way was by doing political work for board members. Always referred to in the possessive, pieces were regarded as their godparent's property. Indeed, board members relied on them to perform all kinds of favors after giving them jobs.
Pieces were not limited to single individuals. Some pieces gave their godparents control over multiple jobs. For instance, by making a piece a coordinator of a program, a board member could control all the jobs the program generated. As District 12's acting superintendent explained, "Coordinators...control a budget. So when I put you in that position and you're my piece, you'll find a way of providing for me.... That's how the job bank is created" (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 54). Thus schools and a host of educational programs were referred to as pieces. As one former District 12 board member put it, "Everything is a piece" (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 7).
Critical to board member bargaining for spoils was the understanding that pieces had different values depending on their potential to turn out votes. Thus principals were considered "plum" pieces because they had "access to parents.... Those are the people that vote," as one official explained (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 16). Elementary schools were worth more than middle schools because parents were more likely to accompany younger children to school, providing more opportunities to garner votes. Educational programs were ranked according to similarly perverse criteria--the size of their budget. What makes a program "a big piece...is where the big money's coming in. The more jobs pay, the better, because you can get people big salaries" (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 55). Far from the ideal of concerned citizens, the language of godfathers, godmothers, and pieces tells of a perspective in which board members see themselves as mobsters vying to expand power by gaining as many jobs as possible.
Illustrating how politics distorts hiring, a ferocious struggle broke out over the district's biggest elementary school because, with 1,160 pupils, it drew the largest number of parents. The caucus member who won the school appointed her campaign manager as principal. At another point, one faction traded several principalships for a program to counsel students at risk of dropping out because, one informant explained, it had "money in it...and people wouldn't get laid off. You could get more jobs through that" (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 57).
Official findings of corruption were probably only the tip of the iceberg. When one woman from Brooklyn's District 19, in the midst of paying an informant board member $8,000 to $10,000 for a principalship, was asked how she knew to offer money, she replied, "Nobody said it. But you know...I've been around a long time, and I know a lot of board people...across the city" (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 4-5). The understanding that corruption is pervasive was echoed by many informants. Words such as "piece," "godfather," and "caucus" (or "coalition") were used to refer to the players in the patronage game in several districts.
Explaining Corruption in Politically Decentralized Systems
How can we explain the level of corruption in New York City's school decentralization? The traditional explanation, which focuses on individual failings, the "rotten apple" theory, cannot adequately explain the prevalence or persistence of the problem. Moreover, the majority of corrupt school officials are not fundamentally depraved.
Nor can corruption in decentralized systems be adequately explained by the "bottleneck" theory, which argues that corruption results when systems are so overregulated that it is virtually impossible for people to do business with them without resorting to corruption (deLeon, 1993, 28-31). This situation occurs, for instance, when bureaucratic regulations for disbursing money are so complex that contractors need to bribe employees in order to get paid within a reasonable period of time. With the minimal oversight involved in most politically decentralized systems, overregulation will not usually be a factor in producing widespread corruption. This certainly applies to New York's local school boards.
A more plausible explanation for corruption in the New York City schools, and politically decentralized systems in general, involves an analysis of their structural features. Decentralized programs provide the tools for corruption: virtually unfettered control over large amounts of money and different levels of jobs. Such benefits offer high stakes to those interested in power or money, especially in areas where alternative routes to these amenities are limited. Because decentralized programs are a form of governance established in reaction to rigid central control, they tend to maximize local discretion and minimize oversight, making corruption easy to engage in and conceal. Moreover, because of the low visibility of local programs and their apathetic electorates, these programs do not usually provide adequate mechanisms for holding officials accountable. To the extent that decentralized programs are driven by political agendas like increasing local jobs or promoting ethnic succession, rules designed to achieve these goals can open the door to favoritism.
Systems are prone to corruption to varying degrees. They can facilitate, invite, or necessitate corruption. These are not clear-cut categories, but degrees on a spectrum that depend on the combined power of the structural incentives mentioned above. For instance, the more discretion a system accords its officials without providing concomitant oversight or accountability, the farther it will move from facilitating corruption to inviting or even necessitating it.
