Policing the Public Schools: How Schools Are Becoming Even More Like Prisons

In his book, Free To Learn, Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray makes the connection between school and prison. He writes: “Everyone who has ever been to school knows that school is prison, but almost nobody beyond school age says it is. It’s not polite.” It’s a prison in that young people are compelled to attend school by law, are unable to voluntarily leave, are told what to do and when, and are required to consume a standardized curriculum.

As if schooling was not already jail-like enough, adding armed police officers to the mix confirms the metaphor. In public schools across the country, police officers are increasingly present, costing taxpayers millions of dollars for a vague notion of safety. In fact, some estimates suggest that over two-thirds of high school students currently attend a school with a police officer on site.

Increased School Security

While some school districts, particularly urban ones, have had school safety officers present for a while now, concern about school shootings is driving an increase in numbers. Tennessee, for instance, is dedicating $50 million to put a police officer in every school, reaching beyond populated districts into rural communities. The Tennessee bill received bipartisan support and was signed into law by the governor this month, joining the ranks of other states that are implementing similar policies.

After the horrific Parkland school shooting in Florida last year that left 17 people dead, the state legislature mandated an armed guard in every public school. Nevermind that Parkland actually had an armed guard at its school who didn’t enter the school to engage the gunman during the shooting. He subsequently resigned.

Armed guards and police officers at schools are no guarantee of school safety and, in fact, may cause more harm than good. Northeastern University criminology professor James Alan Fox explains in his recent USA Today commentary: “Transforming schools into armed camps does more to elevate fear than alleviate it.” He adds that while school shootings are devastating, they are incredibly rare. “Although the sense of safety of schools has been shaken,” says Fox, “it is important not to view such occurrences as the ‘new normal,’ as some have suggested.”

Over-Criminalizing Students

Rather than deterring mass shootings, armed guards at schools often end up over-criminalizing students. Some studies have suggested that police presence at schools leads to more arrests for non-violent crimes and does not improve student behavior. These arrests and other extreme disciplinary measures can thrust children into the criminal justice system at a very early age, helping to fuel what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Often, it is poor and minority children who are fed into this pipeline by school personnel at startling rates and at young ages, making it difficult to ultimately escape the path to prison. In 2016, for example, 50,000 preschoolers were suspended or expelled from school, with black preschoolers expelled or suspended at twice the rate of their peers.

Prison-like schools may be just the latest factor prompting more parents to opt-out of public schools altogether. How similar to prison do schools need to become before it’s polite to call them what they really are?An article in this week’s Seattle Times explains that more black families in the Seattle area are choosing to homeschool their children, at least partly due to the over-criminalization of black children in Seattle schools, where they are six times more likely to be expelled than white children. Other areas are seeing similar upsurges in homeschooling.

In Tennessee, the most recent state to pass the universal school police officer law, public school enrollment rose by less than 1 percent between 2012 and 2017. According to data I obtained from the Tennessee Department of Education, the number of homeschoolers nearly doubled during that same time frame, from 4,614 homeschoolers in 2012 to 8,843 in 2017.

Parents may be increasingly choosing education freedom over force for their children. That is, when they can choose. In their just-released study, Corey DeAngelis and Martin Lueken find that school choice improves school safety. They write: “We find that private and public charter school leaders tend to be more likely to report ‘never’ having safety problems at their schools than traditional public school leaders.” Providing more choice mechanisms that enable parents to opt-out of assigned district schools could ensure school safety better than armed guards and locked classrooms.

How similar to prison do schools need to become before it’s polite to call them what they really are?

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Compulsory Schooling Laws Aren’t Progressive, They’re Inhumane

Someone asked me recently if I could wave a magic wand and do one thing to improve American education what would it be. Without hesitation, I replied: Eliminate state compulsory schooling statutes. Stripping the state of its power to define and control education under a legal threat of force is a necessary step in pursuit of education freedom and parental empowerment.

Some argue that compulsory schooling laws are no big deal. After all, they say, private schooling and homeschooling are legal in all 50 states, so state control of education is limited. While it’s true that some parents may have access to government schooling alternatives, many states require private schools to receive authorization in order to operate. Despite ongoing efforts to expand education choice mechanisms, most parents have no choice but to send their child to an assigned district school.Homeschoolers in most states must comply with state or local reporting mandates that in some areas require homeschoolers to take standardized tests or meet state-determined curriculum requirements.

