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Throwing the book at educators while ignoring financiers and CEOs

Publication Date: 2013-05-25

This is from Get Schooled, Maureen Downey's Atlanta Journal Constitution blog, May 25, 2013. At the same time the law aggressively prosecutes educators accused of cheating such as Beverly Hall, it ignores the wrongdoing of CEOS whose misdeeds brought the world economy to its knees, says a guest columnist today.

by Maureen Downey

This is a long piece on the treatment of educators charged with wrongdoing compared to the treatment of titans of industry charged with wrongdoing. Please read the full piece before commenting and please consider the author's argument.

Kim K. Metcalf is director of Institutional Research and Planning at the University of West Georgia and served as dean of the College of Education from 2008 until 2012.

By Kim K. Metcalf

As I often do when life's ironies present themselves, I first chuckled when I began to notice the conflicting and generally hypocritical approaches taken to the two situations. But then, as I began to hear and think more about it, I found myself becoming first angry and then disturbed by what this particular irony says about our society.

Local, national, and even international news has recently been filled with stories on alleged cheating on standardized tests by educators in several states. Notable among these has been intense scrutiny on test scores gains made by often idealized chancellor of the Washington, DC, schools, Michelle Rhee. However, as a lifelong educator and as an inhabitant of Atlanta, I have been particularly aware of the reporting and commentary on the alleged scandalous behavior of at least 35 educators in Atlanta Public Schools and the charges that Fulton County Prosecutor Paul Howard has brought against them. If these allegations are proven true, these teachers and administrators betrayed their professional and moral ethics by knowingly altering students’ test scores on Georgia's mandated standardized test, the Criterion Referenced Competency Exam.

Whether these individuals were motivated by fear of retribution from those above if students' scores did not improve, by personal ambition or greed for the benefits that came with improving student test scores, or by their frustration over what they perceived to be over-emphasis on test scores by policy makers and legislators, they stand accused of knowingly choosing to act in completely inappropriate ways. These educators allegedly betrayed the trust that our society places in them both for helping our children grow and for serving as important, positive role models. For this immense breach, Mr. Howard invoked RICO. These alleged criminals are being prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act for "racketeering, theft, false swearing, and making false statements." Since the RICO Act was created to provide law enforcement with a unique and powerful tool to prosecute these engaged in heinous organized crimes, this is serious business indeed.

Often highlighted is that former APS Superintendent Beverly Hall made nearly $500,000 in bonuses during her 10-year term. And, just as frequently noted, these bonuses were based, at least in part, upon dramatic improvements in student test scores in the district. Dr. Hall is accused at best of failing to know or do anything about the cheating and, at worst, of creating an environment in which the pressure to raise test scores was so great that others felt or were explicitly compelled to do whatever necessary to raise the scores. The severity of these allegations led Mr. Howard to initially request $7.5 million bail -- about 30 times Dr. Hall's former annual salary of $275,000 and to file charges against Dr. Hall that could result in up to 45 years in prison.

Over several months Georgia State Investigator Richard Hyde and Prosecutor Howard organized and widely publicized the charges against the APS educators. And, at virtually the same time, a set of parallel events were taking place in Washington. It is these events that highlight the contrast.

Among the first of these events was a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee in February. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren led harsh questioning of bank regulators about the lack of action against those whose actions had led to the recent worldwide economic meltdown. Particularly important was the response provided by the regulators when Sen. Warren asked, "When was the last time federal regulators had pursued criminal charges against the leaders of the financial institutions most responsible for the crisis?" A reasonable question. The regulators response: deafening silence. They couldn’t answer the question because there have been no criminal actions against individuals in these cases.

About a month later, and almost precisely as Mr. Howard was publicizing the charges against the Atlanta educators, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In this instance, Republican Chuck Grassley pressed the Attorney General as to why there had been so few prosecutions of financial institution executives. Reluctantly, Mr. Holder allowed that there had, in fact, been no pursuit of criminal action in these cases. He went on to explain that "some of these institutions [are] so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them." The federal government was too intimidated to take action against those who plunged the world into the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. This led in following days to the oft used and openly cynical headline, "Too big to fail, too big to jail."

Notably, the median salary for the CEO of a major U.S. financial institution is $10.6 million. The CEOs of the companies most directly implicated in inciting the economic crash received an average of $5.7 million dollars in annual individual bonuses in the years immediately following this debacle. At the same time, their actions have been estimated to have cost the U.S. economy more than $12.8 trillion (with a T) dollars.

Whether these individuals were motivated by fear of retribution from stock holders, personal ambition or greed that accrued by misrepresenting the financial performance of their companies, or by their frustration over what they perceived to be over-regulation of their industry by legislators, they knowingly acted in wreckless, deceptive, and inappropriate ways. For this, regulators and prosecutors have been moved toâ€Â¦, well, to do absolutely nothing.

