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May 29, 2005

More on the Wellesley override

As we noted earlier this week, the town of Wellesley's recent failure (by 17 votes) to pass a $3.6 million Proposition 2-1/2 override resulted in the cancellation of a Spanish immersion program in the Wellesley public schools (the town did pass a smaller override), whereupon some concerned parents took it upon themselves to raise $380,000 to try to save the program.  The school board, however, rejected the offer, and will cancel the program instead.  We wondered aloud whether this was the right call, and got some interesting comments.

In today's Globe, columnist Eileen McNamara continues the discussion by delivering a lecture to the Wellesley parents, who in her view are "confused" about "the definition of public education" and require a lesson on "the concept of collective responsibility."

I was mightily put off by McNamara's pious, high-and-mighty tone, which seems to me completely inappropriate in a situation where the parents (and the kids, who were also involved in the fundraising effort) were simply trying to preserve an educational program that they found to be beneficial.  And, in thinking about it, I don't find much of what McNamara says to be very persuasive.  Read on...

I can see two broad categories of reasons in support of the school board's decision to reject the privately-raised funds.  The "strategic" reasons are the variants on the notion that "if we accept private funds here, the town will never vote for a Prop. 2-1/2 override again because they'll assume that the parents will raise the money."  The "philosophical" reasons go more to the idea that there's something intrinsically bad about public schools accepting private donations.

McNamara's column does not address the "strategic" reasons at all, so I won't discuss them further here (though they're important and are well worth discussing).  She focuses entirely on "philosophical" reasons - in particular, her view seems to be that when the voters spoke by rejecting the override, that should have been the end of the matter.  She writes:

We cast our lot together, for good or ill. The majority rules. That means: Win some, lose some.

And later:

The take-away lesson for disappointed parents might have been the need to do a better job next time convincing townspeople of their point of view, or to do a more aggressive job of getting like-minded residents to the polls. Persuasion and participation usually win the day. Whatever happened to losing gracefully, and living to fight another day? Instead, parents indignant that they lost such a close vote launched a fund-raising drive to use private resources to pay for a core curriculum public-school program.

And still later:

In the face of the fundamental inequity in educational opportunity we do not need Citizens to Save Spanish, parents determined to circumvent the will of a majority when they do not prevail at the polls. No matter how committed they are, no matter how worthy their goal, these parents are sending a message that their cause is more legitimate than the democratic process.

"Majority rules"?  "Losing gracefully"?  "Circumvent the will of the majority"?  "Sending a message that their cause is more legitimate than the democratic process"??  McNamara's entire column is devoted to demolishing a straw-man (a classic technique of misdirection familiar to any litigator).  What the "democratic process" in Wellesley decided was that the town's property taxes would not be raised in order to fund the Spanish immersion program.  No one is trying to "circumvent" that result by forcing people to pay for the Spanish program.  The thing about taxes is that they are involuntary - everyone has to pay them, even if they don't like what they are being used for.  The people who raised the $380,000 were voluntary donors - they didn't want the program to be cancelled, so they shelled out their own money to try to save it.  McNamara's entire argument thus depends on the premise that it is "wrong" for public schools to be funded through anything other than tax money.  But she never defends (or even acknowledges) that premise, and it is not clear to me that it is entirely correct, at least in circumstances like these, for the reasons in my previous post.

McNamara remarks on the fact that our state's system of locally-funded schools means that some towns have much better schools than others.  While that is true, it seems to me as irrelevant as the "majority rules" point that underlies most of her column.  Again, the question is whether public schools should accept private funds.  Would her conclusion be different if precisely the same set of facts had arisen in Everett instead of Wellesley?  The one thing I agree with in McNamara's column is this: "All parents want the best education for their children."  I still haven't been persuaded that parents in a town that rejects a Prop. 2-1/2 override should be barred from replacing those funds with voluntary, private donations in order to keep the quality of the schools from declining.

Posted by David at 04:35 PM in Massachusetts | Permalink

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Comments

I agree that Wellesley makes an easy target, and that is not fair. Would McNamara apply the same standard to Harwich, that being, move on? Harwich voters gathered enough signatures to force a special town meeting on the override that was just defeated.