These hoops are for those lucky enough to jump out of compulsory mass schooling. Despite ongoing efforts to expand education choice mechanisms, like Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), vouchers, and tax-credit scholarship programs, most parents have no choice but to send their child to an assigned district school. Even if their child is being relentlessly bullied, even if they don’t feel that the academic environment is rigorous enough, even if they may personally disagree with some of the district’s ideological underpinnings—these parents are required by law to send their child to the appointed public school.

And what if they don’t?

Truancy and Neglectful Parenting

Truancy laws, which originate from a state’s compulsory schooling statutes, grant the full power of the state to come after parents whose children may have spotty attendance records. An in-depth article in HuffPost recently revealed the damaging impact these laws can have on families and children, with parents being pulled out of their homes in handcuffs and sent to jail.

For Cheree Peoples, one of the parents spotlighted in the article whose daughter misses school frequently due to sickle cell anemia that frequently leaves her hospitalized and in pain, enforcement of these truancy laws has been extreme, adding to the stress of her already difficult life caring for a chronically ill child. Awakened in the early hours by police officers who arrested her for truancy, she told the HuffPost: “You would swear I had killed somebody.”

The HuffPost investigation revealed that Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris was responsible for much of the heightened aggression toward parents regarding truancy. As California’s attorney general, Harris was a crusader against truancy and was instrumental in toughening criminal prosecution of parents whose children missed too much school. According to HuffPost:

Harris’ innovation was that school authorities and the district attorney would work in concert, articulating the threat of prosecution much earlier in the process and keeping school officials involved long after a case was transferred to court.

Harris held firm to her belief that neglectful parenting was the root cause of truancy, ignoring other potential explanations like lack of education choice for parents whose children may be suffering in their assigned district school. Harris’s actions to aggressively prosecute parents for truancy “were cementing the idea that parents always were the ultimate source of the problem.”

This is all so familiar. Harris, who billed herself as a “progressive prosecutor” for California, likely believed she was doing the right thing for children, saving them from their allegedly neglectful parents. Horace Mann, the “father of American public education” who is credited with helping to usher in the country’s first compulsory schooling statute in Massachusetts in 1852, also considered himself a progressive. At the time, Massachusetts was experiencing a massive immigration wave that, some lawmakers believed, threatened the current social fabric.

The History of Compulsory Schooling Laws

Indeed, between 1820 and 1840, Boston’s population more than doubled, and most of these newcomers were poor Irish Catholic immigrants escaping Ireland’s deadly potato famine. They challenged the dominant Anglo-Saxon Protestant norms of the time, prompting many state leaders to lobby for a new compulsory schooling statute that would mandate children’s attendance in state-controlled public schools. It was for the children’s own good, they said. As William Swan, editor of The Massachusetts Teacher wrote in 1851, just before the first compulsory schooling law was passed:

Nothing can operate effectually here but stringent legislation, thoroughly carried out by an efficient police; the children must be gathered up and forced into school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.

Prior to the 1852 compulsory schooling law, compulsory education laws were common throughout the country. Massachusetts again led the way, passing its first compulsory education laws in 1642 and 1647, respectively. These education laws differed fundamentally from compulsory schooling laws. The education laws indicated a state interest in an educated citizenry and compelled cities and towns of a certain size to hire a teacher and/or open and operate a grammar school. It was the town that was compelled to offer schooling, not the parents to send their children there.

This is a significant distinction. A state arguably has the authority to require its cities and towns to provide certain services, but compelling parents to partake of these services under a legal threat of force—as the 1852 compulsory schooling law ultimately did—crosses the line. As the HuffPost article makes abundantly clear, parents, particularly those who are disadvantaged, continue to bear the brunt of these archaic and deeply flawed compulsory schooling laws.

The Solution

The first step to restore education freedom and empower parents with choice and opportunity for their children is to eliminate compulsory schooling laws that authorize state control of education. States could still require cities and towns to provide public schools to those who want them, but the power to compel parents to send their children there would disappear. In its place, a decentralized network of educational opportunities (including, but not limited to, various types of schooling) would unfold, fueled by visionary parents, educators, and entrepreneurs.

Parents, not the state, would decide how and where their children are educated. New possibilities for education innovation would emerge as the shadow of forced schooling waned. Education freedom begins when government compulsion ends.

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“Meatless Mondays” and the Rise of Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

One of our favorite family poems is Shel Silverstein’s “Point Of View.” It’s witty without being preachy yet prompts the listener to more thoughtfully consider the act of meat-eating: “Thanksgiving dinner’s sad and thankless/ Christmas dinner’s dark and blue. /When you stop and try to see it/ From the turkey’s point of view.”

