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Commentary: Local (Self) Control

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 4, 2011 - Last week, a St. Louis Public School principal was reported to have orchestrated systematic fraud in her attendance reporting, inflating the numbers to increase the money she'd get from the state in accordance with the federal mandate, No Child Left Behind.

First, she asked teachers to log attendance by hand. Then, she instructed the school secretary, when typing attendance into the computerized records, to change absences to presents, and others to tardies.

A couple weeks ago I remarked that cheating adults working in education are people who are scared.  Now I think that was only partially true. School-based cheaters can also be covetous.

This is an old-fashioned word. Its roots lie in the name of Cupid, the boy god of love. People who covet are excessively desirous. They want the thing or the results that they want more than they should. In gambling, they covet the feeling of winning. In marriage, they covet sexual or romantic experience. Most of us covet something, to one degree or another, at one time or another. I know I do.

But what turns coveting and fearful souls into actual cheaters and scammers? What, on the other hand, and barring scary and coercive threats of fire and brimstone, restrains people from acting on their worst impulses? This seems to me one of the most important question we ought to be asking kids to think about in schools right now.

I am around a lot of people who teach, people all over the city and county, in public schools, independent secular schools, religious schools, charter schools. I know they care a lot about their students' consciences. They think about what can be done to shape the decision-making kids do. Most of these teachers cannot stand it when someone with more power than they have undermines the moral lesson in this or that circumstance. Undermining happens all the time.

I happen to believe the conscience is cobbled together as needed on the spot, in context, and draws upon a whole bunch of voices in our heads. What we hope is that the voices telling a kid to do the right thing are super strong, nurtured to the point of reliability. How do we guide children to make the kinds of decisions that work in their best interest? How do we help them figure out what their own best interest is?

These may not be questions that appear on the MAP test, so never mind them for now.

Now back to our principal. Before rushing to the pillory, let's take a moment to think about what might have informed her motives. The voices in this principal's head suggested (and I am inferring here) that the increased money she would receive from the state was worth cheating to obtain. She seems to have coveted a particular outcome.

(Her secretary, by the way, is quoted as saying that falsifying the attendance records seemed to her not to be "appropriate." In another scenario, the secretary might have refused to make the changes. Fear can stifle whistleblowers.)

"The principal reason we look at this is to follow the money," Missouri Auditor Thomas Schweich was quoted as saying.

We need more people following the money. Here's a suggestion. Go to this website: dese.mo.gov/schooldata/school_data. Scroll through school districts and click on one you have an interest in. I looked at the School Finance Report for St. Louis City. As a city resident, I am curious about the revenue in the operating funds of St. Louis Public Schools. Where does the money that funds our schools come from? In 2010, about 57.5 percent came from St. Louis city taxpayers. State dollars accounted for 18.9 percent, and funding from the federal government (channeled through the state) accounted for 23.6 percent.

By way of comparison, in the same year, taxpayers of Ladue paid for 95 percent of their district's revenue. The state paid 4.2 percent and the federal government, 1 percent.

If I were teaching this episode in school, I would ask: what do you think it means that some communities are able to pay for almost everything that happens in their district, and other communities are not? And what, if anything, does this have to do with moral decision-making?

Inda Schaenen is a writer and teacher in St. Louis. 

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