Making Regulations Count
Recently, I found myself in the State Capitol building in Jefferson City, Missouri listening to a rousing debate about whether or not to require Missouri public schools to allocate time for the Pledge of Allegiance. I was there to testify during the hearing about another bill, but my ears perked up as the back and forth between the members of the education committee got more heated.
Now, I’m a big fan of the Pledge of Allegiance. If I had my druthers, American schoolchildren would recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of every school day. In fact, I wouldn’t mind hearing a rousing rendition of God Bless America every Monday morning, now that I think about it. But as the debate wore on, I started to question the wisdom of whether or not we should have a state law requiring it. I started to see this requirement less as a reasonable request from our elected officials and more as a part of a broader trend of regulatory creep.
Most regulations and requirements make sense when they’re looked at in isolation, but they add up. By my count, members of the Missouri legislature filed almost 300 bills related to education this session, all probably reasonable to the folks who drafted them. But if all were enacted, think of the new burdens they would place on teachers and administrators.
As my old friend Rick Hess often tells eager young policy wonks hoping to remake the American education system through new laws and regulation: Government can make schools do things, but it can’t make them do them well. At best, the state legislature can require that the Pledge be part of the schedule, and the state department of education can create a reporting form that requires all 520 of Missouri’s school districts to affirm to the appropriate functionary that they’ve provided time for it, and during audits maybe some bean counter will double check the form. But that’s about it. They certainly can’t make sure the kids hold their hands over their hearts and say the Pledge with pride.
That said, maybe saying the Pledge is so important that even with the limited power that the state legislature has to actually get schools to do what they want, they should still make the requirement and direct the state department of education to do their level best to make sure it is followed. If that is the case, though, how does it compare to all of the other things that the legislature wants schools to do? If there is some conflict between varying requirements, how should schools weigh them against each other?
Our Tory compatriots across the pond offer a way forward. In 2010, the Conservative government of the United Kingdom implemented what they called “one in, one out” (later revised to “one in, two out”) that required government to remove a regulation of equivalent compliance cost for every new regulation that they proposed. Want to require a new form to be submitted to the Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills tracking how businesses recruit new employees? Lovely, not a bother at all. You simply must find another form that takes the same amount of effort or another requirement that takes the same amount of time and eliminate it.
The same logic could be applied to government regulation of schools. If the legislature wants to require the Pledge of Allegiance, or extra time for reading, or for teachers to have CPR training, they simply have to remove a requirement that takes up the same amount of time or costs the same. The hope would be that this would make lawmakers think before adding new regulations, because for every new idea they have, they and their staff will have to dig around to find something to jettison. It would also give them the opportunity to revisit regulations that still exist in the education code but have outlived their usefulness. Rather than adding on a kludge with every new directive, new requirements that are worthwhile are made doubly so as they also help remove an unneeded requirement. It’s addition by subtraction, and a win-win.
Ultimately, a one in, one (or two) out scheme should be a part of a broader regulatory reform of public schooling in America. Looking at regulations through the lens of the burdens on time and money that they place on schools, we can remove regulations that offer little to no return and limit regulations to things that really matter. Like, perhaps, the Pledge of Allegiance.