Sociology of Education: Corruption and Funding

Education is one of the most important fields of social life and development. In spite of great cultural and social achievements, education is still one of the main problems for the American population and political figures. What would make traditional education sufficient is its integration, with wisdom, with a moral vision that informs and directs the insights, reflections, and findings of serious inquiry towards a just world. The pursuit of knowledge, the delights of analysis, and the fun of building models are not what the suffering hope for.

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This ferment is sure to spread to notions of what constitutes a valid education. Even now, society can envision a shift in emphasis from mastery to mystery, from objectivity to subjectivity, from departmental studies to holistic inquiries (Enders and Jongbloed 23).

Most importantly, political leaders and educators must come to grips with the growing realization that knowledge cannot legitimately be separated from its historical and moral contexts, that school authorities must construct a curriculum that takes into account the intensely relational nature of knowledge. As educators determined to direct energies toward the horrors of unnecessary human suffering, school authorities must be particularly concerned with the task of consciously infusing scholarly traditions with moral visions. Schools corruption and funding are the main problems that affected modern education and the school system in America.

Schools are not churches, and teachers are not pastors, but there clearly are tensions between schools and universities and between the demands of school practices and the canons of academic research (Enders and Jongbloed 20). It is also clear that the road to status, privilege, and fame is not the gravel country road of school teaching but the slickly engineered Interstate highway of the Academy. West’s efforts to respond constructively to the crises he describes begin with some ideas on the role and consciousness of the seminary professor— the analog to those involved with the preparation of educators (Enders and Jongbloed 21).

Moreover, since universities and colleges greatly depend upon resources provided by the dominant social and cultural institutions, they are very reluctant to become agencies of transformation. The effect on faculty who want to succeed, or at least stay, in the university is to channel scholarship to the safer currents of detached investigation. In the case of capital e-Education, there is the additional influence of the expectation of the public school system, institutions not known for their love of criticism or for their devotion to social transformation. Clearly, academics often affirm particular elements of scholarly ethics such as civility, fairness, honesty, and openness.

In addition, researchers frequently focus on the ethical, political, and moral dimensions of their topics. Such issues are also dealt with institutionally when major curriculum changes in the university are suggested. The continuing debate on the centrality of the study of Western civilization has certainly served to stimulate reflection and discussion on what constitutes the society’s and the university’s central value system. However, many, if not most, faculty remain chary if not anxious about how their own moral and political convictions are related to their professional and scholarly work (Enders and Jongbloed 28).

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Some still insist that the concerns of objectivity and neutrality offer, if not attainable, then reasonable and proper guidelines. Others, particularly junior faculty, are very reluctant to risk promotion and tenure by going against the grain of the conventional academic ethos. Many faculty believe that it is possible, if not desirable, to separate their personal lives from their work and to choose to exercise their social responsibilities beyond the gates of academia (Lucas 72).

Traditions of education run directly counter to the terms of indictment, traditions that speak to independence, contemplativeness, distance, reverence, and the selfless pursuit of truth and wisdom (Lucas 72). There is little real interest in reducing higher education’s colonization by and of the culture or in significantly reducing commitment to the secularization of the university. However, there does seem to be a fairly strong and persistent voice that calls on the university to return to a focus on study and scholarship and to restrict its membership to those who have a deep “love of learning” or with the potential to develop such a devotion.

Many people find this approach to be very satisfying personally, and it has the further advantage of providing the possibility of disassociating the university from complicity in social injustices and cultural injuries. It would, however, be a lot more acceptable to educators if they believed that all this could be done without enhancing elitism and privileged hierarchy and in a way that such an opportunity could be afforded to those so inclined regardless of income, class, gender, race, or any other needlessly restrictive category (Manafo 648).

Such an enterprise seems relatively frivolous in the present context of immense, unnecessary human suffering, and perhaps one index of a just society would be the persuasive absence of such a reservation. It is imperative that school authorities always consider the social context of any proposed reforms in higher education and at the same time to continue to insist that they be considered within a moral context in which peace, freedom, and justice are indivisible and where there is a strong determination not to gain at the expense of others as well as a solid commitment to the liberation of all people (Lucas 72).

One important general theme is that of conflict between schools and the District Boards. Almost all studies present a view akin that free common schooling emerged out of a conflict between identifiable social groups: economic classes, political parties or factions, ethnic groups, religious denominations, and so on. The supporters and opponents of common schools are usually described in terms of their memberships in such groups, and their actions are interpreted as rational expressions of the interests of the groups to which they belong. Ordinary people are also presumed to derive their attitudes toward free common schooling from their group memberships and to vote accordingly (Manafo 648).

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Furthermore, the general shape assumed by the schools once established is usually seen as determined by the winners in this conflict or power struggle (Rose 28). Based on a comparison of studies of individual cities or small groups of cities that deal with the period of the origins of the common schools in northern cities, whether these be eastern seaboard cities, inland cities, lakeport cities, or cities on the “urban frontier,” it is possible to draw a generalized portrait of urban public school development that does no great violence to the details of each case.

The establishment of a system of free common schools was preceded by a period in which a broad array of private and charity schools were providing schooling to a large fraction of the school-aged children, usually between one-quarter and one-half. These schools formed a vertical hierarchy of cost and status, paralleling and reflecting the city’s economic class structure (Rose 92).

Corruption in schools can be explained by the fact that at a certain time, perhaps having to do mainly with demographic factors, a small group of free school promoters emerged to lead a brief and almost always successful struggle to implement a system of common schools (Rose 92). They did this in concert with a legislative body — state legislature or common council or both — and often, there was some kind of referendum election in which the free school question was put to the voters.

Though vigorous arguments were made on both sides, the voters typically approved the new system by a substantial, if not overwhelming, margin. The leaders of the common school movement were predominantly native-born, Protestant, and drawn from professional and commercial occupations. They shared a common belief in the responsibility of government to actively promote economic growth, morality, and civic unity, an ideology associated with but certainly not limited to the Whig party. The opposition to common schools was diverse and poorly organized and often included some large landholders, proprietors of private schools, and Catholic leaders. If the opposition shared an ideology at all, it was a belief in localism, limited government, and economic laissez-faire. In his article, Segal states (1997):

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…” (141).

The arguments on both sides were so predictable as to be ritualistic. Those who favored common schools argued partly from the motive of boosterism, suggesting that rapid urban growth was in the best interests of all the people and that no city could attract the right kind of settlers without a credible system of free common schools. They were also quite likely to suggest that schooling would reduce crime, vice, and poverty and increase the productivity of workers (Rose 91).

Since the system was expected to replace the hierarchical private schools, there was a strongly egalitarian flavor to their arguments–much talk of children of the rich and poor drinking at the same fountains of knowledge–and a case was made that the new schools would be able to operate at a much lower per-pupil cost than the “system” of private and charity schools. The opponents argued that the city and its taxpayers could not afford free schools for all children, at least not at that time, that these schools would deprive private school teachers of their livelihood, and that it was socially undesirable that children from different groups attend the same schools. They may also have argued that the provision of education was not a proper function of government and that the collection of school taxes was illegal. They might have brought a legal challenge (Rose and Gallup 41).

The fledgling school system was usually under the charge of a relatively small elected or appointed board, including a number of those who had been its champions, and they struggled with the problems of building or renting space, buying desks, hiring and paying teachers and janitors, defining a curriculum, and selecting textbooks (Torre 92). Early on, one common problem was to rid the new schools of the incubus of the “pauper” school label and to convince middle-class parents to send their children to them. Within the first two decades, a series of conflicts threatened the system, the most predictable of which was a conflict over what to do about religion in the schools and what to do on the questions of racial separation and equality (Segal 445).

The public high school came in for special criticism. Its existence was threatened off and on throughout the decades, either by a minority faction of the board or by legal challenges. Arguments were made that the high school was an illegal extension of the common school, that it was attended only by the children of the rich at the expense of the poor, and that it drained off scarce resources to educate a few at the expense of the many. Attacks on the high school were successfully deflected by the arguments that the school was indeed legal, that it enrolled children from all classes in society, and that it was the only chance that those from poor families had to enter the professional and commercial ranks of society (Torre et al. 33).

A more interesting point, though, is the frequency with which scholars mention that the free school question was a cause for a factional split within a major party and/or a defection to a third party. In Cincinnati and Atlanta, nearly fifty years apart, the split occurred within the Democratic ranks. In Detroit, when the issue was taxation for the common schools, the split took place within the Whig party, but when the issue became one of the public funds for Catholic schools, it was the Democrats who were badly and irreversibly divided. The situation seems quite different in the case of early racial conflicts over the schools (Torre et al. 33).

One is, of course, not surprised to see racial issues emerge as an important dimension in the founding of the free schools in southern cities. More surprising, perhaps, is that it was a significant question in northern cities. And, indeed, the solution was much the same: the creation of separate and inferior schools for black children. In northern cities, as in southern, blacks were most often housed in rented or otherwise inferior buildings; provided with less qualified teachers, white or black; and offered a truncated curriculum that did not allow them to proceed beyond grammar school. Few such failures touched people more directly than the failure to provide sufficient schools for their children.