Decentralized systems are likely to necessitate corruption when it becomes so ingrained that a culture develops wherein employees need to engage in corruption in order to avoid being harmed professionally. Employees here face the same dilemma as drivers do when everyone else is speeding--it can be dangerous to be honest. In New York City's schools, a combination of structural vulnerabilities has created a system where corruption is so easy to engage in and get away with, and where the rewards for corrupt behavior are so great, that the system invites it and, in a number of districts, necessitates it.
The Causes of Corruption in New York City's Schools
Obscurity of School Board Elections
Many of the ways in which school decentralization is vulnerable to corruption are common to most locally controlled government programs. For instance, school board elections, like most local elections, are obscure--they are held at different times from general elections and are not subject to media scrutiny. Voters tend to be far more willing to trade their votes for the tangible rewards of patronage in local elections than in highly publicized national elections where issues are of wider importance (Wolfinger, 1972). It is easier to engage in corruption when no one is watching. Additionally, voter turnout in school board elections, as in most local elections, is low, averaging 7.5 percent (Lane, 1959). Low turnout invites takeover by political operators and insulates officials from accountability.
Low turnout in New York's school elections is exacerbated by the city's complex, arcane electoral system. Candidates are elected through a system of proportional representation in which voters vote for multiple candidates, ranking them in order of preference. Many people do not understand that they can vote for multiple candidates or how their votes will be counted. The wide array of candidates makes it hard for most people to know anything about them. Furthermore, city parents have to fill out special forms to register to vote, a process that does not constitute registration for general elections.
Poverty of School Board Voters
Poverty is another factor that facilitates patronage (Banfield and Wilson, 1965). The big city political machines of the 19th century were fueled largely by the immigrant poor, who were eager to trade their votes for desperately needed services and jobs (Pecorella, 1994, 31-39). Today, school districts, more than any other unit of local government, provide employment to those with otherwise limited job opportunities. Some districts supply over 500 nonpedagogical jobs. With few or no educational requirements and no standardized qualification exams, most of these jobs appeal to poor residents and parents, who are the bulk of city school board voters.
Incentives for Seeking a School Board Seat
Although they pay members only $125 a month, school boards provide numerous other tangible benefits. Board members, who allocate the funds for their own expenses, can go to educational conferences in exotic locales like Honolulu at taxpayer expense (New York City Council, 1994). Members can also hire relatives with a mere two-thirds of the board vote. In District 12, board members agreed to rubber-stamp each other's relatives for jobs and not to interfere with their perks. "You know the rule we have," one former District 12 board member angrily complained to another when an official questioned his wife's unapproved leave of absence from her district job. "We don't mess with family" (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 71).
Boards can also be used for illicit profiteering. Members can sell jobs for bribes, as in District 12. They can use their control over contracting for kickbacks. One board member, for instance, collected over $18,000 from a textbook publisher and meals, cash, and a white cashmere coat from other vendors) another got cameras, television equipment, and other items (Cook, 1994, 280).
But school boards, like many other community-controlled agencies of the 1960s, are most valued as sources of power and status. In poor areas they can also enhance sex appeal. As one District 12 board member told investigators, he ran for "the power and the women." Board members have sometimes used the power of their positions to secure jobs for lovers (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 42-47).
A board seat is also a way out of the inner city not encumbered by civil service regulations. Schools provide a treasure house of everything politicians need: campaign staff, office space, supplies, and equipment. Board members do not pay for these resources. They reward campaign staff with school jobs, perks, and the use of school supplies and equipment, despite regulations. Because it costs them so little, numerous board members campaign repeatedly for higher office. Many succeed (Berger and Kolbert, 1989). Those who do can continue to use schools as a job bank for their supporters after they have moved up (Special Commissioner, 1993a).
Board members can expand their political horizons in other ways, too. By lending their school patronage networks to higher politicians, they can curry favor with them. They can also draft employees to campaign for relatives, augmenting their family's influence (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 74).
Board members can also make money from patronage. One board member from Brooklyn's District 21, for example, orchestrated a massive teacher letter-writing campaign to support the construction of a $300 million condominium in which he had a financial stake (Lewis and Blumenthal, 1989). Members also pressure staff to perform errands, such as planting their flowers and packing their boxes (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 83-88).
