Study: Rules and Regulations Are Paralyzing U.S. Schools

Published March 1, 2005

A new study from the bipartisan legal reform coalition Common Good found U.S. schools are greatly over-regulated, in many cases to the point of paralysis. The study details thousands upon thousands of laws and regulations that apply to public schools in New York City. The study was released on November 29 as an interactive Web interface.

Similar webs of laws typically govern the operations of other large centralized school districts across the United States, the study noted.

The study, titled “Over Ruled: The Burden of Law on America’s Public Schools,” found more than 60 separate sources of laws and regulations governing the operation of a typical public high school in New York City, imposing thousands of specific obligations on school officials.

The sources of regulation include the following:

  • 846 pages of New York State education law;
  • 720 pages of regulations from the New York State Commissioner of Education;
  • 690 pages of the No Child Left Behind Act;
  • 309 pages of the New York City teachers’ contract and memorandum of understanding;
  • 200+ pages of regulations controlling student discipline; and
  • 43 volumes of appeals decisions–totaling 15,062 decisions–made by the New York State Commissioner of Education.

Every Minute Dictated

The head of the New York City teacher union, Randi Weingarten, has complained about the rules and regulations imposed on teachers.

“Every minute of the day and every inch of a classroom is dictated,” she told the city council in 2003, according to a New York Times report. “The arrangement of desks, the format of bulletin boards, the position in which teachers should stand. Teachers are demeaned, they’re stripped of their professionalism, and they are expected to behave like robots incapable of any independent thought,” she told the council.

With so many rules and regulations to observe, many simple and straightforward tasks become long, drawn-out processes for administrators, taking days, weeks, and even months of their time to complete.

For example, replacing the heating system in a school can involve up to 99 steps and take months to carry out.

“The burden of law on schools has become staggering,” said Common Good Chairman Philip K. Howard in a news release. “Human beings have cognitive limits. If teachers and principals are forced to spend their time working through these arduous procedures, how will they have the energy, enthusiasm, and time to educate?”

Sources Listed, Flowcharts Provided

On Common Good’s Web site, each of the 63 different sources of regulation is listed, with a link to the governing law, contract, or ruling. For example, the listing for “Teachers’ Contract” provides a link to a summary of the teachers’ contract, the text of the contract, notes from the city’s education committee hearings on the contract in November 2003, the United Federation of Teacher’s “Guide to Transfers,” and New York’s collective bargaining law.

The teacher contract provides details of hours, pay, pension, and so on.

Common Good provides flowcharts to illustrate how convoluted procedures have enveloped previously routine decision-making tasks and transformed them into daunting marathons for schools. For example:

  • To suspend a disruptive student can involve as many as 66 steps and legal considerations that can take 105 days to complete.
  • If the disruptive student is a special education student, suspension for up to 45 days can involve up to 35 additional steps and legal considerations that can take months to complete.
  • To fire an inept teacher can involve up to 83 steps and legal considerations that can take a year to complete. (See flowchart on page 15.)
  • Just to put a note in an inept teacher’s file can involve up to 32 steps and considerations.
  • To fill a teacher vacancy can involve up to 38 steps and legal considerations that can take months to execute.
  • To conduct an athletic event can take up to 99 steps and legal considerations that detail the particulars of everything from who can coach the team to the size of ear flaps on helmets.

“The demands of excessive paperwork are taking precious time, money, and attention away from education nationwide,” said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, in a statement accompanying the report. “Ultimately, it’s the achievement potential of our students that suffers.”

Study Applauded

The American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association have applauded Common Good’s Over Ruled project for raising an important national issue.

“The examples cited in this study reflect the compliance tangle that school districts and school boards face across the country,” said Julie Underwood, general counsel and associate executive director of the National School Boards Association in a statement on the Common Good Web site.

“They are not the entire laundry list of excessive regulation and litigation,” Underwood continued, “but just examples of the many areas in which litigious groups from across the political spectrum choose to make the nation’s schools their favorite battleground.”

Howard called for lifting the legal burden from America’s schools and allowing educators to focus their attention on education instead of compliance.

“Educating our children–not compliance–should be the top priority for teachers,” he said in the statement accompanying the report. “We should let the administrators and teachers use their judgment and then hold them accountable for their performance.”

Role of Law Misunderstood

Howard points out that when reformers identify a worthy goal in education, such as fairness or safety, the most common means of trying to achieve that goal is to establish procedures for teachers and administrators to follow so they are attentive to the reformers’ aim. Each required procedure may appear reasonable and unobjectionable, but when thousands of these hurdles are piled atop each other, “they present an insurmountable legal barrier, blocking even the simplest choices,” notes Howard.

The problem lies in failing to observe the proper role of law, explains Howard. While law has a legitimate role to play in setting educational goals, law is “brilliantly ill-suited” as a management system, Howard wrote in a December 3, 2004 New York Times op-ed.

“Law is rigid and leaves no room to adjust for the circumstances,” wrote Howard. Rule-based management spawns bureaucracy, he noted, teachers and principals become ensnared in legal knots, competing entitlements take precedence over cooperation, and “people start parsing the rules to get their way.”

Most of the rules should be thrown overboard, argues Howard, with law used to set goals and basic principles, not to micro-manage daily decisions.

“Schools depend on the energy, skill, judgment, humor, and sympathy of teachers and principals,” he said. “Liberate them to draw on all their human traits. Then liberate some of us to hold them accountable.”

George Clowes ([email protected]) is associate editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

“Over Ruled: The Burden of Law on America’s Public Schools” is available through Common Good’s Web site at

The linked list of 63 sources of regulation of New York City schools is available at