Thus, reformers could appeal to a wide range of voters by invoking the language of anti-bossism and the language of social efficiency in campaigns against ward-based schools or “tyrannical” superintendents. Coalitions formed quickly if people were convinced that their children were attending overcrowded schools or were being kept out of school because of the corruption and inefficiency of a “machine.” Rapid enrollment growth also shaped the ways in which reformers implemented their new policies and practices (Torre et al. 31).

The predominance of school reforms steeped in the language of social efficiency, particularly in regard to the bureaucratization of schools, may be viewed as a response to enormous increases in enrollment. No other organizational structure could have dealt with the flood of children. Even the curricular reforms of the era, rooted in the language of social bonds, can be viewed as part of the response to the rapid growth in enrollment. Segal (1997) underlines:

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” (141).

In other words, the pressures of maintaining order in schools overflowing with children created an environment in which reformers promoted curricular reforms that made school easier by stressing relevant subject matter, social relationships, nonacademic enrichment courses, and extracurricular activities. Curricular reformers justified these innovations as encouraging the growth of the social nature of human beings. In this view, the substantial increase in school enrollments was the catalyst for a series of reforms (Enders and Jongbloed 28).

As ward-based school boards proved incapable of dealing with these enrollment increases, reformers launched campaigns couched in the languages of oppression and social efficiency, promising to do a better job in providing public education. Similarly, enrollment increases also encouraged new policies and practices that made school and classroom management easier. These changes, often implemented by principals and teachers who faced the problems of overcrowded classrooms and disciplining students every day, were less directly tied to the reform campaigns. Indeed, in some cities, school leaders introduced curricular reforms designed to smoothly process large numbers of children through the system prior to the abolition of the ward structure (Enders and Jongbloed 72).

Although the passage of the school ordinance established the public school system, its continuation remained in doubt in its first years as several divisive issues seemed to endanger the existence of the fledgling institution. Two of these issues appeared early and lingered long, and both concerned the cost of the public schools. One set the board of education against the city council, and the other set the black community against the white power structure (Enders and Jongbloed 22).

The board of education was totally dependent on the city council for money, and educators increasingly complained that the council was not funding the educational system adequately and that its members knew little about education and less about Atlanta’s schools. Educators especially lamented the inaction of the council in meeting the crises of space and low teachers’ salaries. Educators were ultimately forced to confront the city council directly because even the board of education, whom he considered his natural allies in the struggle for increased appropriations, grew tired of his constant complaints and curtly dismissed many of his urgent requests and suggestions.

Their reaction to him may have resulted from his changing attitude toward them for, exasperated by the school system’s deficiencies and knowing that all aspects of the system save funding were under the control of the board of education, school authorities also increased, year by year, his private and public criticism of the board. In sum, public education came late to New Orleans, and less money for schools was provided than in cities of comparable size.

Much of the early findings for public schools came from a private source (Segal 143). A large private school system was in competition with the public schools for students, and black and immigrant education, though important, was not the key issue in school politics. Groups like the SEB were not as successful in Louisiana as they had been elsewhere. Public education was simply less important than in other cities, and local battles over the schools were far less visible and vocal than elsewhere (Enders and Jongbloed 88).

Moreover, the argument advanced by advocates of nationwide aid to education was often conservative in a narrowly specific sense, focused on northern cities. The debates also made clear that the core of the problem the city posed was its immigrant population (Lucas 66). The illiterate “balance of power” that prevailed in every northern state and other speakers repeatedly employed the same formula. It was significant, indeed, in that grave public questions might be decided by the changing opinions of a body of illiterate voters.

The arguments that advocates of aid to land-grant colleges advanced were familiar, but they may serve to document still further the conservative orientation that underlay congressional interest in education. Here as in supporting aid to common schools, senators held out to their colleagues an extraordinary vision of public higher education as a guarantee of the nation’s welfare and material progress (Enders and Jongbloed 58).

The words “productive” and “competitive” reappear with regularity as if to reassure everyone that this piece of educational legislation is for real. That is, it is specifically designed for the very real and heavily competitive world of the global economy (Lucas 99). The political and economic contexts for the significance of the legislation had been long established and astonishingly largely accepted enough. School authorities are to believe that America is in a desperate struggle for economic dominance, if not survival with other more disciplined and hardworking nations.

Researchers (Lucas 65) are in this predicament and in danger of losing even more ground in part because of slackness and mediocrity in schools, as it is clear that competitor nations are outdistancing society in intellectual achievements, particularly in the crucial areas of science, technology, and mathematics. What is urgently needed then is to stiffen will, increase standards, demand more work from students and teachers, and carefully scrutinize and monitor educational achievement.