The Ease of Politicizing the School
Putting the School Hierarchy to Work
Like the big city political machines of the last century, whose successes were largely attributed to efficient organization, the school hierarchy can easily be turned into an efficient campaign base. Board members can assign campaign tasks to staff depending on where staff are stationed in the district. For instance, when a group of District 12 board members decided to hold a fund-raiser for their school board campaign in 1991, they enlisted employees to perform every task (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 94-109). A worker in the district's printing office printed tickets on school stationary. Principals sold quotas of fund-raiser tickets. A secretary in the district office did the bookkeeping. Others collected money at the door and took attendance.
A textbook example of how easily the school hierarchy can be put to work is Sheldon Plotnick's 1993 City Council campaign (Special Commissioner, 1993b, 59-57). To try to catapult himself from his seat on Brooklyn's District 21 board to the city council, Plotnick conveyed his aspirations to his beholden principals. To wrench control of the local Democratic club from his rival, he had principals orchestrate a massive club membership drive. At one school, the principal sent subordinates to recruit the rest of his staff to join the club, and within a month, most had signed up. On the day of the vote, the principal's loyalists herded staff to the club en masse after school, giving Plotnick a big victory. Faculty who did not attend were deprived of valued lesson preparation time.
A month later, when the club was to vote to endorse candidates for the city council, the principal's subordinates circulated a sheet headed "Are You Going?" followed by staff members' names. Understanding the previous month's "punishments," virtually the entire staff attended the club meeting. Several school employees testified that they did not know why they were there. With staff from different district schools sitting together, some teachers simply copied each other's ballots; others consulted palm cards. The result was a resounding endorsement for Plotnick. Although he lost the city council election, without the school machinery he would not have gotten as far as he did.
Building a Patronage Network
School board members build patronage networks by rewarding people who campaign and punishing those who do not. Illuminating the quid pro quo implicit in virtually every job in corrupt districts, one former District 12 board member running for re-election promised an aspiring assistant principal a lavish array of jobs if he could turn out 100 votes. For this many votes, the board member said, "You could just about write your own meal ticket... Deputy, principal, superintendent, whatever you want to call them--Director of Programs" (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 78). These deals bind employees to their godparents. As the board member added, "My attitude only changes if I lose, of course" (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 79).
In various insidious ways that often escape the grasp of the law, board members punish those who do not campaign. They can fire probationary employees and they can deny tenured ones promotions. For example, after supporting one District 12 board member for years in the hope of getting a promotion, an assistant principal "got tired of being demeaned" and eventually stopped doing the board member's errands and campaign work. He foolishly believed that when the principalship at his school became vacant he would get the job because the parents supported him. Instead, the board member appointed a woman who had hygiene problems and no parental backing, but who had been a staunch campaign supporter. When the assistant principal asked why he had not received the job, he was curtly told, "We missed you," alluding to his absence from the campaign (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 75).
Board members can also punish professionals by simply making their lives miserable. As a former District 12 board member said in a secretly recorded conversation "Just like you can get up, you can come back down.... I mean a principal can be out there, minding his business, trying to do a good job. But if a superintendent or his deputy who's in charge of principals is not supportive of you, you know, hey, you don't get textbooks, you don't get little grants,...or you don't get your conferences, your seminars. You know all the little things that can be done to principals. Your life can be made very, very miserable" (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 89).
A Self-Perpetuating Model
Once corruption sets in, board members do not need to twist arms to garner support. Employees already know what to do. Everywhere they look they see that those who campaign get ahead, while those who do not fall behind. Thus when a board member in the Bronx's District 9, long beleaguered by corruption, sent quotas of fund-raiser tickets to district schools addressed "Attention Principal," the principals knew from experience to sell them (Special Commissioner, 1993b).
Secretly recorded conversations unmask the deeply coercive nature of patronage and its demoralizing effect on those dose to the classroom. As one assistant principal told an informant about working on her godmother's city council election, "I hated doing all that sh--" (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 87).
Ease of Creating Jobs and Perks
School decentralization facilitates patronage by making it easy for board members to create jobs and perks and dole them out. The flexible budgets of many state and especially federally funded programs, which can be used to fund anything other than basic education that will increase the math and reading scores of poor children, allow jobs to be invented virtually at will. Thus, when one Queens District 27 board member wanted a $42,000 cushy post for his campaign manager and another wanted a job for his wife, they instructed the superintendent, who was wearing a wire, to create a $75,000 "satellite" office from the district budget (Joint Commission, 1990a, 7).
