NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 9, 2004

As state legislatures throw more money at schools in an attempt to improve them, little attention is given to the fact that public schools are bound by a host of regulations, paperwork and a generally oppressive bureaucracy, say observers.

Recently, a court panel in New York City decided that the area's public schools needed more money -- an additional $5.6 billion annually. According to a report by the legal reform group Common Good, however, a typical New York City public school is hamstrung by tens of thousands of legal obligations:

  • In New York City, organizing an athletic event requires 100 legal steps and considerations.
  • Regulations dictate the most miniscule issues, such as size of earflaps for softball helmets, the arrangement of desks in a classroom, the format of bulletin boards and even how teachers must stand.
  • Suspending a disruptive student can take several months of legal process; indeed, the procedures make up a complicated and arduous flow chart.
  • The dictates a principal received from his superintendent's office in one year physically weighed in at 45 pounds.

New York City is not alone; school districts across the country are shackled by legal bureaucracy. In Alabama, 2000 teachers recently filed grievances against excessive paperwork, claiming it detracted from the business of teaching.

The legal approach was part of 1960s school reform efforts designed to ensure fairness, but now such reforms have produced their own inequities by upsetting the balance among varying interests. Money won't solve that, say observers.

Source: Phillip K. Howard, "You Can' Buy Your Way Out of a Bureaucracy," New York Times, December 3, 2004; and Report, "Over Ruled: the Burden of Law on America's Public Schools," Common Good, November 29, 2004.

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