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The Ghost of Christmas Presents

In a holiday-themed archetype of legislative overreach, Alabama passed an ethics law earlier this year forbidding K-12 school teachers from accepting expensive presents. Previous legislation set a $100 limit on individual gifts to public workers, but the new law specifies that gifts to teachers be limited to those of nominal value. The stated purpose: to reinforce ethical practices by state employees.

This was such a big deal that the AL Ethics Commission was receiving about 25 calls a day from parents who didn't want to get their children's teachers in trouble. The Ethics Commission released a detailed report, letting parents know that cookies, hand lotion and mugs are OK. What I found interesting was what was forbidden. Four examples: hams, turkeys, cash and "anything a teacher could re-sell."

I was a classroom teacher for more than 30 years. I received hundreds of Christmas and end-of-year gifts over that time. And I never got a turkey or a ham. Maybe that's an Alabama thing?

Nor did I ever get cash-- and if I had been slipped a card with cash, I would have returned it immediately. In fact, I don't know any teacher who would accept cash or an extravagant gift, especially if they thought the gift came with strings attached. The teachers I know have a whole shelf full of holiday mugs with "from Brittany, 1998" written in Sharpie on the bottom.

Besides the obvious issues of unenforceability and heavy-handed mistrust of those charged with educating Alabama's most precious resource--the whole brouhaha has kind of cheesy self-righteousness about it. Does a $25 Starbucks gift card come with expectations built in? What if it's given by a shy first grader who noticed his teacher often brings a Starbucks cup to school? When does the impulse to give a hard-working teacher a nice token of appreciation morph into a calculation of what special favors might be granted through a generous present?

Jim Sumner, director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, is in favor of clamping down on all public workers. No gifts, period.

"It takes away the sense of entitlement that people have built up over the years that people serving the public need gifts," Sumner said.

Sumner said that about 25 states have laws limiting the gifts that public employees can receive. About eight states -- South Carolina being the closest -- have even tougher rules, not even allowing public employees to get a free cup of coffee.

According to Kerns' research, public officials and employees are rarely influenced by a meal paid for by a lobbyist or by a gift. But states send a message with firm ethics laws, she said, and build confidence among the public that leaders can't be bought.

Here's what I wish I could tell Jim Sumner: Teaching offers many very rewarding experiences, but it's not and never has been about the great swag. I'm not sure I ever had a "sense of entitlement" as a public worker-- but then, I never came in contact with lobbyists and don't think most people consider non-elected teachers "public officials." I'm not sure I ever had anything--like a legislative vote--that could be bought.

Ethics Director Sumner: " if [a parent] said, 'I don't care what the new law is, I'm going to give them a cruise," that's a different case ..."

A cruise? I can't speak for legislators--who, after all, can change much more than a mere grade--but I'd be hard pressed to find a teacher who regularly went on international junkets, courtesy of Pearson, the way state education officials have. And don't we have much bigger fish to fry, educationally speaking, than fretting about setting strict guidelines for what parents can spend on a present?

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley called the new law silly--and is pushing for still more clarification. Given the fact that we're right at gifting time, perhaps he doesn't want to hear from any more parents. Happy Holidays.

The whole dustup feels sad to me, however-- part of the impulse to punish and control something that happens rather naturally everywhere: kids giving presents to their teachers. All presents from students are good presents. They're appreciated, but the sentiments under them are what's treasured.

Thinking back over all the gifts I got --there must be 50 music-themed tree ornaments-- one stands out. I had a kid in my 6th hour jazz band, who came to class the day before winter vacation with what looked very much like a tightly wrapped bottle of wine. "My mom says don't open it until you get home, and keep it in your drawer," he said, all innocence.

When I got home, I unwrapped it. It was a bottle of wine--a very nice bottle, in fact. I saw the boy's mother in the grocery store over holiday break. "About the gift..." I said and she held up her hand. "You absolutely deserved it," she said. "We won't speak of it again."

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