The Blog

News and stories from the campaign to reclaim individual responsibility and liberate Americans from bureaucracy and legal fear.

Blog — Op-Ed

Joel Klein on How Legal Excesses Hurt American Education

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein relates how legal excesses have hindered America’s public schools. Of the New York City teachers contract — which hamstrings school administrators' and teachers' ability to make daily choices — Klein writes: “[It’s] an extraordinary document, running for hundreds of pages, governing who can teach what and when, who can be assigned to hall-monitor or lunchroom duty and who can’t, who has to be given time off to do union work during the school day, and so on.”

Klein goes on to argue that, due to the legal hurdles put in place by unions, “it’s virtually impossible to fire a teacher for non-performance.” “In New York City, which has some 55,000 tenured teachers,” he explains, “we were able to fire only half a dozen or so for incompetence in a given year, even though we devoted significant resources to this effort. The extent of the problem is difficult to overstate.” 

Common Good Chair Philip K. Howard has written extensively about the need to free schools from too much law, including most recently in a letter to the New York Times in which he argues that there’s a deal to be made with educators—bulldoze bureaucracy in exchange for accountability. “There’s no need to tell teachers how to do their jobs if they can be accountable when they don’t,” he writes.

Read more from Start Over’s “Solution” section—and provide your feedback here.

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One Nation, Under Too Many Laws

Writing the lead op-ed in the Washington Post's Outlook section, Common Good Chair Philip K. Howard proposes that every law Congress enacts should expire after ten or 15 years. “A healthy democracy must make fresh choices,” he writes. “Such a universal sunset provision would force Congress and the president to justify the status quo and give political reformers an opening to reexamine trade-offs and public priorities.” Howard also calls for the radical simplification of law, writing: “The current convention of law-as-instruction-manual suffers the idiocies of central planning, forcing everyone to go through the day with their noses in rule books instead of using their common sense.” Howard concludes his piece by quoting Thomas Jefferson, who famously argued that small revolutions from time to time were “a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” A movement for legal overhaul, Howard writes, “is the medicine that America very much needs today.”

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Free the Teachers

Common Good Chair Philip K. Howard writes in the New York Daily News that the common denominator among schools with good teachers is that those teachers “feel free to teach in [their] own way.” “Inspiration requires spontaneity and originality,” he continues. “Teachers must own their classrooms. This is the secret of every successful school.” Teachers’ freedom, however, is under attack. “Instead of letting teachers inspire students with their passion and spontaneity,” Howard explains, “America has organized public schools as bureaucratic assembly lines. There is a rule for everything—so many rules that no one can know them all.” “We must abandon the bureaucracy so humans can take back control, school by school, classroom by classroom,” Howard concludes. “Not everyone will succeed. But many will, and probably much quicker than imagined. There’s nothing so contagious, the saying goes, as enthusiasm.”

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Time for a Movement for Legal Reform

In his recent article in The Atlantic, Philip K. Howard argues that “modern law has severed people from their best judgment.” He relates that, in addition to America's schools and hospitals, Washington is so “paralyzed by the accretion of law” that even President Obama “is powerless in the face of [it]” (noting that an obsolete 1931 law “prevented the President from hiring thousands of people last year”). “Reviving personal initiative is impossible without basic legal overhaul,” Howard writes – but “neither political party in the US has even a glimmer of interest in this issue.” “What's needed here is a movement," he concludes. "People who believe the system is broken have to band together and force change upon a political system that seems content to preside over a status quo of slow suffocation.”

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