JUST AFTER Robert C. Embry Jr. was elected president of the state Board of Education, he proposed restrictions on high school students' working after school. Embry would allow an employer to hire a student only after receiving approval from the student's principal.
Embry apparently based his proposal on research showing that students who work more than 20 hours a week are more likely to do poorly in school. And much of the money earned from these extracurricular jobs isn't used to put bread and milk on the tables of the students and their families. Rather, working students are spending their earnings on clothes and other expensive "luxury" items which parents (including this one) either can't or won't buy.
Joseph L. Shilling, the state superintendent of schools, is looking into Embry's recommendation. But before he and the Board of Education jump too far, they need to stop and think. This might be another example of well-intentioned but ineffectual education policy, appealing in its laudable objective but accomplishing nothing.
For instance, what do Embry and the board really think students are going to do with their after-school hours if they are prohibited from working? Study?
Is the state going to provide after-school programs or structured support to encourage students to hit the books? Or is the state going to monitor students' after-school activities to make sure that they aren't hanging around those shopping malls where they're not permitted to work?
Will students be more likely to spend an extra 20 hours a week checking out books at the library rather than checking out the action on the streets? Will they actually open their textbooks and do the homework assigned or will they learn spelling from "Wheel of Fortune"?
At least when they are working we know these kids are off the streets, away from the TV and engaged in an activity our society usually encourages and applauds -- working hard to get what one wants. Once the state prevents kids from earning money to buy those things so dear to their hearts, will some resort to less wholesome methods of obtaining these coveted possessions? Or get the money to buy these things in less constructive ways?
And what standards will principals (who, no doubt, really need yet another responsibility) use to determine which students will be permitted to work and which won't? Will a student be allowed to work if she swears she will use the money to buy food for the family table and not after-school snacks at McDonald's? Will a student be allowed to work if he promises to shop for Keds rather than Nikes, books rather than CDs or generic jeans rather than those carrying a designer label?
By all means the state needs to encourage students to work less after school and to work more in school and to find ways to get students to study and learn more. But merely telling kids they can't work after school won't accomplish this -- even if it is legal for the state to regulate the out-of-school activities of young people.
Before it places restrictions on students' after-school activities, perhaps the state should be doing a better job of coordinating after-school jobs and high school curriculum, of integrating on-the-job learning with in-the-classroom learning.
Nancy Knisley is a Baltimore County parent writing from Catonsville.