Not long ago, I visited an inner-city Catholic high school. I was impressed with what I saw. The halls were quiet, the students respected their teachers, and the principal was the ultimate authority on issues regarding students and teachers.
I had a nagging suspicion that I had seen a school very much like this long ago. Then I remembered: I was seeing a reflection of the public high school in Houston, Texas, that I had attended a half century ago.
What had happened during the past five decades? A recent report by a nonpartisan legal reform group called Common Good gives the answer: schools today are being strangled by a ton of laws, regulations, contracts, mandates, and rules. The report (which can be found at http://cgood.org/burden-of-law.html) analyzes the many steps that principals in New York City must take if, for example, they want to suspend a disruptive student who is making it impossible for other students to learn or repair the heating system or remove an inept teacher.
In every situation, the principal must take care not to violate federal laws, state laws, court decisions, consent decrees, case law, union contracts, and chancellor's regulations. Common Good's Web site has links to fifty different legal authorities that limit or control what the principal can and cannot do.
All these sources are more than any one individual can possibly read or comprehend: 850 pages of state law (in small print); 720 pages of state regulations; 15,000 formal decisions by the state commissioner of education; hundreds of pages of collective bargaining agreements; thousands of pages of federal laws affecting the schools; and thousands of pages of chancellor's regulations.
The principal who determines that a student is disrupting the learning environment or is a danger to himself or others must embark on a very lengthy legal process that involves multiple letters, notifications, conferences, hearings, appeals, decisions at the local level, more conferences, more hearings, more appeals, decisions at the regional level, more hearings, more appeals, and so on. It may take several weeks to resolve the matter.
Philip Howard, the chairman of Common Good and a lawyer, has been leading a campaign against the procedural burden imposed by law on our institutions. Howard insists that we should make educating our children our top priority, not complying with a mountain of laws, mandates, and regulations. According to Howard, "We should let the administrators and teachers use their judgment and then hold them accountable for their performance."
Common Good has not placed a price tag on the cost of compliance, but it is bound to be huge in terms of inefficiency, wasted time, resources diverted, and the inability of the schools to focus relentlessly on education.
Is it possible to free the schools from the smothering embrace of their friends who write the rules, laws, regulations, and mandates? If we do not figure out how to restore authority to teachers and principals, then our schools will continue to become ever more expensive and ever less effective.