Scrooge in Alabama?

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It’s the end of the year. The criminal justice system is slowing down a little bit for the holidays, but other activity is ramping up. For many parents, making a year-end gift to their children’s teachers is part of the holiday routine. Not so much in Alabama, though. This NPR story, headlined How Alabama Banned Holiday Gifts for Teachers, explains:

Alabama’s new ethics law, which took effect in March, bans nearly all gifts to government workers — not just elected officials, but all state, county and municipal employees. That includes schoolteachers, as a lengthy opinion from the state ethics commission makes clear.

It is apparently the only such law in the nation to cover teachers. Those who violate it may be subject to fines of up to $6,000 and prison sentences of up to one year. There’s an exemption for items of “little intrinsic value,” which the ethics commission has said includes homemade cookies and coffee mugs of a “holiday nature.” (They’re right about holiday mugs but completely wrong about the value of homemade cookies, if you ask me.)

The bottom line is that kids and their parents can’t give teachers Starbucks or Target gift cards, and at least some Alabama school administrators have emailed parents to warn them about the new rules. There are some potentially legitimate arguments for such a law, including avoiding favoritism or the perception of it. But overall, the law strikes me as a solution in search of a problem, and it led me to ponder a few questions:

  • If Timmy brings his teacher a Honey-Baked Ham, is Timmy an accomplice to a crime? Is he soliciting a crime? Are Timmy’s parents aiders and abettors?
  • Are there any aggravating circumstances that apply to violations of the law? For example, if Suzy brings her teacher a wool scarf because she has been on detention several times and wants to get on the teacher’s good side, rather than out of any genuine affection for her teacher, does she have a dishonest purpose? What if Suzy gives her art teacher a “world’s best teacher” mug, then gives an identical mug to her music teacher? Now has she manifested a dishonest purpose, since they can’t both be the world’s best teacher?
  • If Joey gives his teacher a fantastically ugly picture frame that cost $40, does that violate the law? In other words, does a gift have “intrinsic value” if it was expensive to purchase but is completely unwanted?

These burning questions may remain theoretical, however, as a bill has recently been introduced in the Alabama legislature to allow “seasonal gifts” to teachers of up to $100. What do you think, readers? Should North Carolina follow Alabama’s lead like Santa following Rudolph? Or is Alabama a holiday-spoiling Grinch?

3 comments on “Scrooge in Alabama?

  1. Send me a lump of coal and call me Scrooge. I agree with the interpretation of this ethics legislation. In addition to the ethcis issue, it solves practical problems that many parents have when attempting to purchase a meaningful gift for a teacher. Some parents (1) can’t afford a gift, (2) don’t know the teacher very well, (3) don’t like the teacher, or (4) do not observe holidays that traditional involve gift giving. Ultimately, the parent resentfully resorts to giving an impersonal gift card. Frankly, I think the best gifts a parent can give a teacher are being involved with the school and being fully invested in their child’s education.

  2. The law of unintended consequences has made Alabama look like the Grinch. This is the kind of thing that happens in too many legislative sessions all across this country. Supporters of a measure they think will do good has effects no one saw before it was enacted.

  3. Who gives the teachers up to the $100 limit?!? I guess I’m the scrooge!

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