Last week I mentioned some of the ways I approach proposed rules/legislation when evaluating my position. Again, these indicators are 1) being overly specific, 2) being individualized, 3) the absence of consequences and 3) the violation of locality. (Again, IANAL)
I argued against laws attempting to cover every eventuality through specific language. The alternative is a system of law based on principles, rather than specific situations. In my mind, the best example of a set of principles in U.S. law is the Bill of Rights. Had the founders chosen to define “speech” in a more specific manner, it might not now include radio, television, or the internet.
Solving an individual’s problems
An example might prove better than an explanation: In 2004, one of our state legislators pushed a movement to split one of the state’s larger school districts. Existing law requires a petition, a public study, and eventually, a majority vote from each of the affected areas. After the study was released, many citizens realized the disparity in property taxes in the two area was too significant to justify the new district, and most lost interest in the idea. (Taxes in the established area would fall slightly, but taxes in the proposed “new” district—a fast growing area—would likely double.) Despite a very clear public opinion in opposition to the new school district, the same representative has since sponsored legislation to alter regulations regarding the creation of new school districts. The bill was defeated in 2005; the same legislator is running a similar bill again this year.
I’m concerned when legislators consider bills criminalizing legal behavior they (or lobbyists) don’t like. A 2004 bill crafted by telecoms and written for the primary purpose of defeating UTOPIA, a municipal broadband project, is a recent example. This year, our legislature is considering a senator’s quest to minimize the teaching of evolution in public schools, against the recommendation of scientists from every major university in the state. (I have yet to hear a single high school science teacher or college professor, including those from private religious universities, speak in favor of the bill, although I’ve heard many speak against it.) The senator has created a problem where none existed, and is diverting public discussion from more important topics.
Laws should be implemented at the lowest reasonable level. Federal laws against counterfeiting U.S. currency are reasonable. A federal law mandating all public school students achieve a 100% pass rate on standardized tests is not. A minimum state curriculum, which can be expanded and customized by local districts is a common, reasonable approach. A proposed state law requiring elementary school principles to hold back third-graders unable to meet reading requirements oversteps the concept of locality, although successful programs similar to the one proposed exist at the district and even school level.
Last year in an informal meeting with the state legislature Republican leadership, one of the members present recognized that many legislators were criticizing the federal government for infringing on state issues (especially regarding NCLB), while acting in a similar manner by imposing requirements on local school districts. He suggested in a general manner that some legislative restraint might be in order. I appreciated the observation.
Overcoming the pressure to legislate from too high of a level comes down to trust. If the State Board of Education is asked to take action better left to local districts, it is appropriate to exercise trust in those at the local level. They too are elected, and can often be more responsive to their communities. (Trust in local decision makers was a significant factor in the State Board of Education’s decision to allow Rich School District to pursue the option of a four-day school week.)
The U.S. Department of Education rigidly applied the mandates of NCLB due to an institutional lack of trust in states. This has changed somewhat in recent months as the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, has been granting states more flexibility in choosing their approach to NCLB. In the same way, I hope our legislature will have faith that elected officials, more local to the problem than they, are working toward common goals, and that however well-intentioned some legislation may be, situations can and should be addressed at a more local level.
These observations apply to any type of organization, not just our government. Implementing successful laws can be a difficult task, but I find that whenever I have a concern about about a rule I’m considering, or legislation I’m asked to take a position on, that concern can often be reduced to specificity or locality.
- Search current and past Utah legislation
- A Washington Post article, “No Child Left Behind Act: Fact and Fiction” gives the silliest reason I’ve come across for the unreasonable “100% by 2014” requirement in NCLB.
- A Google search turned up several sites with listings of America’s sillier laws. Many are simply outrageous situations covered under more general laws, and many lacked references, but it was a humorous read. See one listing of stupid Utah laws.
- Found on Amazon: Wacky Laws, Weird Decisions, and Strange Statutes.