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It Looked Good on Paper

October 10, 2003

When federal education officials told states to do something about dangerous schools, they weren't talking about kindergarten finger paintings. That didn't stop Massachusetts from leaping into the void to protect students from their own artwork and poetry.

Saying taped-up paper represents a fire hazard, the state forbade teachers this fall from covering more than 20% of classroom wall space with any kind of "flammable material" -- otherwise known as cardboard cutouts of the alphabet, postings of classroom rules, educational posters and student reports on explorers or rain forests.

Unlike those student papers, fire officials used no research in coming up with their arbitrary figure. The state saw an increase in the number of school fires, but to date no evidence links these to crayoned displays of stick-figure families.

No, the state fire marshal came up with this idea only after he noticed that teachers were roundly ignoring the previous rule -- which banned all paperwork from the walls. Pronouncing the ban unenforceable, he came up with a recipe that could only be useful in a math lesson on bureaucratic small-mindedness: "Now, students, assuming state fire officials are in their rightful minds, what would be the square footage of our classroom's walls? How many pictures of bunny rabbits measuring 9 inches by 11 inches could we then fit onto the walls?"

If you think the classroom walls were bare in Massachusetts, you should have seen the hallways, auditoriums and cafeterias, where no paper displays were allowed. There go the student-government election posters, the announcements of school events, the postings of important college and testing dates.

The fire rule had one positive effect: It brought teachers, principals, superintendents, students and parents together in one voice, saying loudly and in unison: "Are you guys for real?" Because of their protests, the Massachusetts Board of Fire Prevention Regulations now allows 10% of hallway walls to have paper. A lesson in civics, if not in good sense.

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