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Our View: Troopers’ fake degrees point to flawed system

The 10 Washington State Patrol troopers who got raises in exchange for dubious diplomas won’t be prosecuted, says Thurston County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Jon Tunheim, because it would’ve been difficult to prove that they weren’t merely the victims of bad advice from the agency’s human resources department.

This certainly doesn’t speak well of those troopers’ detective skills. They wrote an essay or two, affixed resumes and a check, and suddenly were holding a diploma. It didn’t occur to them that it’s usually not done that way?

It occurred to their boss.

“For those of us who have gone to school – we went to class, had to do papers, take tests and quizzes in addition to working jobs to pay for school,” WSP Capt. Jason DeVere said. “And if you look at these and how some of them were obtained – on face value, it doesn’t seem like that’s the way we get degrees.”

It seems obvious that the troopers suspended their usual suspicion to get raises without incurring large education costs. Under their labor contract, troopers can boost their base pay by 4 percent for a bachelor’s degree and 2 percent for a master’s degree. Two-year degrees net a 2 percent raise.

According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, eight troopers received degrees from Almeda University, an online institution that hands them out for life experiences. “Students” write essays and submit proof of their work experience and training history. The other two also used online institutions, one of which was deemed a diploma mill; its owner was prosecuted for fraud. The first trooper to submit the Almeda degree was turned down by a sergeant. But the trooper was allegedly told by a human resources officer that the degree was acceptable. Word got around, and the others got their raises, too.

First, kudos to the sergeant for actually thinking like a law enforcement officer. Second, if this story is true, then accountability needs to move into the administrative ranks, too. Such a slipshod continuing-education program is unfair to workers with legitimate degrees. It also slights taxpayers, who must foot the bill. It’s one thing to give a trooper credit for work experience, but it’s ridiculous to make that the sole basis for a diploma and a raise. The whole point of continuing education is to gain knowledge that can be useful on the job, not to prove what you know. Troopers are already paid for that.

This goes for all public agencies. If they’re going to dole out bigger paychecks, they need to make a credible case that taxpayers are getting added value. Teacher pay is a case in point. Advanced degrees have long been the ticket to pay raises in education, but studies show that those sheepskins don’t necessarily translate into better outcomes for students.

The troopers have paid back the extra money they got from their diplomas, and they still face internal investigations. But this case ought to reverberate throughout government. Credentials should matter. If they don’t, no rewards.

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