This is a prime example of the way “the few” can ruin it for “the many.” Because a few parents have sent their kids to school bearing over-the-top presents for Teacher, the State of Alabama Ethics Commission has decided that some Christmas gifts equate to bribes. A new ruling from the Commission prohibits teachers from accepting certain gifts, including gift cards, hams and turkeys. The Washington Post’s Janice D’Arcy has more:
Many states and some individual schools ask that parents and teachers respect certain gift-giving guidelines, but Alabama’s law is far tougher than most. A teacher who is caught in violation could receive jail time and a fine of up to $6000.
According to an Associated Press story the Alabama Ethics Commission said teachers should have to abide by the same conflict-of-interest laws as lobbyists because “The suggestion that it is harmless for a school child to give a Christmas gift to their teacher ignores the potential for abuse.”
D’Arcy talked to a teacher friend of hers to find out whether teachers allow gifts to influence the way they treat students. Her friend says she does her best to not be influenced by presents — and that, particularly in the case of a child with behavioral problems, she’s not any more or less apt to overlook infractions because she did or didn’t receive a present.
On some level, the ethics ruling makes sense: Why not remove entirely the temptation to treat children differently according to the presents their parents prepare? But on another level, this is indicative of the general trend toward overcriminalization in our nation today. And overcriminalization has broad and negative consequences for our country. The proliferation of laws and prohibitions means both that more law enforcement becomes necessary and that laws are likely to be broken on a more regular basis, either because citizens aren’t aware of the law or because they find it petty. That, in turn, gradually erodes the rule of law.
Let’s apply the basic principle of subsidiarity here: The state is not “the most local level” at which this “problem” could be solved. Teachers ought to be able to solve this issue on their own. If they sense that they’re unduly influenced by presents, they could ask parents to refrain. Failing that, individual schools could establish gift policies.
Or, as an entirely different solution, we could accept that children with involved parents do have an advantage in school and life — and, instead of seeking to limit the activity of such parents, focus our time, attention and effort on encouraging absent parents to be a bit more present for their children.
Last thought: This ruling, as with so many senseless policies, assumes the primacy of the material over the personal or spiritual. That is, it assumes that material presents buy children an advantage immaterial presents — like gratitude, politeness and diligence in the classroom — could never purchase. But no doubt a heartfelt thank-you note to a teacher would, in most cases, curry just as much favor as an elaborate gift.