Ease of Controlling Hiring
Decentralization also makes it easy for board members to control hiring without considering merit. To give communities room to select professionals who better reflected their values, centrally mandated requirements for several professional positions were eliminated. Principals, for instance, could be appointed on the basis of a qualifying rather than a competitive exam, so that boards did not need to select those at the top of the civil service list. Superintendents could be appointed on a contract basis without tenure rights.
The only potential obstacle to board control over the hiring of nonpedagogical employees is the superintendent, whose job is to ensure the district's educational quality. However, because their contracts are renewable at board discretion, superintendents are vulnerable to board coercion. Although most boards hire superintendents who reflect the majority's wishes, they can easily be pressured should this change. The Gill Commission's 1989 investigation in Queens' District 27 shows how this pressure was brought to bear, thanks to the cooperation of superintendent Colman Genn, a 30-year school veteran outraged by the corruption he witnessed (Joint Commission, 1990a).
Once boards co-opt their superintendents' professional integrity, they can easily jettison merit from the decisions to hire nonpedagogical employees. As one board member bluntly put it when Genn questioned the qualifications of one of his candidates, "Unqualified? Qualified? Bullshit. That's my recommendation" (Joint Commission, 1990a, 4). Another board member put it even more graphically: "If we recommend somebody," he said regarding staff for children with special needs, they should be hired so long as "they're not illiterate or deformed or something [is] the matter with them" (Joint Commission, 1990a, 61).
Cynically Exploiting Parents' Poverty
To dictate the hiring of principals and assistant principals, school boards must control parents, unlike the hiring of nonpedagogical employees. Because of the importance of these positions, the process for filling them is carefully designed to elicit input from parents, the superintendent, and the board. First, a parent screening committee selects five candidates from the applicant pool and forwards their names to the superintendent. The superintendent then chooses two of these five and sends them to the board, which votes on the final appointment.
This intricate process would appear to make corruption difficult. To get their principals and assistant principals appointed, board members, after co-opting the superintendent, would additionally need to ensure that the parents include the board's piece in the top five choices they send to the superintendent. With so much riding on their ability to dole out these top jobs, board members have devised numerous ways of manipulating parents.
One way is by buying parents with jobs, money, and gifts. In impoverished neighborhoods, as one assistant principal observed, "to offer money or a job is hard to resist" (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 36). In District 12, where 89 percent of children qualify for free lunches, buying parents is widespread. When a board member was asked how she would secure a principalship for a campaign supporter in a school where the parents did not know him, she impatiently responded, "Go over there and buy `em...." "Give `em jobs?" "That's the way" (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 36).
The depth of the problem is illustrated by the fierce bidding war for the parents' support that erupted between two candidates for principal in another District 12 school. As each candidate out-did the other with successively better offers, which included offering parents jobs and paying their telephone bills, the parents kept shifting from one candidate to the other depending on whose proposal was more remunerative. In an illuminating last-minute shift, the parents abandoned one candidate after it turned out that a key parent in the Parent Teachers Association did not qualify for the job the candidate had promised her.
Getting Away with Patronage
Board members know they can get away with patronage. Patronage is hard to prove, and the laws proscribing it are equivocal and easily frustrated. Most laws that criminalize official coercion of subordinates reach only the grossest types of misconduct, not the subtle influence peddling prevalent in city schools and most other patronage-ridden programs. In order for board members to be convicted on a charge of pressuring subordinates to campaign, it must be demonstrated that board members requested their political support (New York City Charter, sec. 2604(b)(9)b and sec. 2604(b)(11)a). However, the more corrupt a district, the less need for board members to "request" subordinates for support. Subordinates know what to do without being asked. For the same reason, it is rare to be able to bring board members up on charges of extortion involving the use of fear or force.
Indeed, because it is so easy for public officials to pressure people without overt coercion, some extortion statutes, like the federal Hobbs Act (18 U.S.C. sec. 1951(b) (1976)), have been interpreted to dispense with the need to show the use of fear or force where the defendant is a public official acting "under color of official right." However, if the payment is a campaign contribution, the state must still prove that the official explicitly promised something as a quid pro quo for the contribution (McCormick v. U.S., 1991). Deals in city schools are seldom so clear-cut.
