Long ago, Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt.”
The same can be true of money.
One of the many tragedies accompanying the destructive debate over education “reform” in Indiana is the way those two corrupting forces – power and money – have come together.
The mini-drama surrounding state Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, is but the latest example. Behning, who is chair of the House Education Committee, had plans to do lobbying in other states for an educational testing company that also does business in Indiana. After The Indianapolis Star broke the story about his plans – and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, indicated he disapproved of his education committee chairman’s latest career choice – Behning did an about-face. He said he wouldn’t lobby on education issues, after all.
Behning’s pirouette produced a political brushfire. Behning’s ethical tone deafness drew most of the heat.
Lost in the smoke, though, were the nature of the temptation and how that temptation is corrupting both government and education.
As the Behning episode demonstrates, some of that corruption can occur at the personal level.
Most state lawmakers are not wealthy people. They generally are middle-class or upper middle-class citizens who make spending decisions involving billions of dollars. They also see those decisions making other people wealthier than kings.
If the lawmakers watched all that money flowing back and forth and did not wonder if they could find a way to bathe in such a river of gold, too, they would be something other than human.
This is particularly true when it comes to education spending, which is a massive part of most states’ budgets.
And that leads to a larger kind of corruption involving the discussion about education policy.
When the current education reform movement began, it started as a way to open stultified schools to innovation and improve performance through competition.
Charter schools were supposed to pilot new approaches to education that, if successful, could be applied to all public schools. Vouchers were supposed to give students – and their parents – in substandard schools a way to move to better schools.
By unleashing innovation and creating competition, student achievement would climb.
It hasn’t worked out that way. There is no definitive evidence that either charters or vouchers have improved educational outcomes, despite the massive sums spent on them.
But that hasn’t persuaded education reformers to alter course. They just have changed their arguments.
Behning has been at the forefront of this new justification for charters and vouchers. When questioned a while back in a legislative committee meeting about whether Indiana’s experiment with school choice had been effective, he brushed the question aside as irrelevant.
The goal was to empower parents, Behning said.
But, if that’s the case, why is paying for school a public, rather than a private and individual, responsibility?
If a school’s job was simply to please parents, it would make more sense just to have parents pay for their kids’ educations themselves. (Similarly, if education was just about job training, it would be more efficient to have businesses design and pay for the schools themselves.)
No, our public education system was supposed to prepare people for the responsibilities of citizenship. That’s why everyone has to pay for it, including those taxpayers who don’t have children or grandchildren, because it’s supposed to be in everyone’s interest to have well-educated citizens.
It’s because education is a public responsibility (and duty) that we can require children to attend school. We deny them – and their parents – the choice not to go to school because it isn’t in the public interest for us to have unprepared and unproductive citizens.
That’s also why, in a rational world with a true commitment to accountability, we would abandon vouchers and charters if we don’t see concrete results soon.
That will be hard to do, though, when entire industries (testing, consulting, lobbying) have been established around this new educational structure. The folks accumulating fortunes by building those industries will do anything – try to hire an education committee chair as a lobbyist, alter school grades to reward ideological biases – to preserve the system that’s making them rich or entrenching them in positions of authority, however flawed that system may be.
Lord Acton nailed it: They tend to corrupt.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.