Reading this poem reinforces the idea that eating meat or not eating meat is a personal choice, a lifestyle decision that may be rooted in one’s own sense of right and wrong. There are many social, cultural, and individual reasons why someone might be a carnivore or a vegetarian. It’s a private decision of the home and family.

Private Choice or Public Policy?

Except when it isn’t. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced earlier this month that all New York City public schools would enact “Meatless Mondays,” avoiding any meat offerings during Monday school breakfasts and lunches beginning this fall. “Cutting back on meat a little will improve New Yorkers’ health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” de Blasio said in a statement. “We’re expanding Meatless Mondays to all public schools to keep our lunch and planet green for generations to come.”

The mayor acknowledges that vegetarianism is a personal choice. At a press conference announcing his new vegetarian agenda, he stated: “So, for me, this is very personal, because – and I will say up front, I eat meat and I eat vegetarian dishes and I try and strike a balance between the two. But I have two vegetarians in my home and they feel very strongly about this.”

Mayor de Blasio’s family members apparently feel very strongly about their personal choice to be vegetarians. Good for them. The issue is when someone’s personal preferences become public policy. The mayor explains in his speech that sometimes we need those philosopher-kings to guide the masses: “Sometimes it’s our elected officials who are the trailblazers and the visionaries.”

How about letting individuals and families make their own choices about what to eat? Should government officials really have the power to decide what you put into your own body?

There are, thankfully, ways around the Meatless Monday mandate. New York City parents can pack their own child’s meals, with meat if they choose. As I’ve written previously, these homemade lunches are a much healthier option for children than the USDA-issued variety. Parents can also opt-out of public schooling altogether, something more parents are doing in New York City and elsewhere to regain control over their children’s education.

Government Mandating Subjective Decisions

The Meatless Monday plan is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to government dictates on right and wrong, often using compulsory government schools to influence young people. Comprehensive sex education curriculum mandates in public schools continue to spark controversy, challenging various belief systems and family preferences. And the push to introduce “character education” into schools as a way to boost students’ moral compasses begs the question of whose moral compass will be used.

In a pluralistic society, state mandates on morality are inevitably contentious. A new report by Boston’s Pioneer Institute examines the growing impact of SEL, or the widespread emphasis on “social-emotional learning” in schools over academic content. Through various curricula and teaching methods, SEL initiatives can mold students’ perceptions of themselves and their world in a potentially narrow way.

Jane Robbins co-authored the study, called “Social Emotional Learning: K-12 Education as New-Age Nanny State.” She explains,

It’s one thing to direct your own moral, ethical, and emotional development or that of your children, but having a government vendor or unqualified public school officials implement an SEL curriculum based on coffee-table psychology is quite another.

Individuals and families should be the ones to determine their own values and moral worldviews, not government agents—often working through public schools—dictating good and bad.

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What Parents Can Really Do to Help Prepare Their Teens for Success

While reading about the student-led climate protests last week, a statement jumped out at me from the 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who is credited with launching the walkouts that occurred in over 100 countries. In an interview with The New York Times, Thunberg, who says she was a shy but good student who was overcome for years with adolescent depression, claims that her climate work has added fulfillment to her life. She says: “I’m happier now…I have meaning. I have something I have to do.”

Teenagers Crave Purpose

Regardless of how you may feel about climate activism, the key message to parents is that school can be stifling and anxiety-inducing for many teenagers who crave and need meaningful work. Adolescents are meant to come of age within the adult world, surrounded by a diverse group of mentors and engaged in authentic, real-life pursuits. This gives them both experience and personal reward.

Instead, teenagers today are spending more of their time confined in school and school-like settings than ever before. Teenage employment has plummeted, with part-time jobs abandoned in the all-out quest for academics and college admissions. Summer jobs, once a signature activity for teens, are no longer valued. Schooling has become the priority—even in summer. In July 1985, only ten percent of US teens were enrolled in school; in July 2016, over 42 percent were.

Thunberg also isn’t alone in her teen depression. Mounting data show skyrocketing rates of adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide over the last decade. Some researchers point to technology and social media as the culprit, but they ignore other, recent cultural trends—like more time in forced schooling and less time engaged in jobs and meaningful work—that could be contributing to adolescent strife.

