Amity Shlaes, a Bloomberg columnist and Senior Fellow in economic history at the Council of Foreign Relations, gets things backwards in attempting to explain why a first-grader in Maspeth, New York was handcuffed by police after throwing a temper tantrum, from School Kids in Handcuffs Show Teacher Bondage:

The real scandal is that our teachers are desperate enough to abdicate or absent themselves when kids have tantrums. This is due to a series of changes in precedent, statute and regulation that took place over decades. The changes were well- intentioned, says Philip Howard, founder of Common Good, a nonpartisan legal reform group that works on education issues. But over time, “law, like acid, has corroded teacher authority,” Howard said.

What happened? Education once was a local affair. Children didn’t have rights. Parents scarcely had rights. The teacher wielded a lot of authority, and usually a ruler or stick as well. So did the teacher’s backup, the terrifying principal, who has the power to suspend.

What has actually happened in education is that teachers have been given all the prerogatives in the education of children, and the parents have been left with little to none.  It was formerly the case (when education was local) that teachers understood that they owed their existence and their authority to the parents that allowed them to teach their children.  Teachers were agents of the parents, not of the state.  Then the state, needing for its continued economic success a steady supply of fully-domesticated and dogmatically-indoctrinated new citizens to work its factories, service its economy and most importantly, consume its production, became the teacher’s principal in the agency relationship.  State funding of public schools meant that the teacher owed allegiance to the state.  Teachers became state, not parental agents.  The parent’s concerns were ignored.  Parents and teachers, so far as the priorities of the state and parents clashed in the education of the child, became antagonists.  Laws that seemed to erode teacher authority were simply a backlash to parental impotence in the face of gargantuan state resources standing behind the whims of teachers.

Ms. Shlaes obviously has never dealt first-hand as a parent with the bureaucracy that is a public school system.  From the parent’s perspective, all the power is vested in the school.  If ever there is an issue regarding the child, school officials immediately resort to the administrative rules and laws enacted by the state to bolster their positions.  Public school bureaucrats, from the classroom teachers on up to the superintendents, are lawyers first, and educators second.   The parent and child’s relationship to the school is only transitory.  Their temporal concerns mean nothing against the eternal monolith that is the education bureaucracy. 

It’s not because teachers are hamstrung that parents are increasingly choosing to educate their children themselves.  It is because parents are considered by the state to be mostly irrelevant obstacles to be overcome in running another child through their indoctrination mill.  There are a number of reasons a person might wish to have children.  Practically none include allowing their child to be indoctrinated with a mushy set of contrived values from a state bureaucracy.  For this reason, more than any other, the future for public schools in America is happily quite dismal.   Since the post-industrial age has rendered children more of an economic burden more than benefit, putative parents will decide either not to have children because there is no good reason to bust a gut raising a kid to suit the state’s purposes, or, they will educate and train the children themselves.  The public schools are too stupidly bureaucratic to understand the growing threat that home-schooling represents, from the USA Today:

The number of home-schooled kids hit 1.5 million in 2007, up 74% from when the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics started keeping track in 1999, and up 36% since 2003. The percentage of the school-age population that was home-schooled increased from 2.2% in 2003 to 2.9% in 2007. “There’s no reason to believe it would not keep going up,” says Gail Mulligan, a statistician at the center.

There’s not a public school district in America that has grown 74%  in the last decade. 

As a parent of two teenagers, I can say (and have more than a few times) that were I to do it all over again, I would never have allowed my children to grace the front door of any public school, and this after my kids have attended what is considered one of the best public school systems in Alabama.  Even the recent Governor Riley’s grandkids go to school in the system. 

Allow me to offer a couple of examples:

When my daughter was in fourth grade at the local “Blue Ribbon” grammar school, she had a kid in her class that was a constant troublemaker.  During the course of the year, he cussed the teacher (“Fuck you, bitch!”, etc.), threw chairs and books at her, and even stole $200 from the PTO fundraiser.  Nothing was done.  The kid wasn’t suspended or paddled, but was left to continually disrupt the classroom.  Why?  Because the school district had its administrative rules and laws, and knew that none of the parents of other kids in the classroom could object to the manner in which the child was impairing their children’s ability to learn.  The coup de grace came on the playground one day when my daughter and her friend had to pull the kid off of another classmate as he tried to choke them to death.  I withdrew my daughter and sent her to a private, religiously-affiliated school. 

This example may seem to bolster Ms. Shlae’s thesis that teachers don’t have any power.  That would be incorrect.  The teacher, acting as agent of the state, has all the power that the state has.  It is the parents of well-behaved children that have no power.  They have no recourse but to withdraw when the state-teacher agency doesn’t make provision for controlling a kid like this, or is emphatically unwilling to use the power at their disposal. 

Another example:  My son, now a junior in high school, recently endured his second bone marrow transplant.  He somehow managed to take all but one of the required graduation exams (they’re taken by subject) during his recuperative period after the transplant, so only had one to do this year, and he’d be finished.  The exams are a waste of time.  If a kid is relatively intelligent, they’re a breeze, not even requiring study.  If a kid isn’t smart enough to breeze through them, then probably no amount of training will suffice.  My son breezed through all of them, including this last one, which he finished in thirty minutes, only a third of the allotted ninety.  Though finishing early and turning his exam in, he couldn’t leave the exam room, nor could he have any study materials for any of his classes.  So he laid his head on his desk and took a nap, which was allowed.  He awoke wondering how much time remained, and pulled his cell phone halfway out of his pocket to check the time.  Bam, he was busted.  Cell phones were prohibited from being on one’s person during the exam.  Fair enough.  It would seem that the punishment for such an infraction would be to throw out his exam (though it clearly was the case he didn’t cheat on the test using his cell phone).  What did the school do?  It suspended him for five days, which was a clear violation of the school’s own discipline policy.  By what metric did the school think it justified to take such harsh measures?  Because the school was expressly operating as a state agent in administering the test, it felt protected in exceeding its own disciplinary bounds.  The suspension not only contradicted the school’s own rules regarding discipline, but my son, because of a special education plan devised for his recuperation, was effectively not suspendable in any meaningful way.  Ironies abound in state bureaucracies.  Things rarely make sense because the bureaucracies believe, and justifiably so, that they don’t even have to try.

Now tell me Ms. Shlaes, who has the power?  The school system or the parents?  To be sure, the teachers haven’t got any more power than the state allows them, and the state, being constrained by constitutional considerations, generally grants as little power as is absolutely necessary to the teachers.  But it allows no power for the parents, except the attenuated and derived power of the ballot box.  Concentrated interests (education bureaucracies) most always trump diffuse interests (individual parents) when election time rolls around. 

The public education system is irredeemably dysfunctional, but not because teachers have no power.  It is dysfunctional because it fails to serve the interests of the only people (i.e., the parents) that have a vested, personal interest in the welfare, education and training of the child.  The quicker it dies the better.