The Columbus conflagration

Auditor of State Dave Yost released the findings of a special audit of the Columbus City Schools’s 2010–11 records last Tuesday. The audit investigated whether the district manipulated student data—reported for accountability and funding purposes—and what they found was abhorrent. The district was woefully out of compliance, intentionally and deliberately falsifying records to its own advantage. The auditor has referred its findings to city, county, and federal prosecutors. The audit of Columbus City Schools is part of a larger investigation into districts that “scrubbed” student records, with Columbus’s long-simmering data scandal, which first broke in Summer 2012, being the most egregious case.

It is a sorrowful time for Columbus. Our take on the report’s findings and how the city can begin to recover follow below.

Chad Aldis: Glimmers of hope

The Columbus education-data scandal, brought to light by the crackerjack reporting of the Columbus Dispatch, has been unfolding for a year and a half. During that time, there have been hundreds (if not thousands) of column inches devoted to the sordid details—so much so that I expected State Auditor Yost’s report to be little more than a period at the end of a sentence. I was wrong.

Reading through the report and observing public reaction to its findings leaves me feeling angry, appalled, and disgusted.

I’m angry that this could happen. We rely on our schools to educate our students, to look out for their interests, and to prepare them for the future. We don’t expect our schools to change student grades, reclassify graduates as twelfth-graders, and alter attendance records in an attempt to boost school funding, nor do we expect them to incorrectly withdraw and reenroll students to game state report cards. Yet Columbus City Schools did every one of these things.

I’m appalled that many of these fraudulent behaviors occurred for over a decade. It’s shocking that so many school administrators could be complicit in such outrageous conduct. This was systemic corruption by people in education—one of the noblest fields. I have every reason to believe that these were good people who entered education to make a difference and change student lives. Instead, they changed grades.

I’m disgusted when I hear or read that in some folks’ opinions, these (perhaps criminal) transgressions are the fault of accountability systems that track student performance and graduation rates. This is akin to suggesting that when prices rise and you have a hard time making ends meet, it’s okay to steal. It’s not. This was stealing from kids, from parents, from taxpayers, and from the public trust. Critics of accountability can rationalize or justify all they want, but they should think carefully about which side of this argument they want to be on.

And yet there are glimmers of hope. New Columbus superintendent Dan Good is determined to right the ship, and he’s not alone. Mayor Coleman and the Columbus City Council have continued to express their desire to reform this troubled school system. It will be important that the business, philanthropic, faith, and labor coalition that supported the work of the mayor’s Education Commission regroup and remain supportive of Good’s efforts. The next generation of Columbus children, as well as the city’s long-term future, may depend upon it.

Jeff Murray: Who has really lost?

So, the other shoe has dropped. And while perhaps the breadth of the deception within the Columbus City Schools’s data mines made news last week, the fact of data manipulation and its purpose were not.

All of us have lived with this knowledge for eighteen months: pundits, politicians, journalists, district board and staff, district parents, taxpayers, and the general public. We have all had our chances to vent based on our level of exposure to the damage or our ideological bent. Massive levy defeat, anyone? But very little changes with the release of this report, which really only serves to put names and numbers on what we were already certain was going on.

And I am left with only one reaction now: an education system charged with helping young people—ALL young people that are entrusted to it—has been corrupted at its highest levels by individuals who willingly and systematically turned children into bits of data to be erased in order to protect jobs and benefits.

Who lost? The most vulnerable children in the system, those already facing stark realities that no human would wish upon another. Failed again by bureaucracy that is supposed to—and is likely filled with people who want to—help them achieve better. Students’ academic lives erased with a single mouse click.

But, when a mouse click to secure a better grade for a school building—and the bonus that comes with it—can endanger the life of a child held prisoner in her home, we have all lost. Talk about “high stakes.”

Aaron Churchill: District must regain its moral compass

The Auditor of State’s report on Columbus City Schools is out. It’s gut wrenching, sobering, outrageous, scandalous, and painful all at the same time. The prophet Jeremiah’s lament over Jerusalem rings in my ears: “Your wound is as deep as the sea. Who can heal you?”

Essentially, the auditor’s report describes an organization that (1) ignored some laws while exploiting others, (2) was plagued by incoherent internal policies and rules, (3) enabled a handful of mid-level bureaucrats to gain excessive power, and (4) ultimately cracked because of internal weakness and external pressure.

In the report, we learn about how school administrators—sometimes months after the fact—“erased” absences from student records. We encounter academic failures and attempts by administrators to cover them up. We find adults driven by fear, not by principles; by perverse incentives, not by the mission of the organization. We find a well-intended program, one designed to help youngsters recover credit, that was carelessly managed. We find a virtually endless amount of neglect in recordkeeping and documentation. We discover the deliberate manipulation of information systems with the purpose of artificially inflating school performance. The cumulative effect of these transgressions was to deceive governments and the citizens of Columbus.

The report is a tragedy. And indeed, reading it is like watching a train wreck, a system failure, an implosion of the nth degree. Pick your simile—it ain’t pretty. There is literally nothing to cheer about in this report, and anyone who feels a twinge of schadenfreude has a heart of stone.

So, who can heal the deeply wounded Columbus City School District? I don’t know—and I sincerely doubt any one human can solve the district’s woes. I would say this, though: the organization’s recovery must start by rediscovering its moral compass. The organization has to learn again the meaning of honesty, integrity, industriousness, decency, teamwork, sacrifice, and humility. Surely some employees uphold these virtues—and as the auditor reports, there were indeed those who bravely rejected the organization’s unethical practices and “culture of deceit.” I may be naïve, but I hold out hope that there is a remnant of good women and men who together can rebuild this fallen leviathan.

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