What's Next, Felony Gum Chewing?

10/24/2011 09:00 am ET | Updated Dec 24, 2011

Recently several Senators in Washington announced that they were planning on hearings to expose a pressing national issue. These bold legislative leaders have decided not withstanding soaring unemployment and record budget deficits that it was more important for them to focus on the problem of baseball players using chewing tobacco in major league dugouts.

Photo-op legislative hearings have become the norm in the political arena, which is driven by the need to feed the twenty-four hour a day news cycle while at the same time advancing the perpetual campaigns of incumbents. If it is okay for United States Senators to focus on such headline grabbing issues like chewing tobacco, it should come as no surprise as two Long Island politicians vie for the media spotlight by grandstanding the late September arrests of seven kids for allegedly cheating on the standardized college entrance examination known as the SAT.

In September the Nassau County District Attorney, Kathleen Rice announced the arrest of six Great Neck High School students and a 19-year-old Emory University student. The charges allege that the college student accepted money from the high school students to impersonate those students while taking the SAT for them. Since these arrests the DA has announced that she is expanding her probe into other high schools and not to be outdone State Senator Ken LaValle, a longtime critic of the College Board and SAT exam, has announced that he plans to conduct legislative hearings into the issue of cheating on the SAT.

Some critics of the College Board and the SAT have suggested their response to the Great Neck High School cheating scandal has been too meek. What those critics don't understand is that Senator LaValle himself sponsored privacy legislation which became law making it impossible for the College Board to disclose information about students and their scores to third parties. Because of this privacy statute the College Board can only inform a university that an applicant's test scores have been "cancelled".

While the "cancelled" designation is designed to signal to the universities that there were irregularities with the test results, the College Board cannot release information as to the reason for the cancellation. While the College Board has implemented effective guidelines for discouraging and detecting cheating, the privacy statute makes it difficult for the College Board to effectively react to uncovered cheating.

Cheating on any exam is always wrong and can never be justified even in an increasingly competitive college admissions environment. But the simple reality is that cheating in high schools is as old as the chalk board. Convening legislative hearings on high school cheating is a waste of taxpayer resources. One would think there are far more pressing issues for our state legislative leaders to focus on but cheating in the classroom is not one of them.

The proposed hearings smack of political grandstanding and micro-management, especially since there is no evidence that the type of conduct which prompted the September arrests of seven students is wide-spread. Similarly, criminal investigations of high school cheating seem like a waste of precious law enforcement resources. Cheating is wrong and it is unfair to the hard working student who strives to do the best he or she can by being prepared. But it makes more sense for high school administrators, teachers and parents to address this problem instead of legislative leaders or district attorneys. If the DA and Senator think it is important to conduct investigations and legislative hearings about cheating, they are not far behind their federal counterparts who are concerned about chewing tobacco. With such intrusion into the world of education can a law making it a felony to chew gum in class be far behind?

Dennis Vacco was New York State Attorney General from 1995 to 1998.