Please don't misunderstand my point. If the accused educators betrayed the implicit trust we placed in them, they should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. And, to the extent Dr. Hall (or Ms. Rhee or others) knew of or encouraged these activities, firm and timely punishment must be demanded. Perhaps it is even appropriate to use the RICO Act against this small group of educators who changed students’ scores on a standardized test. But it does seem ironic that, in contrast, the well-compensated individuals whose similarly unethical and immoral behavior has led to the financial ruin of a substantial proportion of U.S. households, small businesses, and both local and state governments have been exempted from any prosecution at all. While those educators accused changing students’ scores on a standardized test have been banished from their profession and are being tried for racketeering, those financiers who have been linked to fiscal negligence and deceit that affected the world economy have largely been ignored.

We "boldly" impose the RICO Act on educators in Atlanta whose average salary with a masters degree would be about $45,600 for changing answers on students’ tests to make it appear that students learned more than they actually had. We immediately terminate them, revoke their professional licenses, file serious criminal charges against them, and plead for high bail amounts and long prison sentences. In contrast, we cravenly turn a blind eye to financiers, whose average salary was more than 200 times that of the educators, for misrepresenting the risks associated with questionable and opaque investments and for making them appear safer and more profitable than they actually were. These individuals not only retained their jobs, they received multi-million dollar bonuses in the years afterward, and not a single charge has been filed against any of them.

There are several things that this might indicate about our culture, and none of them are particularly pleasant to contemplate. Still, let’s consider three.

First, the contrast may reveal our altruistic belief in the fundamental value of education. Of the possible statements the current situation might make about us, this one is probably the most uplifting. Perhaps it says, "We believe that educating our children in ethical and professional ways is far more important than making money." We hold educators to far higher standards than financiers because the criticality of the work they do cannot be neglected. The behavior of those who work with our children is simply more valuable to our society than the work or behavior of those who merely manipulate capital.

We so aggressively pursue criminal and professional sanctions against educators while completely ignoring similar behavior on the part of financiers because we deeply and concretely value education of children over investment banking. Unfortunately, the facts get in the way. A view of the primacy of education over capital conflicts with the dramatic cuts that have been made in education funding at all levels in the past four years as a result, ironically enough, of the fiscal crisis. At the same time trillions of tax dollars have been poured into our financial institutions. And, at a more individual level, the difference in compensation between the average salary of a little over $45,000 for those who teach our children, or even the $275,000 salary earned by Dr. Hall, and the average salary of more than $10 million for those who invest our money seems to refute our ability to assume our own best intentions.

A second possibility is that the seeming irony of this situation is a result of an intentional civic decision to pursue and publicize only the most convenient criminal cases. (emphasis added) Our politicians and judicial system seek robust professional and legal sanctions against educators who violate our trust, their professional ethics, or the law, but they elect not to pursue any sanctions at all for equally heinous behavior in the financial community because the former is easier than the latter. Educators and their employers don't have the capacity to aggressively challenge these sanctions in court. An attorney commenting on the APS situation noted that most of the cases won’t go to trial because the defendants don't have enough money to fight their individual cases long enough to win. They'll plead to lesser counts because they have no real choice.

In contrast, as Attorney General Holder openly admitted in his Senate hearing, pursuing criminal charges against those who contributed to the financial crisis is problematic even with the resources of the federal government. These individuals and the investment firms that employ them have overwhelming resources to draw upon to fight the charges. Perhaps even more importantly, the members of the "12 trillion dollar club" and their firms can not only afford the highest quality legal representation money can buy, they can also call into action the most aggressive lobbyists and political operatives to seek retribution against those politicians and judges who pursue them. The Atlanta educators have none of this; they represent "low hanging fruit" for prosecutors and politicians.

Most sadly and most likely, there is no irony at all. We demand that educators demonstrate highly moral and ethical behavior, not only in their professional but also their personal lives, because we view them and the work they do as more closely aligned with missionary or pastoral endeavors than with professional (read "money making") pursuits. On the other hand, we largely expect financiers to lie, cheat, and deceive us and others so long as they appear to be making money for someone, even if it isn't us. The ways in which we as a society attend to education versus our capital markets and the vast differences in the ways we compensate those who teach our children and those who manipulate our capital seem to support this.

The vastly different ways in which our legal and political systems have pursed these different situations, and the ways in which our media has chosen to report and even sensationalize them are disheartening. But, politicians act as they do because we continue to elect them, and members of the media report as they do because we continue to tune into them and to buy the products they market. Ultimately, then, the most damning implications of this are not about politicians or members of the media, nor even about educators or financiers. The most disturbing implication to be drawn from this irony is about the level of hypocrisy we as a society are willing to condone.

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