At one time schools were expected to just teach.  Now, public schools are expected to be factotums for the social and medical issues of students.  The mission transformation started as a small-scale convenience to government.  But today’s K-12 schools have become big-box outlets for too many public-facing branches of government.

Schools are expected to scrutinize students for food security, housing, health problems, evidence of physical or psychological abuse, gang membership and involvement in crimes such as drug use and weapon possession.  Schools are expected to provide monitored transport from and to student homes.

School personnel are expected to be alert to ethnic, political and religious comments that might offend any thin-skinned student or parent.  The school must triage comments ranging from insensitive criticism to overt racism, bullying or threats of violence.  In any large gathering of children, some antisocial behavior is to be expected, but it concentrates in public schools due to mayhem from young sociopaths (or wannabes) that courts prevent schools from disciplining or expelling.

If schools fail to notice any of these “problems” and fail to report them to medical or law authorities in a thorough and timely manner, they can face outrageously expensive civil lawsuits and settlements, because schools are popular deep pocket defendants.  Teacher enthusiasm is drained by these predatory tort actions.

Noticed and reported problems are not the end of schools’ responsibility.  In many cases, the courts and government agencies force schools to perform parents’ duties instead of forcing parents to step up to their responsibilities.  Free school lunch and free breakfast is common in schools.  Schools are often the preferred site for medical screening, student inoculation, social worker counseling, pregnancy counseling, parole officer meetings or after-school enrichment (often a euphemism for school-paid daycare).

Schools are regularly shanghaied by the judiciary system to be enforcers for provisions in divorce, child custody, sentencing of young criminals, and orders of protection.  Schools have become the main venue for special education.  Special education can be anything from a slower paced version of regular curriculum to appallingly expensive psychiatric and physical disability care.  Special education cost $50 billion in 2004, twice the cost of educating other students.

The roles of parental surrogate, social worker, medical assistant and judiciary enforcer deplete a classroom teacher’s time and distract from a necessary focus on the original mission – basic education.  The resources diverted to non-teaching may account for the disappointing academic performance when compared with results shown by our trade partners.  Do public schools have enough time and budget left to teach academic subjects to the general student population?  If not, which tasks should be returned to parents or government departments?

Alan Daley is a retired businessman who lives in Florida and who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research