Bribery statutes are also limited in their use against board members who engage in patronage. Although many state bribery statutes might, if taken literally, encompass patronage, they are generally ambiguous in scope and provide little guidance as to whether such conduct should come within their purview (Lowenstein, 1985). Moreover, the paucity of patronage cases tried as bribery suggests that prosecutors may not consider patronage to be bribery.
The civil law approach to tackling patronage is also limited. The Supreme Court has held that hiring and firing on the basis of partisan affiliation, where it is irrelevant to the job, violates employees' First Amendment rights of free speech and association (Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, 1990). However, to win a suit, plaintiffs must show that the employer failed to hire or fired them primarily due to partisan politics. Employers need merely show that they had other legitimate reasons for their actions. Like most employers, board members can easily come up with plausible reasons (Freedman, 1988). These difficulties perhaps explain why no suits based on the First Amendment have been brought against New York City school board members.
Even if officials are convicted, cases are usually pled down. Imprisonment is rare. In District 27, for instance, where board members pled gully to felony counts of coercion and mail fraud, no one went to jail (Joint Commission, 1990a, 97).
Board members are also insulated from educational accountability, since nothing happens to them if their schools perform poorly. The chancellor cannot remove them. Because school board elections can be won with as few as 300 votes, and board patronage bosses can easily win seats, it is hard for the electorate to hold board members accountable for performance. The absence of performance incentives means board members can engage in corruption at the expense of education with impunity.
The Cycle of Corruption
As corruption becomes entrenched, it becomes necessary to engage in it. School staff need to campaign to avoid punishment. Well-intentioned board members, who are usually in the minority, need to "wheel and deal" or they are excluded from decision-making by the caucus. "We've all sold out to a certain extent.... Out of necessity," explained one such District 27 board member, "I was gonna get absolutely nothing, you know?" (Joint Commission, 1990a, 38).
Even politicians get sucked into the cycle of corruption. One state assemblyman, for instance, said he had to use schools for campaigning simply to keep up with his competition, who were using school staff to run against him (Berger and Kolbert, 1989).
Further fueling the problem, officials in corrupt districts see corruption as their right. As Ed Cain remarked, "I mean, you know, we're making 125 [dollars] a month, and they're [principals and assistant principals] making all this big money. They can do something when we're putting their names up" (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 99).
The Toll of Patronage on Education
While it is difficult to isolate the effect of patronage on performance, New York City's experience suggests that patronage is detrimental to education. Districts most beleaguered by patronage rank lowest in citywide test scores. School districts ranking lowest in math and reading scores spend the least per capita on teachers, who do not provide local boards with patronage, but the most on administrators, who do (Educational Priorities Panel, 1993). Padding payrolls through patronage siphons money away from precious classroom resources, often hitting hardest those districts that can least afford it. Although it is impossible to measure the extent of the waste, estimates have been high. In 1990, the Gill Commission estimated that District 27 squandered over $1 million on patronage per year (Joint Commission, 1990a, vi).
Patronage also harms education in less obvious ways. Although it does not necessarily translate into the hiring of low-quality personnel, it makes merit irrelevant and increases the risk that such candidates will be selected. Patronage appointees have included principals who were "educationally corrupt," had "hygiene problems," and had shady pasts (Dillon, 1994; Special Commissioner, 1993a, 1, 31).
Once corruption becomes institutionalized, its impact on education is devastating. Instead of spending time developing creative lesson plans, teachers feel pressured to play politics (Special Commissioner, 1993a, 112-114). Quality educators who see that political work rather than school work is the key to advancement become disillusioned, demoralized, and finally leave the system.
Significance for Current Theories of Administrative Reform
The example of the New York City schools should serve as a warning to current advocates of decentralization. Proponents of reinventing government, public choice theory, and government deregulation seek to loosen top-down controls, devolve power to line agencies and sub-jurisdictional units, and empower low-level employees (Dubnick, 1994). They view bureaucratic constraints, which were designed to stem corruption at the turn of the century, as pointless red tape that stands in the way of responsiveness, cost-effectiveness, and worker creativity (Rosenbloom, 1994).
