March 3, 2011 10:51AM

Corruption from Sea to Glistening Sea

Last night, the Seattle Public School Board fired the district's superintendent as well as its chief financial and operations officer after the local media uncovered a multimillion dollar fraud spree that had gone unchecked for years. In the opposite corner of the nation, a grand jury has just found that the Broward County Public School Board "wasted hundreds of millions" while "doing the bidding of a select group of contractors and lobbyists." The grand jury's preferred recommendation would have been to "abolish the... School Board altogether," but Florida's constitution mandates its existence.

Why are waste and fraud so common in the nation's public school systems, and what can we do about it? One of the most compelling answers I've ever seen to those questions can be found in a letter written by... a corruption prosecutor. He was born in the early sixties, and the tiny town where he grew up still didn't have its own high school---so he decided to found one himself. Rich guy. He could have afforded to not only build it, but also to fully endow it so that tuition would be free. Instead, he decided to cover only a third of the operating costs. In a letter to a friend, he explained his decision:

I would promise the whole amount were I not afraid that someday my gift might be abused for someone’s selfish purposes, as I see happen in many places where teachers’ salaries are paid from public funds. There is only one remedy to meet this evil: if the appointment of teachers is left entirely to the parents, and they are conscientious about making a wise choice through their obligation to contribute to the cost. People who may be careless about another person’s money are sure to be careful about their own, and they will see that only a suitable recipient shall be found for my money if he is also to have their own... I am leaving everything open for the parents: the decision and choice are to be theirs—all I want is to make the arrangements and pay my share.

What's particularly interesting about this letter is that its author was born in the early sixties.... Not the 1960s... or the 1860s... the early 60's of the first century A.D. The author was Pliny the Younger, and he was writing to his friend Tacitus.

Though Pliny was basing his analysis on his personal and professional experiences, it is born out by a wealth of modern econometric research. Schools paid for at least in part directly by parents are consistently more efficient and responsive to their demands.