Those who don’t pay attention to the minutia of Beacon Hill politics, with its infighting, posturing and long-held grudges, might have missed the latest set-to surrounding education reform in Massachusetts.
Writing for Commonwealth, Charles Chieppo and Jamie Gass of the Pioneer Institute agreed for the need for increased investment by the state but put forward a modest proposal: If Massachusetts increases the amount of money it sends to local districts, it should have proportionate representation on local school committees.
“For example, if the state provides 85 percent of the funding in a district with seven school committee seats, it should also appoint six school committee members,” Chieppo and Gass wrote. “This approach would pair more money with the appointment of officials whose role it would be to safeguard the interests of those who rightly expect improved performance in return for their investment. The state appointees could be chosen to provide needed managerial skills or academic expertise. Just as important, they would be independent, free of cozy ties to the school district they’re entrusted with reforming.”
The idea brought an expected outcry from education officials, most notably Fall River Superintendent Matt Malone.
The former state secretary of education and Swampscott superintendent took to Twitter to mock the notion, calling the Pioneer duo “bozos” and “big mouth bureaucratic wonks who think they know more than those who work with children in schools. Lest anyone doubt his passion, Malone closed his tweet with the “100” emoji.
There was, of course, more back and forth, much of it entertaining, none of it constructive.
We’re not here to endorse the Pioneer Institute’s idea. Local control is a bedrock principle of education policy, not only in Massachusetts but across the country. If you scrape the pejoratives from Malone’s tweet, he has a point: elected school committees are a “cornerstone of #democracy.”
Which brings us to this: In many communities, that cornerstone is crumbling. We are heading in to municipal election season, and in too many cities and towns, there are too few school committee races. Seats are going to incumbents running opposed; in some cases, there aren’t enough candidates for open seats.
Who fills these spots is important; witness the chaos in the Marblehead schools, where the School Committee essentially abetted the illegal manipulation of the district’s special education budget, leaving the town scrambling to cover a deficit than ran in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Local races aren’t the only ones coming up short. A whopping two-thirds of state legislators ran unopposed for re-election last year.
While much has been made of the decent turnout at the polls in last year’s mid-term elections, citizens often can’t be bothered in so-called off years, when the only thing on the ballot are town and city races. In Marblehead in 2017 for example, a mere 2,552 people came to the polls to elect their School Committee — roughly 16 percent of the town’s 15,799 registered voters. That same year, Danvers posted a turnout of 10 percent.
In effect, by not running and not voting, local residents are already ceding control of education policy in their communities, no matter what Chieppo, Gass and Malone have to say.
The best way to ensure taxpayer money for education is being spent wisely is to have an engaged, committed — and local — school committee. In many communities, it’s not too late to take out papers and run for office. Here’s hoping more people step up and meet the challenge.