No one believes children should be bullied in school, no matter what the genesis of the bullying. But to think that somehow Congress could stop playground taunting, middle-school teasing, or insults leveled through social media is illogical. Yet Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (D–TX) and Lamar Smith (R–TX) think they can do just that by expanding Juvenile Accountability Block Grants to include school bullying.
The proposal includes a “sense of Congress” provision that states “that the use of best practices in the effort to combat bullying should be encouraged.” It also establishes accountability-based programs designed to prevent bullying, including cyber bullying.
Interest in bullying prevention is not new. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights took up the topic last fall and recommended more federal intervention in bullying prevention. Several members of the commission dissented from the report’s recommendations, arguing that the federal government is an inappropriate vehicle for bullying prevention. “I do not believe that controlling unacceptable student behavior in schools is—as the cliché runs—rocket science,” said commission vice chair Abigail Thernstrom. She continued:
I have spent much time in both orderly and disorderly schools. In those that are well run and have a culture truly devoted to education, no student even thinks of harassing peers or teachers—the latter often being a serious problem. The inmates do not run the asylum where there are clear messages about who is in charge, and about acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In orderly, disciplined schools, there is no running in the halls, fights between students, disrespectful language used in talking to other students or to teachers.…
School culture is something that only schools can set. Values cannot be imposed from above or outside. It is very difficult to see how the federal government can play a major role in stopping bullying in hundreds of thousands of schools across the land.
The Heritage Foundation’s Todd Gaziano, also a member of the commission, noted that some advocates of federal anti-bullying legislation claim it is necessary because state laws fail to prevent bullying:
If so, what makes them think more federal laws would work? For example, every state prohibits theft with severe penalties, but thefts still occur. Does that mean state theft laws are “not working?” Would a general federal theft law prevent them?
Teachers and principals are in the best position to establish discipline standards in their classrooms and schools, and they need more authority to do so. As federal intervention in education has grown, so too has congressional micro-management of schools. In order to give teachers and principals the authority to set discipline standards, that congressional overreach needs to be rolled back, and states should be allowed the flexibility to put education funding where it is most needed.
Federal policymakers should work to free states from the many regulations dictating how they spend education funding and allow states to put that money toward any lawful education purpose under state law. Proposals such as the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) Act do just that and would allow states to prioritize programs like bullying prevention if they deemed it a priority.
Better still, states could allow funding to become portable, following a child to any school of his or her parents’ choice, where they can be confident of the culture and values that will provide a positive learning environment. And school choice could very well be the best possible anti-bullying program.