No it isn't Wellsley's fault that they have more resources available. However, the policy dilemma - whether it is $380K or a much smaller amount is not a black and white issue. It's a lot like the problem a school system has when they get a grant to start a program, works great while you have the grant, then you have the pressure to continue to fund the program. Most Finance Boards and/or Board of Selectmen will notice this in line items.

I just found an article from the Wellesley Townsman that explains more. Of the $380K, $60K was for the sixth grade program, $320K for the elementary system. That $320K was only enough to fund 2/3's of the program, as it was currently run. That makes it even more chancey to me.

And finally, the article makes the point that, similar to the slippery slope I mentioned in the other thread, it makes it easier for Town Meeting to turn down funding for other school programs (or any program), if there is a precedent that the parents will pony up to sustain it. Government a la carte- you just pay for the services you want. That's just not in the spirit of how I think government and a community should go.

Posted by: Steven Leibowitz | May 29, 2005 7:02:47 PM

It seems to me that, in rejecting the offer of $380,000 to fund the Spanish immersion program, the Wellesley School Committee was acting mainly to protect its prerogatives as the policymaking body for the public schools of Wellesley. The failure of the override did not itself cause the elimination of any particular program. Instead, the School Committee chose to deal with reduced resources by cutting this program. Accepting the donation and restoring the Spanish immersion program could have set a precedent that would have rendered the School Committee less relevant in setting policy.

Posted by: David Eisenthal | May 29, 2005 11:36:30 PM

And the school committee is the elected authority in determining policy. Hard to judge on this specific situation; suppose it was money to maintain a reading program?It was also made known before Town Meeting that this program specifically would be cut, if the lower override prevailed. You look at your program and decide what do you cut that least affects the core program. As a town, I'd be more concerned with the library cuts.

It's tough when overrides occur on account of the schools, because education is so fundamentally different today. In Brewster, we just passed an override targeted to capital improvements on the regional middle and high schools, and to upgrade technology. Those can be sold and justified much easier.

Posted by: Steven Leibowitz | May 30, 2005 12:14:21 AM

Maybe on this Memorial Day, when we honor the spirit of sacrifice for others, we should be talking more about the mentality that led a parent to comment that their school would now be behind a lot of schools (from a comment to the original post on this story):

"I was just watching a cover story on NECN about this. One of the parents said that losing this program would put them behind a lot of schools."

If the schools they are now behind constitute "a lot", how to describe the schools they are ahead of?

Posted by: Peter Dolan | May 30, 2005 9:54:24 AM

FWIW, their 3'rd graders are 12'th in the state in MCAS reading, 4'th grade is 8'th in reading and 15'th in Math, hanging out at 101st in 5th grade science.

I'm not sure the point that was being made, but I respect and prefer when parents are involved in the schools.

Posted by: Steven Leibowitz | May 30, 2005 10:40:42 AM

Thanks to all for very thought-provoking comments. I want to add just a couple of notes.

That $320K was only enough to fund 2/3's of the program, as it was currently run. That makes it even more chancey to me.
Quite right. Those facts to me suggest that the school board may well have done the right thing in this case, although it doesn't necessarily resolve the broader "philosophical" issue.

it makes it easier for Town Meeting to turn down funding for other school programs (or any program), if there is a precedent that the parents will pony up to sustain it.
Right again - but that goes to the "strategic" set of reasons for refusing private money, not the "philosophical" reasons. Both are important, and I agree that even if the "philosophical" reasons don't hold up, the "strategic" reasons might well be good enough for school boards to refuse private money in these kinds of circumstances.

the Wellesley School Committee was acting mainly to protect its prerogatives as the policymaking body for the public schools of Wellesley.
I'm not sure that's right - as the next comment points out, it seems to have been clear to everyone that the bigger override would save 60 teachers plus the Spanish program, and the smaller one would save 60 teachers but not the Spanish program. (There may have been some other differences as well, but my understanding is that everyone knew the Spanish program was on the table.) I haven't seen anything to indicate that, if the money was available, the school board wanted to keep the program going. As I said in my earlier post on this subject, this does not appear to have been a case where a bunch of parents walks in with a big check and demands a program that the board didn't want.

I very much hope that as these override votes continue to bubble along, you all will keep the rest of us informed as to what happens. It's a huge issue, but the individual votes are so local that the big papers don't cover them very well.

Posted by: David | May 30, 2005 11:02:47 AM

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