Feds Hope to Spread Bad Ideas to Private Schools

Published March 5, 2010

Seclusion and restraint of disabled students can sometimes go to ugly extremes—but more national control over private schools is no way to prevent such abuse.

In a report last May, the General Accounting Office (GAO) cited hundreds of allegations of schoolhouse abuse over the past two decades, such as a 230-pound teacher in a Texas public school who forced a 129-pound child face down onto the floor and laid atop him because he would not sit still in class.

The child died.

That was terrible, as were GAO accounts of kids being gagged or duct-taped, or put in filthy time-out rooms for hours on end. But with Congress poised to micromanage school disciplinary policies in an attempt to banish all such abuse alleged by its investigative arm, it is important to understand the total inability of federal regulation to address such problems and recognize the harm such policies can inflict.

The federal government would love to be the heavy-set teacher squashing the much-smaller private sector in K-12 education. That is what a measure passed February 4 on a 34-10 vote by the House Education Committee would do. It prescribes disciplinary policies not only for public schools but also for private schools, even those with very indirect contact with federal money (for instance, one teacher taking one government-funded training course).

With the government already extending its tentacles everywhere, about eight of every 10 Catholic schools take part in at least one federal program, a U.S. Department of Education study found in 2007.

It is bad enough that Washington would overrule the states in making public school policy, but for private schools this federal power grab could be lethal. The Council for American Private Education (CAPE), a coalition representing a wide range of independent and religious schools, put the matter succinctly in a February 9 statement:

“This bill represents an unprecedented degree of federal control of private schools that threatens their autonomy and puts them between a rock and a hard place: accept the federal intrusion in policies and practices or give up participation in federal programs that benefit students and their teachers.

“By using even limited involvement in federal programs as the pathway for regulating schools, the bill establishes a dangerous precedent for federal control of private education in the future.”

Private schools already have every reason to protect their students’ well-being and safety. They are accountable to parents and can go out of business if dissatisfied families take their children and tuition money elsewhere. This concept of schools being accountable to someone other than bureaucrats is difficult for the political class to grasp, but it is real.

The legislation’s tangle of clauses dictating who may intervene in unruly situations at schools—and the state training and certification an educator must have in order to be an enforcer—could well harm children itself, CAPE analysts note.

Consider the teacher monitoring a schoolyard when a dispute between a few students threatens to erupt into a brawl. Or a coach trying to control a pair of fiery-tempered players during practice. Or even a teacher’s aide who might grab a child who is about to dart into a bus or carpool lane at dismissal.

The federal legislators define the restraint they wish to criminalize as “a personal restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of an individual to move his or her arms, legs, or head freely.” In taking on-the-spot protective actions to shield students from harm, school employees would surely hesitate to exercise any such restraint out of concern that they might be breaking federal law. That could have tragic consequences.

Instead of assuming that every teacher in the nation is a potential thug and child abuser, and putting all of them in a chokehold, enlightened leadership would encourage parental participation in vibrant, autonomous private schools as an alternative to government-controlled schooling. With the nation’s public schools increasingly racing toward disaster, the restraining hand of private-sector competition is needed more than ever.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute in Chicago.