Bright line bureaucratic rules that make no sense

Some friends of mine have put together a clever blog.  (If you follow me on facebook, you’ve already seen me trying to help them out.)  It’s called “A Kid’s I View” and it offers travel posts that kids write.  As a mom, I see it as a good resource for kids’ writing exercises; and as a mom who travels, I see it as a helpful place to look for travel ideas.

The biggest hurdle for my friends right now is to get content at the site.  Unlike some bloggers we know, most kids are not spontaneous writers.  Even nagging parents seem to lack the power to push their kids into writing.  When you think about it, the only people with the real power to push kids to write are teachers.  With this in mind, my friends are approaching various school districts.  Their sales pitch is that, at no expense to the school or the students, children can become published authors and, with a little luck, win cash prizes for their writing.

So far, some private schools and some public school districts have been intrigued.  One school district, however, instantly slammed the door in my friends’ faces.  The reason?  That school district has a hard-and-fast rule that it will only work with non-profit web sites.

I can understand the thinking that drove this rule.  “We’re a big school district and, even though we’re kind of broke, there’s still a lot of money here.  If we started using for-profit websites, people would think that we were trying to channel public school funds to those sites, which would look terrible and might encourage corrupt behavior from our staff.  If we use only non-profit sites, nobody can accuse us of wrongdoing.”

The problem with that line of thinking, of course, is that it rests on two completely fallacious assumptions:  (1) that for-profit sites suck funds out of school districts and (2) that non-profit sites are always on the side of the angels.

As my friends’ site demonstrates, a for-profit site can provide a benefit to a school district without imposing any costs on the district.  From the school and student point of view, it’s a fun, safe, colorful place where kids can experience the thrill of being a published author.  More than that, it’s absolutely free.  No money at all flows from school and student to the site.  To the contrary.  If a kid does well, the site sends money to the student.  More than that, if a teacher is able to encourage enough students to write (and frequent writing is the only way for someone to become a good writer), the teacher can earn money for his or her classroom.  This site puts the lie to the notion that schools appear corrupt (or are actually corrupt) if they deal with for-profit sites.

There’s evidence that the district is equally wrong with its assumption that non-profit organizations have a purity that allows the school districts to deal with them with impunity.  The most stunning example of this is Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea empire.  Mortenson wrote a book — Three Cups of Tea — describing his transformative experience following a disastrous hike in the Himalayas.  Thanks to that Himalayan sojourn, he was inspired to start schools for girls in Afghanistan.  Oprah got wind of him.  His book climbed the NYT’s bestseller list and became so popular it is now part of many schools’ curricula.  Inspired by their classroom reading, thousands of children raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund those schools.

Except, if Jon Krakauer is to be believed in his book Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, Mortenson is a con man.  His transformative Himalayan sojourn never happened.  He didn’t build most of the promised schools and, of the few he built, many stand empty.  Most egregiously, Mortenson used his organization (funded in significant part by school children) as his own personal ATM, siphoning off millions of dollars to fund his lavish lifestyle.  (As far as I’m concerned, the early tip-off that Mortenson wasn’t on the up-and-up Oprah’s embrace.  I acquit Oprah entirely of participating in the fraud.  I’ve just noticed that she has a knack for falling for scams.)

As the Mortenson con shows, the school district’s bright line rule allowing it to deal only with non-profit web organizations provides no assurance that it will be insulating its students from scams or other improper conduct.  Meanwhile, this same misguided policy shuts the door entirely on services that could, without cost, benefit the school and the students.

I wish my friends much luck.  They’re going to need it if that school district’s rules are the norm, rather than anomalies.

By the way, if you want to read an entire book devoted to foolish bureaucracy, I strongly recommend Philip K. Howard’s The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America.  Don’t let the book’s title fool you.  It’s not about lawyers.  It’s about bureaucracy, and the way in which its growth stifles initiative, innovation, flexibility and adaptability.  Keep in mind as you read it that government equals bureaucracy.  The bigger the government, the bigger the bureaucracy controlling our lives.

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