Most adults probably have little idea what goes on in a public school on a daily basis, but if they did, they probably wouldn’t be too happy with how their children are treated. Following a series of reports on how school cafeterias treat children who cannot afford to pay for meals, Congress has introduced legislation to address the problem.
The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act aims to prevent cafeteria workers from publicly humiliating children who can’t afford to pay for meals. The bill came about because in some cases, workers were filling trays with food and making a show of throwing them in the garbage, or publicly labeling kids as owing money to the school for food. Obviously, such singling out is unnecessary and damaging for young children.
But isn’t it a bit extreme to use federal legislation to correct an admittedly troubling problem like this? Yes, it is, and it is an illustration of how far from common sense we have drifted when it comes to education policy.
For the past forty years, since the founding of the Department of Education, there has been a push to make education more uniform, more standardized, and more federal in nature. The needs of individual communities, to say nothing of individual families, have been subsumed under the weight of “the common good” and the perverse desire to make all schools the same.
This tendency, combined with the existing mandates that force children into schools based on where they live, has been a recipe for failure and abuse. The federalization of the school system means that we are forced to resort to a federal solution even for minor or localized problems, which is neither a good use of congressional resources nor an efficient way to address student difficulties.
None of this is necessary. All that would be required to end school lunch shaming and drastically improve the situations of students across the country would be to implement a platform of real, meaningful school choice. If parents shopped for schools like they shopped for piano teachers or karate instructors for their kids, cafeterias wouldn’t be able to get away with bullying and humiliating children. They, like everyone else, would be subject to the pressures of competition.
As it is, parents have to take what they are given. They are legally required to send their children to a nearby school, with the only exceptions being those who can afford a private school or have the time to homeschool. Obviously, the kids who are not able to afford a couple of bucks for lunch do not fall into these categories, so they are stuck without options in schools that can mistreat them without consequence.
Lack of choice translates to lack of accountability. Congress can pass all the laws it wants, but resources have to be devoted to detecting and correcting the problem, every time it occurs. In a market, however, dissatisfied customers can simply leave and go somewhere else. Bad service is corrected automatically through lack of participation, without the need to involve a central authority.
Listening to stories of how children fare in public schools is an exercise in continual heartbreak, but the situation is not going to change as long as the law deprives parents of options. School lunch shaming is only one symptom of a colossal problem: the problem of a monolithic school system run by a mammoth bureaucracy that puts rules and regulations above the needs of individual students.