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This Year’s Best Reporting on Education

We review some of
2013’s best education-related accountability news.

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(Flickr)

From jaw-dropping pay and perks at universities to a $1-billion plan to purchase iPads, here are some of 2013’s best accountability stories in education. See something we missed? Flag your favorites in the comments.

 

Higher-ed perks and pay

New York University's pay practices and unusual perks for top administrators and star professors got some attention in the New York Times. The non-profit university -- which has among the nation’s highest student-debt loads -- gave a $685,000 bonus to executive VP Jacob Lew when he left the school for Citigroup in 2006. Over time, the Times reported, the school also forgave $440,000 of what Lew owed in mortgages. NYU president John Sexton also got mortgage loans for an expensive vacation home. In response to the criticism, the university said it would stop lending money to its top employees for their second homes. 

A column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette memorialized a longtime adjunct professor at Duquesne University who died after being let go without severance or retirement benefits from the school where she had taught 25 years, even while suffering from cancer. The piece once again brought attention to the low-wage adjuncts that make up a growing share of the teaching ranks at universities. Duquesne University argued that many at the university cared and reached out personally to the adjunct, Margaret Mary Vojtko, said her situation was “wholly unrelated to her employment status.”

Elsewhere, a considerably more famous adjunct professor was slated to receive far more generous compensation, until Gawker got ahold of the numbers. The City University of New York offered to pay former CIA Director David Petraeus $200,000 to lead a seminar, which Petraeus graciously agreed to do even though he told school officials in emails that he "could have gotten more money or more prestigious places." After it all emerged, Petraeus ended up announcing that he'd teach for $1.

 

For-profit college shenanigans 

Corinthian Colleges Inc., the parent company for many for-profit schools, paid temp agencies to hire its graduates in order to pump up job-placement rates for its schools – and thus allowing Corinthian to continue to qualify for billions in federal student aid dollars from the government, according to the Huffington Post. Lured into the for-profit colleges by savvy marketing and assurances of career-services help that would lead to employment, students signed up, took on sizeable loans, and landed positions that were actually paid for by the school and designed to turn over quickly so new graduates could fill their places.

Faced with falling undergraduate enrollment, for-profit school giant DeVry has been trying to diversify itself through medical education, operating for-profit medical schools in the Caribbean that still qualify to participate in federal student aid programs and enroll students who didn’t make it into US medical schools, Bloomberg Markets reported. The attrition rate is high. Other for-profit med schools that don’t qualify for federal student aid have found a loophole: aligning themselves with online master’s programs at schools in the United States.

 

Racial and income inequality

How do you begin to talk about learning at schools when your students are just trying to get there and back alive? A gripping series – in two parts – by This American Life took listeners inside Harper High School on the South Side of Chicago and inside the world of students whose daily existence is shadowed by the specter of gun violence and fears of getting jumped.

For years, George Washington University said it practiced “need-blind” admissions. In fact, the university had long been taking students’ financial resources into account when making final admissions decisions and would opt to accept students with more resources over poorer students with comparable – or even better – qualifications, the student newspaper, the GW Hatchet, reported.

Fifty years ago, Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to block desegregation. Today, de facto segregation at the school still exists, found the school newspaper, The Crimson White. Look no further than its Greek system, which the paper described as “still almost completely divided along racial lines.”

 

Funny money, funny math, and other (mis)management issues

Chicago taxpayers will be paying for decades for facilities improvements on schools that now sit shuttered, the Chicago Tribune reported. That’s because officials in Chicago Public Schools ignored demographic projections of declining enrollment and borrowed billions for construction anyway – while contributing nothing to teacher pension funds for a decade. Over the long term, a growing percentage of general state aid – historically used to fund operations -- has been going to pay off bond debt.

Los Angeles Unified School District’s $1-billion plan to provide all its students with iPads is not going well, the Los Angeles Times has been reporting. For one, the district made the purchase largely funded through bonds that would have to be paid back over 25 years – and only announced in November that it didn’t own the educational software permanently as previously stated, but would have to renew its license for it in three years, adding to the price tag.

Charter-school advocates like to cite their long waiting-list numbers to argue that more such schools are needed. Local news outlets like Chicago’s WBEZ and the Boston Globe have done good work pointing out that those numbers aren’t actually reliable – and tend to overstate demand.

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of DC Public Schools and one of the country’s most well-known “education reformers,” knew early on about widespread testing irregularities and possible cheating – far earlier than she has claimed publicly to have known, according to a confidential memo that was sent to her back in 2009 and obtained by PBS’ John Merrow. USA Today initially blew the whistle on the likelihood of widespread cheating in 2011.

In the K-12 world, cyber schools – many of them operated by for-profit companies as an online option for public school -- are still taking in taxpayer dollars even while many flunk on state report cards, reported Politico.

And, surprise: Some more colleges inflated their admissions data this year to US News, per the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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