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The law of the bureaucratic jungle

In this season of patriotism, from Memorial Day through Flag Day to Independence Day, we like to think of ourselves as a nation of democracy, freedom, and laws.

Truth is, we’re a nation of bureaucracy, where all manner of regulation — well-meaning or not — is based not on the original intent of the people and their elected representatives but rather on anonymous reinterpretation and backhanded implementation by people and forces few of us have ever heard of.

Take, for example, a law most parents have experienced. These days it goes by the acronym FERPA, standing for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Although you’ve been hearing about it for only a dozen or so years, it actually was adopted in 1974 as something called the Buckley Amendment, and it has never been amended since.

As adopted in 1974, the law had two clear intents: to require that schools disclose whatever secret records they might maintain about students and to bar parents from obtaining any information about their children once they became legal adults (age 18 and older) unless their children consented.

The law was a bit backhanded to begin with. Under the Constitution, the federal government has no right to issue such rules. So rather than make these legal requirements, what the law actually did was threaten to cut off federal payments to any school that failed to follow them. A school can ignore the rules as much as it wants, just as any state can legally refuse to enforce seat belt laws. It simply will lose all federal aid if it does.

The Buckley Amendment was designed to keep parents from checking up on college students, unless the students wanted them to, and to keep administrators from putting nasty notes in students’ files without the students (or, if under 18, their parents) being able to read those notes.

Give bureaucrats enough time, however, and any law can be reinterpreted into meaning something altogether different. After 41 years of bureaucratic reinterpretation, FERPA now precludes listing a student as valedictorian or on an honor roll or even taking his or her picture during a class activity in a public place unless a parent signs a waiver, which must be kept on file at all times. It even precludes listing a student’s name on a sports roster unless such a waiver is on file. That, in turn, creates a sea of red tape every educational institution in the county must wade into at considerable expense.

Dollars that hometown school boards might otherwise have decided to send directly into classrooms now must go toward maintaining mountains of paperwork mandated by anonymous bureaucrats thousands of miles away.

Meanwhile, students and parents seem to have no better chance of seeing whatever nasty notes might be kept in a student’s file than they did before the law was enacted.

While we don’t often agree with the political aims of those who want to strangle all government, we do see their point. We just worry when they attempt, as they have in Kansas, to eliminate bureaucracy by cutting taxes and funding. Bureaucrats are far too wily to be stopped that way. If they can almost totally rewrite a law to make it mean something diametrically opposed to its original intent, they can figure out how to hurt taxpayers instead of themselves when legislators ham-handedly try to impose cuts.

The lesson here is to keep bureaucracy — all bureaucracy — as limited as possible. That’s one reason we have such grave concerns about what the City of Marion is trying to do by creating a new bureaucracy to run its parks, recreation, cemetery, and other functions. It may sound like a good idea at the outset, but centralized offices often have a tendency — despite the good intentions of those involved — to grow into uncontrollable forces that drown everyone in red tape.

Government is the fastest growing industry in Marion County. It’s not just state and federal mandates that are forcing us to hire more and more people to provide the same or even less actual services. Sometimes it’s our own attempts to streamline that end up leaving us steamrolled by government of the bureaucrats, by the bureaucrats, and for the bureaucrats.

— Eric Meyer

Last modified May 27, 2015

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