Although bureaucratic controls impede many organizations (Osborne and Gaebler, 1993; Glazer, 1992), we cannot solve our administrative crisis if we gloss over corruption. New York City's 26-year experience with school decentralization suggests that increasing discretion while decreasing oversight will only give employees additional opportunities for abuse with lower risks of detection. Moreover, unchecked corruption undermines the efficiency devolution seeks to achieve. Rather than freeing entrepreneurial, public-spirited employees to better serve the public, as the National Performance Review envisions, relaxing hiring criteria may lead to a higher percentage of unnecessary, underqualified patronage employees, hurt morale, and harm government service. Further, unless the new public management addresses the potential for corruption, it may unleash scandals that will generate pressure for top-down controls (Anechiarico and Jacobs, 1996).
We also need to revisit public choice assumptions that local, fragmented government will be responsive because local voters can "sort out the details more easily and fire elected lower-level officials if things go wrong" (Devine, 1995). The New York City findings suggest that devolution to local levels may neither increase voter participation nor result in greater responsiveness to citizens. Devolution may indeed simply replace one unresponsive elite--bureaucrats--with another unresponsive elite--political hacks.
Of course, if jobs are what local majorities want from government, then patronage may be seen as responsive. From a public choice perspective, the whole point of fragmented, local government is that it offers a variety of tax-service packages from which individuals can choose what suits them best (Ostrom, 1989). According to this logic, corruption is the high price for such freedom of choice (Mitchell and Simmons, 1994). Because political decentralization is vulnerable to takeover by narrow, special interests, however, patronage may reflect the wishes, not of the majority, but a minority that benefits from it. In the school context, moreover, patronage is not responsive to children, who do not vote. If we do not develop systemic safeguards to detect, discourage, and penalize corruption as an integral part of administrative reform, devolution may end up costing far more than reform benefits appear to be worth.
Suggestions for Reform
The challenge today is to design corruption safeguards within the context of deregulated or reinvented government. Contrary to traditional beliefs, corruption controls can be constructed without impeding management. Corruption can be tackled not through regulation but through structural reforms that strengthen accountability and curb corruption opportunities and law enforcement initiatives designed to increase deterrence.
1. Block corruption incentives by holding executives accountable for results. The struggle against corruption must begin by holding local executives accountable for results. As public choice proponents suggest, if executives faced real consequences for doing poorly, including dismissal, and were rewarded for doing well, they would have incentives to hire the best people and make sure resources were not illegally siphoned off (Mitchell and Simmons, 1994). Performance incentives require clearly defined outcomes and evaluation methods. One way to evaluate performance in schools is to require principals to meet goals based on their school's citywide tests scores and to measure their students' progress from year to year (Ravitch, 1995; Hanushek, 1994). Principals who failed to meet goals should be forced to change policies or face removal.
Performance-based incentives would not necessarily eliminate patronage, because officials could still hire quality employees who were also political supporters. These reforms would also not necessarily provide a disincentive to corruption that does not directly harm performance. However, they would curb corruption that does.
2. Check corruption by the competition of choice. There are a number of ways to deter corruption by holding executives accountable. One way is through the market-like competition of school choice, which enables parents to vote with their feet. Under a real choice system that offered diverse, viable alternatives, principals who allowed corruption to undermine school performance would lose students and money and would eventually face removal.
3. Check corruption through performance contracting. Another way to enforce accountability is through performance contracting, as exemplified by charter schools. Charters, which trade input control for careful monitoring of outcomes by a public authority, can be revoked for failure to meet educational goals. Moreover, because charter schools must follow sound fiscal practices, they--unlike most regular public schools--can also be closed due to corruption, abuse and mismanagement, as illustrated by cases in Los Angeles and Arizona (Pyle, 1994; Mattern, 1996). Charters may thus provide stronger incentives to avoid corruption than most other public schools do (Ravitch and Viteritti, 1996).
4. Check corruption through election reform and further decentralization. Relying on elected local boards as a way to hold employees accountable and deter corruption often proves unsuccessful in poor local areas, as illustrated by New York City's schools. Nevertheless, ballot-box accountability can be improved by limiting (to the extent constitutionally permissible) eligibility to serve on boards to those people who use the service or are most affected by its quality. One reason corruption has spun out of control in New York City schools is that parents have been pushed out by influence peddlers with no stake in education. Indeed, most board members have no children in the schools (Sugarman, 1995). To increase the focus on children, board seats should be restricted to parents and possibly some teachers.
