Texas law is superior to federal law, particularly in areas of personal responsibility and morality. But even here in the Lone Star state, I see growing fissures in our foundational laws. Specifically, our society is shifting responsibility (and even blame) from individuals to institutions — thereby placing unsustainable burdens on the public schools. While public schools can and do help children living in dysfunctional families, the children and their parents must remain primarily responsible for their own actions. This is often no longer the case.
Let me give a recent example.
Truancy laws require school districts to take action when students are frequently unexcused from school. After an excessive number of absences and follow-up warnings to students and their parents, school districts can seek judicial intervention so that both parent and student become “motivated” to attend. In turn, schools are held accountable for their drop0ut rates as well as for the test scores of all such students.
But if you’ve listened to the state and national media lately, there is an organized, all-out assault against truancy laws and against the authority of school resource officers to combat disruptive behavior. The effort is loosely titled “de-criminalizing student behavior.” Lobbyists are an unholy alliance of “big government” proponents and “small government” conservatives/libertarians. Big government disciples see the public schools assuming the burden for dysfunctional students/families. Conservatives/libertarians want complete freedom to raise their children. The public schools are saddled with the remaining mess.
As is true for many other titanic shifts in law, advocates begin by finding the most extreme cases of poor judgment — and then portray them as a “crisis” requiring a change in the laws. Thus in the 2013 legislative session, there was a concerted effort by various lobbyists, aided and abetted by some legislators, to tie up school districts with so much bureaucracy and so little legal recourse as to make it almost impossible to enforce school attendance or bad behavior through the courts. Meanwhile, those same legislative forces bemoan the state of public education and attempt to “punish” school districts with high dropout rates and low test scores! In something straight out of Alice in Wonderland, I’ve heard legislators say that enforcing the truancy laws discourages students from attending school! Following that same logic, arresting murderers contributes to a higher homicide rate!
One Texas senator gave a sympathetic portrayal of inner-city parents unfairly hounded by the schools over truancy despite a bona fide illness. But legislators using isolated cases of poor judgment to craft new law are a growing and irresponsible trend. Instead, when public school officials are accused of exercising poor judgment, the district must then look into that particular case, find out if it is true and, if so, require that it be fixed! There are an abundance of formal complaint procedures and legal remedies already available for that purpose. I would add that local public school teachers, administrators and trustees are on the whole far more caring and compassionate toward the students they serve than those in Austin crafting “one size fits all” legislation. Moreover, if a few instances of poor judgment justify elimination of a rule or law, the entire legislature would have been banned years ago. (Perhaps I’m not helping my argument there. . . .)
So in 2013, on the pretext of a few truancy/police “horror stories” from inner-city Houston and Dallas, the legislature moved swiftly to water down the truancy laws, remove the authority of school police officers, and substitute new rights and requirements for school districts to bear. That effort was partially successful (Senate Bill 1114 undermining police authority is now law) and partially unsuccessful (Senate Bill 1234 on truancy “reform” was passed by the legislature but vetoed by the governor).
This blame shifting is an illustration of a much larger societal trend. Our society gives lip service to personal responsibility and then takes away personal consequences for bad behavior — instead requiring the heavily burdened school system to “rescue” the offending child/parent. When the child doesn’t graduate or fails a test, it is the school’s fault! This ultimately results in a new “right” for students and parents to act irresponsibly and then get “rescued.” If this societal trend continues, the public school system will collapse of its own weight. It won’t take much.