The problem is a lack of sufficiently trained cadres of hardworking, productive, technologically savvy workers, and the solution is for the schools to cull out those with promise and motivate, train, test, and produce them. The cry became: “The nation is at risk— fix the schools.” This readily accepted myth represents policies that serve a number of purposes (Enders and Jongbloed 92). First, it co-opts the public schools to accept their primary task to be that of feeding and sustaining the interests of international capitalists who require a lot of hardworking, productive, technologically savvy workers, and a great number of people who believe that this is the only right and proper purpose of education.

Secondly, it distracts parents and children into believing that social and economic problems are rooted in schools rather than in social and economic policies and institutions, thereby avoiding rather messy and troubling questions on what constitutes a just and equitable system of distributing wealth and privilege. Thirdly, it provides a convenient justification to impose more control, uniformity, and orthodoxy in a culture very unsure and uneasy about dissent, difference, and pluralism. In New York schools, decentralization is the main cause of corruption. Segal (1997) writes:

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. Political agendas like increasing local jobs or promoting ethnic succession, rules designed to achieve these goals can open the door to favoritism (145).

The grading system is also influenced by poor and inadequate policies and a lack of research in this sphere. For instance, first, grades tell a student about the quality of his achievements, or lack thereof, and the relationship of his work to that of other students; they let a student know in honest terms where he stands. Surely not to do so, or to mislead students by declining to make such discriminations or to disguise them harms students most of all (Enders and Jongbloed 192).

It is possible to reach an important conclusion: there can be no academic standards for students if there is no grading or if grading is relative to effort alone or to egalitarian social policy rather than individual achievement (Enders and Jongbloed 195). Academic institutions that cannot or will not make such distinctions must, in the long run, suffer because there is a functional connection between academic standards and the health of higher education–health in higher education is in large part dependent upon the academic standards that guide the activities, the life, the very being of colleges and universities.

If that is so, then the decline of academic standards, as most clearly illustrated by inflated grades based on policies or practices that fail to discriminate among levels of student achievement, signals a fundamental corruption and a betrayal of its duty to society. Most people are certainly not willing to settle for “an amiable mediocrity” in and from their schools. Nor do most subscribe to the belief that schools, especially colleges, should try and be all things to all men and teach whatever and however students or faculty want. Indeed not, and as recent public opinion polls have shown there is increasing public support for the reform of education, from preschool through graduate school, the better to turn again onto the path toward sound academic purposes and defensible academic standards (Enders and Jongbloed 76).

In response to, or in tune with, this public desire for renewed competence in education, state legislatures, boards of regents and trustees, academic senates, school boards, and parent-teacher organizations have taken the first steps–if only through recognition and discussion of the problem–necessary to repair the damage.

In sum, the kind of economic policy which drives the educational programs and schools in America had an enormous influence not only on material issues but also on social relationships with each other and on basic human values. It is a time when meritocracy has shifted from being a term of accusation and dread to one of approbation and celebration, a time of a re-energized and revalidated social Darwinism. The new post-industrial society and post-modern culture require highly skilled, tough-minded, highly sophisticated people who can and do change intellectual, cultural, and moral loyalties easily and joyfully.

Corruption and lack of funding discourage solidarity among people since people are not seen as family members but as competitors. It is a vision that is so powerful that educators find themselves having to work very hard to make convincing and persuasive arguments on the importance of caring and compassion.

The fact that nourishing the impulse to care is seen as an intriguing and interesting educational innovation and that the presence of guns is now accepted as commonplace in the school is a powerful testimony to the desperation and divisiveness in American culture. A typical form of criticism begins with a disclaimer on criticizing the goals themselves and then proceeds to take the legislation to task for not providing sufficient funds for these well-intentioned goals or for not recognizing the structural problems that are barriers to achieving these lofty aspirations.

Works Cited

  1. Enders, J., Jongbloed, W. Public-Private Dynamics in Higher Education: Expectations, Developments and Outcomes. Transcript Verlag, Roswitha Gost, 2006.
  2. Lucas, Ch. Teacher Education in America: Reform Agendas for the Twenty-First Century. Palgrave MacMillan, 1999.
  3. Manafo, M. Enhancing the Value of Public Education. Phi Delta Kappan, 87 (2006): 648.
  4. Rose, A. , Gallup, A. Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes toward the Public Schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 87 (2005): 41-45.
  5. Rose, Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America Longman, 2005.
  6. Segal, L. Roadblocks in Reforming Corrupt Agencies: The Case of the New York City School Custodians. Public Administration Review, 62 (2002): 445.
  7. Segal, L. The Pitfalls of Political Decentralization and Proposals for Reform: The Case of New York City Public Schools. Public Administration Review, 57 (1997): 141-145.
  8. Torre, W., Rubalcava, L. A., Cabello, B. Urban Education in America: A Critical Perspective. Kendall Hunt Pub Co, 2004.
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