If you needed more proof that bureaucracy induces the sacrifice of common sense to rigid rules, there’s this forehead-slapping story from the Washington Post’s Petula Dvorak:
Avery Gagliano is a commanding young pianist who attacks Chopin with the focused diligence of a master craftsman and the grace of a ballet dancer.
The prodigy, who just turned 13, was one of 12 musicians selected from across the globe to play at a prestigious event in Munich last year and has won competitions and headlined with orchestras nationwide.
One would expect that she’d be the pride of her school. Unfortunately, little Miss Avery attended a government-run school in Washington D.C.
But to the D.C. public school system, the eighth-grader from Mount Pleasant is also a truant. Yes, you read that right. Avery’s amazing talent and straight-A grades at Alice Deal Middle School earned her no slack from school officials, despite her parents begging and pleading for an exception.
“As I shared during our phone conversation this morning, DCPS is unable to excuse Avery’s absences due to her piano travels, performances, rehearsals, etc.,” Jemea Goso, attendance specialist with the school system’s Office of Youth Engagement, wrote in an e-mail to Avery’s parents, Drew Gagliano and Ying Lam, last year before she left to perform in Munich.
Although administrators at Deal were supportive of Avery’s budding career and her new role as an ambassador for an international music foundation, the question of whether her absences violated the District’s truancy rules and law had to be kicked up to the main office. And despite requests, no one from the school system wanted to go on the record explaining its refusal to consider her performance-related absences as excused instead of unexcused.
The decision might be understandable if her piano-playing came at the expense of her literacy and numeracy, but Avery earned straight-A’s and her parents went above and beyond to ensure that her that she continued to make academic progress.
Avery’s parents say they did everything they could to persuade the school system. They created a portfolio of her musical achievements and academic record and drafted an independent study plan for the days she’d miss while touring the world as one of the star pianists selected by a prestigious Lang Lang Music Foundation, run by Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who handpicked Avery to be an international music ambassador.
But the school officials wouldn’t budge, even though the truancy law gives them the option to decide what an unexcused absence is. The law states that an excused absence can be “an emergency or other circumstances approved by an educational institution.”
Too bad, so sad. After 10 unexcused absences, it doesn’t matter whether a child was playing hooky to hang at the mall or charming audiences in Hong Kong with her mastery of Mozart. D.C. bureaucrats will label the kid a truant, will mar her transcript with that assessment and will assign a truancy officer to the case.
It was at that point that Avery’s parents decided she would no longer perform in the school’s theater of the absurd. Unable to afford private school, they decided to home-school their daughter.
“We decided to home-school her because of all the issues, because it was like a punch in the gut to have to face the fight again this year,” said Gagliano, who works at Hertz Car Rental. “We didn’t want to do this. We want to be part of the public school system. Avery has been in public school since kindergarten. She’s a great success story for the schools.”
Yet maddeningly, the government-run school doesn’t see it that way—a fact that Dvorak contrasts with a local Catholic school that not only allowed a student to take time off to win Olympic gold medals in swimming, but also proudly displays her achievements on their website.
What explains the difference in treatment? Ludwig von Mises observed in Bureaucracy that government agencies exert powerful pressure on even the most well-meaning bureaucrats to follow predetermined rules, even to the point of absurity (like, say, a school district banning chapstick as “over-the-counter medicine”). Von Mises wrote:
Public administration, the handling of the government apparatus of coercion and compulsion, must necessarily be formalistic and bureaucratic. […] It is useless to blame them for their slowness and slackness. It is vain to lament over the fact that the assiduity, carefulness, and painstaking work of the average bureau clerk are, as a rule, below those of the average worker in private business. (There are, after all, many civil servants whose enthusiastic fervor amounts to unselfish sacrifice.) In the absence of an unquestionable yardstick of success and failure it is almost impossible for the vast majority of men to find that incentive to utmost exertion that the money calculus of profit-seeking business easily provides. It is of no use to criticize the bureaucrat’s pedantic observance of rigid rules and regulations.
When parents have the ability to remove their children from a school that isn’t meeting their needs and send them somewhere else, the schools must be responsive to their needs. By contrast, assigned district schools in lower-income areas have a captive audience, so there is no incentive to meet parental and student needs beyond the bureaucrat’s goodwill. But as Avery’s parents sadly learned, when that goodwill conflicts with some rule or regulation, it’s the latter that tend to win out.