Bennett Decries 'Stultifying' Laws

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Washington--"Omnipresent, stultifying" legal restrictions hinder talented educators and allow poor ones to make excuses for their performance, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett charges in a speech prepared for delivery late last week before the American Bar Association.

He asks the lawyers to "lend your talent and energy to the task of deregulating education."

"We need accountability; and one thing that undercuts accountability perhaps more than anything is the tangled cord of legal mumbo-jumbo wrapped around the necks of the men and women, the teachers and principals, who are trying to teach and care for our children," Mr. Bennett says in the text for the Philadelphia law meeting.

Many laws regulating schools have "sprung from noble aspirations and were aimed high at worthwhile goals," such as "ridding education of the evils of segregation and opening our schools to those with learning disabilities," the Secretary says,4adding that now the law-making has gotten out of hand.

Courts heard more challenges to school-board decisions in the 1970's than in the previous seven decades combined, Mr. Bennett says, and the verbiage of federal legislation affecting education increased from 80 to 360 pages between 1964 and 1974. The amount of state regulation has increased as well, the Secretary notes.

The cost of defending against lawsuits has also soared, Mr. Bennett says, and worries about liability cause school officials "to think twice before imposing discipline where discipline is due, firing incompetent employees, or sponsoring school activities where students may potentially suffer real or perceived injuries."

"In fact, the entire nine-member school board of Nebraska's Oakland-Craig district resigned in an attempt to avoid personal liability for any judgment resulting from $22 million in personal-injury lawsuits filed against the district," he says.

The same laws that constrain well-meaning educators allow others to ''escape responsibility for their own failings," according to Mr. Bennett. "They can claim, for example, a heartfelt desire to beef up the curriculum and get rid of bad teachers, but can argue convincingly that the law won't let them do it."

Lawyers can help by encouraging state and local governments to "minimize the legal burdens on school officials," the Secretary suggests. The speech urges them to create committees "with a mission of clarifying, simplifying, and limiting constraints on educator discretion."

It also urges lawyers to "demystify the law" for educators, who, according to Mr. Bennett, often think it constrains them more than it actually does. "When lawyers give overly cautious advice, they increase the chance that innovation and educational reform will not take place," he charges.

Finally, the speech asks the lawyers to devote pro bono efforts--unpaid work done for charitable purposes--to assisting educators.

"Why is it that when a lawyer does pro bono work on an education matter, so often it seems he is representing someone who asserts theconstitutional right to disrupt class?" Mr. Bennett asks. "Lawyers should help schools do things that make educational sense to do, not just give educators reasons why they can't do things."--jm

Vol. 07, Issue 20

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