Parental Rights, Student Privacy Take Center Stage on Capitol Hill

Published October 1, 2005

Capitol Hill watchers can expect to hear a lot of arguing this fall about schools recommending that parents medicate their children before sending them to class.

A longstanding U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), held parents have the fundamental right to direct their children’s education and upbringing. Though federal courts have consistently affirmed the principle over the past 80 years, public school administrators have sometimes cajoled or coerced parents into putting their children on psychiatric medications, saying children deemed “hyperactive” cannot be in a classroom unless their attention is focused by Ritalin, a powerful stimulant.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), revamped in 2004, attempted to tilt the balance back to parents by forbidding states and schools from banning children from class when parents resist pressure to medicate them. The new IDEA mainly targeted Ritalin, the production of which has more than doubled in this country since 2000.

This fall, a stronger piece of legislation–the proposed Child Medication Safety Act of 2005 (H.R. 1790), sponsored by Rep. John Kline (R-MN)–will be debated. It extends the protection of parental rights to include psychotropic drugs such as Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft. Kline, a member of the House Education Committee, had lined up 20 cosponsors by the August recess, including Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), the committee’s chairman.

Health and Safety Paramount

“Parents should never have to choose between their child’s health and safety and their ability to receive an education,” Kline said. “The Child Medication Safety Act will help restore the right of parents to make decisions in the best interest of their children.”

Specifically, the measure would require as a condition of receiving federal aid that each state “develop and implement policies and procedures prohibiting school personnel from requiring a child to obtain a prescription for a controlled substance or a psychotropic drug as a condition of attending school or receiving services.”

In a concession to educator concerns, the bill adds that teachers or other school personnel may share classroom-based observations with parents regarding behavior and academic performance, as well as their opinions as to whether a child should be evaluated for special education under IDEA.

Medical professionals are divided on the issue of limiting schools’ power to have children medicated. Lance Clawson, a child psychiatrist from Maryland, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on July 3, “if you tie the hands of the schools, they lose the right to advocate for the child.” But in the same article, Dr. Karen Effrem, a Minnesota pediatrician, said children often are incorrectly diagnosed. Instead of having a medical disorder, they simply may be eating the wrong foods, watching too much television, or suffering from sheer boredom.

Federal Student Database Nixed

Earlier this summer, a freshman member of Congress struck a blow for college students’ privacy rights. An amendment to higher education reform legislation offered by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) nixed a proposed federal database to track postsecondary students. The amendment won committee approval and will be part of a bill headed to the House floor for a vote this fall.

“Creating a federal database of personal information about every facet of a student’s life is not necessary for evaluating academic institutions and would violate the personal privacy of students,” Foxx said in a news release. “This amendment will help ensure privacy isn’t threatened simply because a student chooses to enroll in college.”

Foxx’s amendment threw a roadblock in the way of a proposed “unit record” system in which a massive federal database would collect and maintain personal information about college students. Though it is unusual for newcomers to have such impact, Boehner said Foxx is fast becoming one of the strongest congressional proponents of parental choice in education.

Union Misused $5 Million

Despite the summer heat in Washington, DC, newspaper dispatches on the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) embezzlement trial must have sent cold chills down the spines of teachers and retired teachers who paid dues to the American Federation of Teachers’ affiliate in recent years.

According to federal prosecutors, former key WTU officials devised an elaborate scheme to hide their misuse of some $5 million–dues money they spent on pricey furs, major dental work, tickets to Washington Wizards basketball games, art, and other amenities.

A star government witness was former union president Barbara A. Bullock, currently serving a nine-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to helping lead the covert raid on the union treasury. Bullock admitted racking up nearly $1 million in charges on the union’s American Express card for personal luxury items.

According to the August 19 edition of the Washington Post, when Bullock was asked if it was fair to say she liked to shop, the former union chief replied, “No, that’s not fair. I lovvve to shop!”

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia.