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Is Town Meeting really why our schools are so great?

Bennett Hazlip

Michael Greenebaum, spokesman for Not This Charter, a group opposing the new charter in Tuesday’s election, has attempted to make the case that Town Meeting is the key to our strong schools, despite its rejection of $34 million in state funding for our elementary school buildings last year. Accordingly, Not This Charter has heavily promoted this argument through social media channels, with headlines that proclaim “TOWN MEETING FORMS OF GOVERNMENT ARE BETTER FOR SCHOOLS,” as a March 19 Facebook promotion said.

You can read the argument yourself at https://michaelgreenebaum.blogspot.com/2018/03/the-necessity-of-town-meeting-up-til.html.

If you believe that, I have some other amazing correlations that are sure to blow your mind. For example, the divorce rate in Maine is tightly correlated with the state’s per capita consumption of margarine. Also, ice cream consumption is tightly correlated with the murder rate – the data clearly shows both rise in the summer.

But maybe other, simpler factors are at work here. What if the presence of Town Meeting is not the leading determinant of the success of our schools? For example, could it be that wealthier towns tend to have better school systems?

Full disclosure: I’m no data scientist. But I was able to compare Mr. Greenebaum’s list (more on that below) of the highest-performing school districts in Massachusetts with per capita income rankings. That revealed something interesting, and perhaps obvious: With only four exceptions, every town he cited for their successful schools ranks among the top 50 wealthiest towns in the state.

From there, I decided to look at the lowest-performing districts. None of them rank among the top 50 wealthiest towns. Most hardly come close, in fact – many are among the very poorest in the state. For example, Southbridge, the lowest-performing district on the list, ranks 342 out of 351 in terms of per-capita income.

It’s not only wealth that correlates with “good” schools, of course, if we’re looking for correlations. “Good” schools, with few exceptions, tend to be those with a large percentage of white students. While I certainly don’t think Mr. Greenebaum is advocating for whiter schools, chasing correlations can be a slippery slope.

There is a direct link between funding and the performance of school districts – which is really an issue of income inequality. Regardless of which form of town government they’ve adopted, poor towns get the shaft, and wealthier towns experience less harm in the face of state funding shortfalls. In that light, rejecting $34 million in state money for our schools can be clearly seen as a fundamentally irresponsible decision with repercussions that will haunt our town for many years.

While we’re at it, it’s not exactly my point, but why is Mr. Greenebaum relying on a site like Niche.com for school rankings anyway? I hadn’t heard of Niche.com before and was horrified to learn of yet another site that ranks schools largely on the basis of standardized test scores. Great Schools, Zillow and other such sites that use measures that actually correlate more to income and wealth than anything else have perpetuated and intensified racial and economic segregation of young families in recent decades. In fact, educational researchers call the phenomenon “educational redlining.”

Is this the type and level of analysis we’ve come to accept from Town Meeting?

Comments 2

  1. Of the original 88 towns with representative town meeting, 33 remain. With two up for vote and more in preliminary committee a stage. How is this even relevant, given the accelerating overall movement away from representative town meetings in Massachusetts?

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