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Massive Education Waste Third Strike
by K. Lloyd Billingsley 7/23/07

The California Department of Education has decided to appeal the latest ruling in the case of James Lindberg, recently addressed in this space. That means more needless expense for taxpayers, but the appeal highlights key lessons for legislators.

Mr. Lindberg is the 20-year CDE employee demoted for blowing the whistle on massive fraud. He opted to sue, and in 2002 a jury awarded him $4.5 million. The Department of Education could have ended it there, but chose to appeal.

K. Lloyd Billingsley
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

K. Lloyd Billingsley is Editorial Director for the Pacific Research Institute and has been widely published on topics including on popular culture, defense policy, education reform, and many other current policy issues. [go to Billingsley index]

This spring a Sacramento jury not only agreed with Mr. Lindberg but saw fit to boost his award to $7.6 million, an increase of more than $3 million. The ruling prompted outrage from former state superintendent Delaine Eastin, on whose watch the original fraud occurred. Mr. Lindberg, she told reporters, no more deserved this award than "the man in the moon." The courts thought otherwise.

Eastin proved more outspoken over the ruling than current superintendent Jack O'Connell. On his watch, as the Associated Press reported, the CDE shifted money from educational purposes to legal costs in the department's Long March against Mr. Lindberg. Mr. O'Connell could have ended that misguided quest, the prudent choice after the court called strike two. Instead the state superintendent opted to keep swinging. That caught the attention of Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, who summarized the case this way:

"So there we have it. Taxpayers' money was ripped off, and politicians were at least compliant, if not complicit. Those who tried to set things right were punished and the taxpayers were tapped again to compensate them. Finally, taxpayers' money meant to educate children is, instead, being spent to fight a whistle-blower. What's wrong with this picture? Everything."

Indeed, the decision to appeal confirms some rather grim realities. For one thing, the CDE is about more than education. It also serves as a conduit for funding to dubious groups and individuals, which, as Mr. Walters observed, hold strong ties with Sacramento politicians not eager to investigate misconduct committed by their friends. In that dynamic, those who expose fraud get targeted for retaliation, as James Lindberg and fellow whistleblower Robert Cervantes learned firsthand. Mr. Cervantes also had to put up with threats of violence from Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, the group that got most of the more than $20 million involved the fraud.

This case confirms that the culture of waste and irresponsibility is a dominant ethos at the CDE. This explains why the CDE continues to throw funding "meant to educate children," as Mr. Walters observed, at a case not only a two-time loser but facing long odds.

It is more common for an appeal court to reduce an award, but in Mr. Lindberg's case they opted nearly to double it. Given that momentum, there is scant chance any other court will vacate the award or even substantially reduce it. The appeal will consume more public funds better spent for education, and changes nothing about the more than $20 million lost in the original fraud.

Everything is wrong with this picture and to fix it legislators need to start at the top. There is plenty of room for reasonable doubt on the quality of educational leadership in California. One looks for some admission of wrongdoing, or at least misguided strategy, along with a clear and forthright accounting of waste. None of that has been forthcoming.

California's new Secretary of Education, David Long, appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger in March, has not gone on record about this case, and he lacks the clout to do anything about it. The education secretary, unlike those of other departments, is primarily an adviser. The hands-on operation falls to the state superintendent. Legislators should consider eliminating one of these positions, or expanding the role of California's Secretary of Education to include true oversight.

The education secretary should at least be empowered to stop the blatant waste of funds, as in the recent Lindberg appeal. By all indications, that case appears headed for a third strike. After that, somebody needs to call the batter out. CRO

copyright 2007 Pacific Research Institute




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