Job Experience Could Be A Solution

In a recent Harvard EdCast podcast interview, Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University and author of the book, How to Raise an Adult, said that she has heard from several admissions officers that they, regrettably, rarely see work experience described in student essays or otherwise touted on college applications. Young people and their parents now believe that academics and extracurriculars are more important than good, old-fashioned teenage jobs.

Not only is this increased emphasis on school over work likely contributing to teenage angst and disenfranchisement, but it is also not serving them well for the adult world they will ultimately enter. A report by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation revealed that employers are disappointed that today’s highly-schooled graduates lack basic proficiency in simple tasks like drafting a quality email, prioritizing work, and collaborating with others. Other studies have found similar results, with employers frustrated by their new hires’ lack of communication skills, poor problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities, and low attention to detail.

While parents and teachers may think that piling on academics is the key to adult success, the lack of genuine work experience can be more hindrance than help for today’s young people. If parents really want their children to have a meaningful and successful adolescence and adulthood, they should consider trading a well-schooled life for a well-lived one. They can encourage their teens to get jobs and gain beneficial work experience—and make sure that their kids handle it all independently, learning through trial and error. As Lythcott-Haims warns in her book:

Helping by providing suggestions, advice, and feedback is useful, but we can only go so far. When parents do what a young employee must do for themselves, it can backfire.

In addition to encouraging part-time work, parents can also help their teenagers to develop an entrepreneurial mindset that focuses on customer satisfaction and value creation. By looking at her job (even if it’s in retail or food service) from an entrepreneurial perspective, a teen can learn a lot about business and value-creation and may be inspired to become an entrepreneur in adulthood. Unfortunately, entrepreneurship is woefully neglected in schools and standard extracurriculars.

As parents look ahead to summer vacation, they may want to pause and take a closer peek at their teenager’s plans. Will she spend those warm months getting ahead on her AP classes? Will he do a foreign language immersion program that will look good on the college transcripts? Maybe getting a job or learning how to think like an entrepreneur would be a more beneficial and rewarding way to enjoy a summer—and a life.

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Lawmakers Want to Give Voting Rights to Teens They Treat Like Toddlers

Newly-elected US Rep. Ayanna Pressley caused a stir this month when she filed an amendment to lower the legal federal voting age from 18 to 16. While Pressley’s amendment failed to pass, the action brought attention to the place of teenagers in society. Regardless of how we may feel about the role of the voter, many of us would argue that teenagers should have more autonomy and agency and be more active, productive members of their communities. The irony, however, is that at the same time legislators seek to empower teens by expanding voting rights, they are increasingly infantilizing them in other pernicious ways.

Confining Teens through Compulsory Schooling

For instance, the call to lower the voting age comes at a time when more states are tightening compulsory schooling statutes, requiring teenagers to stay in school longer under a legal threat of force. As of 2017, 24 states plus the District of Columbia had raised the minimum age at which a young person can legally leave school to 18. Lawmakers in Oregon announced legislation last month to lower the voting age to 16, but the state also raised its compulsory schooling age to 18. Sixteen-year-olds may get permission to vote, but in school, they still need permission to use the bathroom.

The alleged goal of expanding compulsory schooling laws is to lower drop-out rates and improve academic and social outcomes, yet research shows no clear benefit in raising the compulsory school attendance age. In Pressley’s home state of Massachusetts, a Boston city councilor recently proposed offering an optional 13th year of public schooling, prolonging the state stewardship of teens.

More time in compulsory school settings means less time adolescents spend working or otherwise constructively engaged with their larger communities. In fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a sharp decline in teenage labor force participation from a high of 57.9 percent in 1979 to just 34.1 percent in 2011. Much of this decline is due to the increased emphasis on time in school and academic performance while devaluing the critical life skills, mentoring, and real-life problem-solving that teens can experience through work and community involvement. Even summer jobs have been by replaced by school. According to the BLS, 42 percent of teens were enrolled in school in July 2016 compared to only 10 percent in July 1985.

Psychologist Robert Epstein points out how our society harms adolescents by stripping them of responsibility and authentic immersion into adult life. In his book, Teen 2.0, he writes that “high school is little more than a prison for many of our teens, and the time has come to explore bold new approaches to education that will allow our young to reconnect meaningfully with the adult world they are about to enter.” Dr. Epstein argues that the “artificial extension of childhood” past puberty is why so many US teenagers today are in turmoil.

