Time to rein in Riley’s authoritarianism

Commissioner's 'I know better' approach should be overturned

ON MARCH 5, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education took the extraordinary step of granting state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley unprecedented power over local communities. The majority of the board voted to allow Riley to “determine when hybrid and remote models will no longer count towards meeting the required student learning time hours.” This means he is now the sole authority of when schools must fully open their doors to students. He doesn’t have to listen to health experts, school committees, superintendents, teachers, or parents. He doesn’t have to abide by any guidelines. His word is the final word. In Riley we trust.

All but three of the Board members voted to give Riley these so-called emergency powers. The three who voted against the resolution are from key public constituencies – Darlene Lombos represents labor, Mary Ann Stewart holds the parent seat, and Jasper Coughlin represents students.

These three should be lauded for their courage. It can be daunting to express a minority opinion, particularly when some very powerful people do not agree with you. Despite the daunting circumstances, Lombos, Stewart, and Coughlin supported a New England principle of democratic governance that predates both the Massachusetts and US constitutions: local control of matters that affect the health and wellbeing of a town’s residents. That is why Massachusetts has more local public health jurisdictions than any other state.

Eleanor Roosevelt, in her final United Nations address, said, “Without concerned citizen action to uphold them [our rights] close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” During World War II, she had a front row seat of what happens when governments strip citizens of their rights at the local level. Unfortunately, we have recently witnessed a reemergence of authoritarianism.

These days, authoritarianism seems to be almost as contagious as COVID-19. The V-Dem Institute reported that the number of liberal democracies has declined from 41 to 32 during the last decade. The institute noted that the pandemic threatens to further erode democracy through governments’ excessive use of emergency powers. Many autocratic-leaning government officials view a crisis as an opportunity to further consolidate their power.

The US is clearly not immune from this authoritarian infection. A recent survey by Professor Matthew MacWilliams of UMass Amherst found that approximately 40 percent of the respondents favored “authority, obedience, and uniformity over freedom, independence, and diversity.” Frighteningly, more and more Americans seem to be receptive to an autocratic approach to solving our problems.

Therefore, it is disappointing, but not surprising, to see this infection begin to appear in Massachusetts. At times, it may seem well-intentioned and benign, such as requesting emergency authority to help children. However, even well-intentioned autocratic actions can have a corrosive effect on democracy.

In effect, Commissioner Riley is saying to local school committees, “I know better than you how to balance the health of your community and the learning of your children.” His message communicates a lack of respect for the competence and dedication inherent in the towns and cities of Massachusetts. It is insulting to the school committee members who have volunteered their valuable time to ensure the wellbeing of their community’s students. It will weaken the trust between the districts and the Department of Education at a time when we want to foster more trust in government, not less. It is also contrary to the democratic principles of our Commonwealth. The fact that nine appointed board members voted to support the commissioner’s autocratic proposal does not make it any less autocratic.

Meet the Author

Louis Kruger

Emeritus professor, Northeastern University
The citizens of Massachusetts should urge the board to reverse its vote. The commissioner should reconsider his usurpation of the role of local school committees and take a more collaborative approach to working with them. History does not look kindly upon autocratic actions.

Louis J. Kruger is professor emeritus at Northeastern University. He is a former school psychologist and a board member of Citizens for Public Schools, which is supported primarily by teachers unions.