A Final Thought

Rules, Laws, Policies

Two of my pet peeves — politicians who make decisions about how schools should operate, and school districts that make and enforce rules without thinking about the larger consequences — have conspired to keep my eyes and ears on the news lately, rather than looking at the latest happenings designed to help improve education.

This may be simplistic thinking, but in my travels to schools in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, I’ve found one common thread. The people working in the schools like children. Teachers obviously choose to work with students, whether very young or more mature. But by and large, the secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, crossing guards and others who work in schools care about children. If they did not, they would seek employment elsewhere.

Politicians basically like voters. Since children do not vote, politicians have little or no desire or need to be with children, to care about them or think about their welfare. They’ll kiss babies, of course, but that’s to please the parents, and they hand them back as quickly as possible.

Some politicians talk a good game about the importance of education, but listen to them closely and you’ll find that their concern quickly moves from what you are trying to talk about (“what is good for children,”) to “how much will it cost?” If it involves raising taxes, forget about it.

Fortunately, the United States has been built on a foundation of public education paid for and by everybody and available to all children. The unfortunate part is that it does cost a lot of money to run a quality educational program, and in the current political atmosphere where members of both parties are more concerned with not raising taxes than they are with using public money for the public good, this divide between the needs of children and the wooing of voters too often leads to decisions that not only do not help children, but harm them.

A case in point. In Wisconsin, legislators working on the state budget (note the fiscal venue) have voted to allow school districts to hire high school dropouts to teach “non-core” academic subjects. In addition, anybody with a bachelor’s degree in any subject could be licensed to teach the core — English, math, social studies or science. Although it is not spelled out, presumably a teacher without a college degree or proper teaching credentials could be paid considerably less than qualified teachers.

I do not know why having qualified or unqualified teachers in the classroom should become a partisan issue, but apparently it is. All Republicans voted in favor of the proposal; all Democrats opposed it. Republicans control both houses of the state legislature so there is a good chance that this budget item will be approved.

“Yes, yes, of course we want what’s best for children but how much will it cost? Will it keep the tax rate down?” That’s what is important.

School people can be foolish, too

Of course, school people hardly need the help of politicians to make schools look silly. Take the situation in Cherry Creek, Colo., where an elementary school cafeteria worker was fired because she gave food to hungry children, even if they were not entitled to free or reduced meals.

Della Curry, the worker involved, admitted that she violated school policy by giving the free meals, but raised a very good question about when school rules, perhaps proposed for good reason, have unintended consequences.

“I had a first grader in front of me, crying because she didn’t have enough money for lunch. Yes, I gave her lunch. I broke the law. The law needs to be changed.” (Possibly it will be. A spokesperson for the school district responded, “No child is ever allowed to go without lunch.” Now, let’s hope that policy is enforced, even when it conflicts with the other.)

In Senatobia, Miss., the families of a few high school students stood up and cheered when their children were called up to get their diplomas. Apparently, there was a rule that all applause should be withheld until the names of all the graduates had been read, but these families could hardly hold back on this joyous day.

They paid an immediate price for this enthusiasm, being escorted from the auditorium by security guards and having to wait outside to continue their unauthorized celebration. But the case hardly ended there. Two weeks later, the school superintendent filed charges against the parents in the local court for disturbing the peace, saying he’s “determined to have order at graduation ceremonies.”

What he has gotten instead is a wave of unwanted publicity and national attention, exasperated by the fact that the celebrating family is African-American. Rules, rules, rules. Be careful. Making and blindly enforcing rules can have many unintended consequences.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."

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