The Power of Self-Education

The concept of adolescent empowerment and greater participation in the larger community is not new. For decades, social reformers have been advocating for more freedom and responsibility for teenagers. Paul Goodman brought these ideas to the forefront in his books, Growing Up Absurd (1960) and Compulsory Mis-education (1964). Goodman influenced John Holt, who took the ideas a step further. In his 1974 book Escape from Childhood, Holt promotes extending children’s rights, including allowing children the right to vote, as well as to direct their own education. The self-directed learning principle is critical for Holt. He writes in Escape from Childhood:

“A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.”

Holt went on to coin the term “unschooling” in 1977 as part of the nascent homeschooling movement, urging parents to remove their children from institutional schooling in favor of non-coercive, self-directed learning. Today, unschooling continues to gain popularity, particularly as more self-directed learning spaces provide alternatives to school for children and adolescents.

Lowering the voting age is a reasonable proposition. Indeed, it’s something worth considering as a mechanism for inviting adolescents into the larger discourse of our society. But lowering the voting age while forcing these same teens to spend additional years in mandatory schooling environments, cut-off from authentic, inter-generational community interactions, is nothing more than a political ploy.

Teenagers are capable of being valuable contributors to civil society. They should be granted greater freedom and responsibility. Lowering the voting age while trapping them in compulsory schooling gives teenagers neither freedom nor responsibility.

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Arresting Homebirth Midwives Just Reduces Women’s Birth Choices

After being arrested and charged with practicing medicine without a license last fall, a midwife in upstate New York is wondering whether or not she will go to jail for the work she has done for decades.

Elizabeth Catlin is a beloved certified professional midwife (CPM) who has caught hundreds of babies in the tight-knit community of mostly-Mennonite women near her home. According to a recent in-depth article on her ordeal, the state is cracking down on her actions, which they say are illegal.

Another Tale of Occupational Licensing

New York is one of 19 states that does not recognize the national CPM certification, a private, standards-based, intensive training and certification program for midwives across the country. Instead, New York requires midwives to have state-approved midwifery licenses through a Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) designation, requiring a nursing degree, specific training, and state registration, or a Certified Midwife (CM) certification that requires a master’s degree and other stipulations.

These state licensing requirements have little to do with safety and a lot to do with bureaucratic special interests and job protectionism. Not only do they threaten the freedom and livelihood of women like Catlin, but these regulations also severely limit women’s birth choices by creating midwife shortages and driving up costs. They also make safe birth choices, like a planned homebirth attended by a trained midwife, much less safe as women choose less qualified providers or opt for an unattended homebirth.

Women choose homebirths and other out-of-hospital births (like those at a birth center) for a wide assortment of reasons. Some want more control over the delivery process, a less rushed or sterile atmosphere, and fewer restrictions while in labor. Some find homebirth fees to be lower than what they would need to pay out-of-pocket for a hospital birth. Others choose homebirth for religious or cultural reasons. Like some women, I chose homebirths for my last two children after negative hospital experiences with my first two.

Homebirth Is Fine for Most Women

Most pregnancies are uncomplicated, and many labors and deliveries, when allowed to progress without intervention, proceed as normal life events and not medical procedures. Recognizing this, Britain’s national health service recommended in 2014 that low-risk women give birth at home or in a birth center rather than in a hospital.

As The New York Times reported,

For these low-risk mothers-to-be, giving birth in a traditional maternity ward increased the chances of surgical intervention and therefore infection, the [British] regulator said.

But midwives remain heavily regulated by, and mostly funded through, the British government’s National Health Service (NHS), creating a severe shortage of available midwives and preventing many women who want a homebirth from having one. Moreover, the few midwives operating independently of the NHS face increasing regulatory pressures that threaten their ability to practice.

Hospitals Are Dangerous

In the US, demand for non-hospital births is increasing, prompted in large part by dismal maternal health outcomes. A sweeping 2018 USA Today investigative report found that the “U.S. is the most dangerous place to give birth in the developed world,” with more than 50,000 women “severely injured” during childbirth each year, and approximately 700 annual maternal deaths.

Many of these adverse outcomes can be linked to the rising rate of C-section deliveries that increase maternal risks associated with surgery and infection. In the US, the C-section rate climbed from 23 percent of births in 2000 to 32 percent of births in 2015. By comparison, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that a reasonable C-section rate is about 10-15 percent of all births.

If these adverse maternal health outcomes persist, it’s likely that more women will seek alternatives like out-of-hospital births. That is, as long as state regulators, politicians, and special interest groups don’t continue to take steps like those in New York to criminalize independent midwives and actively limit women’s birth choices.

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