What A Federal Law Can Tell You About Your Society

Earlier this month Congress passed, and President Obama signed, the Every Student Succeeds Act, a massive piece of federal education legislation that replaces the No Child Left Behind Act.  Buried deep in the bill is a “free range kids” provision that reads:

“…nothing in this Act shall…prohibit a child from traveling to and from school on foot or by car, bus, or bike when the parents of the child have given permission; or expose parents to civil or criminal charges for allowing their child to responsibly and safely travel to and from school by a means the parents believe is age appropriate.”

istock_000000823936medium-e1359581892173I’m not sure that the provision means all that much, because it’s simply clarifying that the federal law itself doesn’t bar kids walking to school or support charges against parents who allow that to happen.  The law does not preempt state or local laws, however, so parents who let their kids walk or ride their bikes to school could still be subject to harassment and prosecution under local ordinances or state statutes.

Advocates for “free range” parenting, though, think the free range kids provision is a victory.  Color me skeptical.  Instead, the provision seems to say that we’ve reached the point that the federal government needs to specify that its enactments aren’t interfering with basic parenting decisions, like whether your kids are capable of walking to school by themselves, as UJ and Cath and I did for years, or playing outside alone, without hovering parents or social workers controlling everything they do.  Responsible parents — like my mother and father — can properly decide when their kids are self-sufficient enough to do so, and can reasonably conclude that allowing their children to play or walk or bicycle by themselves builds self-reliance and responsibility.  Yet parents who allow their kids to walk to school or play in a park are still being subjected to harassment by local authorities, who obviously think they know better than the parents do.

This is one of the moments, I think, when we should stop and consider what our government has become.  Are we at the point when we need to include a provision in every sweeping piece of federal legislation stating that it isn’t intended to criminalize basic parenting decisions?  That’s bizarre, and sad.

Walking To School

According to this story, a California school district currently bars students from walking or riding their bikes to elementary school or middle school. Although the news article is not entirely clear, it appears that the school district decided that the road that kids would take to get to school was just too busy and, therefore, dangerous. This kind of news story is pathetic — although not particularly surprising in this era of paternalistic government — because it shows how weak, lazy, and risk-averse America has become. And we wonder why we have a problem with child obesity!

Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio

Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio

In the early 1960s, when I first started going to school in Akron, Ohio, UJ and I walked to school every day, from our house on Orlando Avenue to Rankin Elementary School on Storer Avenue. We would turn right out the front door and walk to the end of the block, turn left on Delia Avenue, then walk 11 blocks down Delia Avenue to Storer, where we turned right for a few blocks and then crossed the street to Rankin. We walked that route rain or shine, snow or sleet. On some days Mom would tell us that we were to go to Gramma and Grampa Neal’s house for lunch and we would walk the six blocks from Rankin to their home on Dorchester Road over the lunch period; on other days we were to go to Gramma and Grampa Webner’s home and we would walk the six blocks from Rankin to their house on Emma Avenue.

Perhaps Mom worried about us as we took our walks, but I doubt it. Walking to school was just an accepted part of the day; it was something that everybody did. For a kid, too, it was a time of freedom and high adventure to be savored. You were on your own.

The spiny outer covering of buckeyes

The spiny outer covering of buckeyes

You hustled on the way to school to make sure you weren’t tardy, but the walk home was a bit more leisurely. There would be interesting places to examine, and things to do. On the route back home from Rankin, for example, there was a triangular “island” in the middle of an intersection, and at each corner of the island there was a large buckeye tree. UJ and I called it “Buckeye Island,” and on the way home on a crisp fall day we might stop to see if buckeyes had fallen. We would try to pry open their tough and spiny outer covering and see if we could find a nut or two worth polishing to a brilliant dark shine.

A polished buckeye

A polished buckeye

Sometimes, as we gathered our nuts, older bullies would come up and take the best nuts from us, and we would have to get out of there. But, really, what did we care? They were just nuts. The important thing was that we were on our own, making our own decisions, and the prospect of bullies just heightened the sense of excitement and fun.

Why would any school district want to deprive kids of that kind of experience? Why would any parents be so protective that they wouldn’t want their children to feel that sense of freedom? Why wouldn’t any community demand an environment where their children could walk to school without fear of anything more threatening than a fifth-grade bully?