Saturday, June 8, 2013

Fighting education fanatics: Column

Schools treat 5-year-olds like hardened criminals. It smacks of fanaticism.

For a while, I've been wondering if it's parental malpractice to put your kids in public schools. More and more, it's gone beyond wondering. For example, last week the Washington Post reported a nasty case of abusive behavior by school officials in Calvert County, Maryland: A five-year-old who brought a cowboy-style cap pistol on a school bus -- orange-tipped, and something that no one could possibly mistake for a real gun -- was interrogated for two hours (an interrogation that was so long, or so stressful, that he wet his pants) and then suspended for 10 days. Who treats a five-year-old that way?
The Post reports: "The case comes at a time of heightened sensitivity about guns in schools across the country. Locally, children in first and second grade have been disciplined for pointing their fingers like guns and for chewing a Pop-Tart-like pastry into the shape of a gun. In Pennsylvania, a 5-year-old was suspended for talking about shooting a Hello Kitty bubble gun that blows soap bubbles."
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, another kindergartner was punished for bringing a tiny Lego gun -- the illustration in the Boston Herald places it next to a quarter coin -- with detention, and forced to write a letter of apology to the school bus driver. For bringing a tiny piece of plastic.
What's up with this? It's not based on any concern with safety. Lego guns, cap guns, bubble guns, nibbled Pop Tarts, and fingers are no threat to safety. And the wild overreaction in these cases says there's more going on here than simple school discipline. As I said, who treats a 5-year-old this way? It smacks of fanaticism.
In fact, it seems like a kind of quasi-religious fanaticism. I think it's about the administrative class -- which runs the schools with as little input from parents as possible -- doing its best to exterminate the very idea of guns. It's some sort of wacky moral-purity crusade. If a few toddlers have to suffer along the way, that's tough. You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
But that raises two questions. First, what business do public schools have in trying to extirpate "impure" thoughts? Aren't we supposed to celebrate diversity? And, second, why should public schools decide that a longtime staple of American childhood, the toy gun, is suddenly evil?
When Horace Mann first campaigned to introduce compulsory public schooling, the model he chose was based on the schools in Prussia. Some of his critics objected: The Prussian system, they said, was based on the presumption that the government was smarter than the people. In America, presumption was precisely the reverse. Mann won out, but the result raises some questions about who's smarter.
The people running these schools are providing considerable evidence that they are not especially bright. Or, at any rate, that they have little respect for American culture. And the way they back down when these cases comes to light indicates that they know they're out of step with the public.
Which raises the question: Why are we giving them so much money? If public schools are places where kids can be persecuted for being kids -- especially if, gasp, they'reboys acting like boys -- what's their claim on our support?
Increasingly, parents are exiting public schools for private schools, charter schools, online schools or homeschooling. (Hey, the guy who sold Tumblr to Yahoo for a billion dollars was homeschooled.) This steady stream of stories involving what can only be called institutional child abuse can only speed that trend along. And once large numbers of parents are no longer sending their kids to public schools, how long will the tax money keep coming?
That's the question I'd be asking myself, if I were running public schools. The people who actually are running them, however, seem to be oblivious. Fanatics usually are.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is professor of law at the University of Tennessee. He blogs
In addition to its own editorials, USA TODAY publishes diverse opinions from outside writers, including our Board of Contributors.

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