Alabama law takes bite out of pupil’s apple for teacher

That apple for the teacher is likely history in Alabama, where broad new ethics laws ban virtually all gifts for instructors and other public employees.

The rules, which went into effect this year, are meant to wipe out political corruption and stop lobbyists from influencing lawmakers. But the measures were written so broadly that they prohibit all public-sector employees, including teachers, from accepting anything “of value.”

Presents with no perceived monetary value, such as home-baked cookies or greeting cards, are technically still allowed, but critics say students and their parents will skip gifts for teachers this Christmas rather than risk facing fines or criminal charges.

“The way these reforms were sold to the public is that there was a big concern with lobbyists. I don’t remember anyone being concerned about a teacher getting a $10 gift certificate from Target,” said Montre D. Carodine, a law professor at the University of Alabama. “There’s some concern that this law has gone too far. It’s a time-honored tradition, being able to give a teacher a gift for the holidays.”

Ms. Carodine’s advice for teachers is simple: “Just don’t accept anything.”

Under Alabama’s prior ethics act, public employees could accept gifts worth less than $100. The new standard allows workers to accept gifts only if they’re “de minimis” in value and would be worth little or nothing if resold.

James Sumner, director of the state’s Ethics Commission, stressed that the word “teacher” is found nowhere in the law, and gifts from students were not the driving force behind the legislation.

“No one has singled teachers out,” he said, adding that instructors still can accept “things that are consumable, like roasted pecans, cakes, pies, cookies … potted plants, mugs, Christmas ornaments, things of that nature.”

The burden of following the law falls on both the giver and the recipient, meaning a teacher and his students could both be held responsible, though the state wouldn’t “prosecute a child,” Mr. Sumner said.

Most critics support the underlying intent of the law, and those in the education community want to avoid situations in which wealthy parents shower teachers with gifts in exchange for better grades for their children. But the regulations also could send a negative message to young students, said David Stout, a spokesman for the Alabama Education Association.

“What has in the past been charity by children and their parents has turned into an illegal activity in Alabama,” Mr. Stout said. “This is an absurd application of a law that has no real bearing on the relationship between a student and a teacher.”

The ethics rules were widely publicized throughout the state leading up to the passage of the bill. But Ms. Carodine said she and her husband, a public school teacher, hadn’t realized it applied to instructors.

“I learned about this reading the newspaper,” she said, adding that “there would have been an outcry back then” if the public realized the full implications of the act while it was being debated.

Ms. Carodine and others hope lawmakers and the state attorney general will focus their attention on lobbyists and politicians, not youngsters and their instructors.

“I don’t believe they’ll aggressively go after teachers, but I do hope this will get a conversation going” about making changes to the law, she said.

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