Reformers should further decrease the size of the units for which local boards are responsible. In the educational context, each school could be controlled by one school board, as was done in Chicago, instead of one board controlling an entire district. Such boards should have far less patronage to dispense than those in Chicago, as delineated below. This would make them less alluring to prospective malefactors without discouraging involvement by concerned parents.
Voter turnout in school board elections could be increased by eliminating proportional representation and separate voter registration, and by holding school board elections on the same day as citywide elections.
5. Reduce opportunities for corruption by elected officials. The number of positions that local boards and elected officials can fill should be decreased. Elected officials should appoint only executives who should then hire and fire their own staffs. Executives need this power if they are to be held accountable for results. Thus, a school-based board would hire the principal, who would control the rest of the school's employees. These reforms would decrease patronage opportunities while empowering executives to meet their goals.
Reformers should reduce opportunities for abuse and wasteful frills, which attract people with questionable motives to serve on local boards. Nepotism should be prohibited, or, at least, board members should recuse themselves from voting on jobs or perquisites concerning their relatives.
6. Protect program executives from patronage pressure. As the New York City example illustrates, reformers need to protect program executives from pressure by their elected bosses. Elected officials who interfere with executive hiring prerogatives should be removed. Individuals who appoint executives should be different from those who remove them. If school-based boards appoint principals, a central authority should be empowered to remove them for nonperformance or corruption.
7. Set up a central system for monitoring and investigation to deter wrongdoing. Devolution proponents often overlook the fact that decentralized government will still require strong central monitoring and investigation. All performance incentive systems, for instance, will require a central authority to monitor performance and ferret out illegitimate attempts to enhance performance, such as falsifying achievement records. Investigators and monitors are also needed in public choice systems because democratic choice needs safeguarding, as illustrated by politicians' exploitation of poor parents in New York City.
8. Launch investigations. Deterring corruption requires rigorous investigation. Establishing an independent watchdog that does not report to the agency it investigates can be critical, especially if corruption has been a problem. In-house investigative offices run the risk of sweeping problems under the carpet, as illuminated by studies uncovering the failures of in-house investigators in the New York City Police Department and the school system prior to the creation of the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District (Anatomy of Failure, 1994; Joint Commission, 1990b). To be effective, independent investigators require the power to arrest, subpoena, grant use or at least transactional immunity, and take testimony under oath.
9. Strengthen law enforcement. Investigation alone, however, is not enough. Corrupt officials must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law to send a strong message of zero tolerance for corruption. Prosecutors should coordinate law enforcement efforts with investigators, and both must secure the cooperation of management.
By making corruption harder to engage in and increasing the risks of vigorous prosecution, these reforms could produce substantial results. In any program, however, we should expect reform to encounter bitter opposition from local residents and employees who benefit from patronage. We can also expect resistance from politicians whose constituents have a stake in the continued existence of flawed decentralized programs. But, the consequences of not doing anything can be detrimental to the mission of essential government programs and to all the people these programs fail to help.
In early 1997, prompted by a series of heavily publicized school board scandals, New York amended its education law in an effort to curb corruption The passage of the law demonstrates how a decentralized system that does not have adequate safeguards can unleash scandals that hasten its demise. The new law strips New York City community school boards of many of their hiring and budgetary powers and consolidates control in the chancellor and school bureaucracy. School boards will no longer appoint principals, assistant principals or superintendents. However, boards will continue to hire teachers' aides. They will also remain involved in screening and forwarding the names of candidates for superintendent and evaluating their performance, among other enumerated powers. School board elections will continue to be based on a system of proportional representation. It remains to be seen what impact the law will have on the corruption discussed in this article.
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Lydia Segal is an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice with law degrees from Harvard Law School and Oxford University. She formerly served as counsel to the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City school district, where she directed numerous investigations involving a broad range of corruption in the New York City public school system. Her research interests and past publications are in the area of official corruption, waste, mismanagement, and public policy reform.…
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Publication information: Article title: The Pitfalls of Political Decentralization and Proposals for Reform: The Case of New York City Public Schools. Contributors: Segal, Lydia - Author. Journal title: Public Administration Review. Volume: 57. Issue: 2 Publication date: March-April 1997. Page number: 141+. © 1994 American Society for Public Administration. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.