The Burden of Law

Article excerpt

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 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 raw (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. …