Fall 1999

Fall 1999

A Milltown Memoir

Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History
By Jane Brox
Beacon Press, Boston, 1999, 174 pages.

One hundred years ago, Lawrence, Massachusetts, was known as the worsted and woolen capital of the world. Home to tens of thousands of immigrants who came to seek their fortunes in the textile mills that lined the Merrimack River, by 1912 Lawrence produced more cloth per employee than any other city in the country. Such production came at high cost to the workers–dyers, cutters, spinners, weavers, and loom mechanics–most of whom earned miserably low wages.

Remarkably, some immigrants managed to scrape together enough money to buy land in the Merrimack Valley. The Greeks, Armenians, Poles, and Italians who left the industrial centers to take up farming replaced the original settlers–Anglo-Saxon Protestants from England and Scotland–who moved on or died out. Jane Brox, author of Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History, is the granddaughter of such entrepreneurs. In 1902, Brox’s Lebanese forebears bought a dairy farm five miles west of Lawrence’s tenement district. Brox, an amateur historian who pored over maps, surveys, and legal documents to piece together a narrative of her family’s past, marvels at her good fortune: “How else could we have come this way since the April day when, according to the deed, my grandfather, who could hardly write his name in English, made his mark?”

The Brox farm consisted of an early-19th-century house, various outbuildings, and 35 acres of land: “Thence northerly by said Herrick land as the fence now stands, to land now or formerly of Herbert Coburn, thence easterly by said Almon Richardson land as the fence now stands to the corner of a wall by said Richardson land . . ..” The original deed includes an inventory of the equipment in the barns (hoes, scythes, a jump-seat wagon) and the animals (cattle, chickens, and a blind horse). In 1995, Brox’s father died, leaving Brox in charge of the farm, which had grown to more than 100 acres and required use of a tractor and corn planter. What trappings remain from the original sale almost 100 years ago, gathering dust in the carriage house or rusting in storage bins, would be worthless to anyone assessing her father’s estate, but to Brox they represent the genesis of her American family’s history.

An immigrant family’s story is woven into the history of the Merrimack Valley.

Brox’s father’s death inspired Five Thousand Days Like This One, which chronicles both his life on the farm and the larger history of the Merrimack Valley. A collection of poignant essays, it manages to instruct without seeming didactic. Brox’s style is impressionistic–rather than list dates and statistics, for example, Brox combines facts with the oral history of her own family. In addition to stories, Brox relies on personal papers. “My grandparents spoke other tongues–Arabic on my father’s side, Italian on my mother’s–and our family doesn’t have much of a written past. There are no boxes of letters, no journals wrapped in burlap, not even a Farmer’s Diary . . . . [T]he family’s record is kept in documents–mortgages, deeds, and citizenship papers.”

One of the best examples of Brox’s method of mingling histories is her description of the evolution of Merrimack Valley milk production. In the late 1800s, dairy farmers stored their milk in metal jugs–set in stone rooms or running water or wellhouses–to keep it cool before delivering it to workers in the tenements, who filled their own basins, pitchers, and jars from the jugs. But as the population of Lawrence grew, Brox explains, demand for milk exceeded supply. Small farmers in the Merrimack Valley were forced to consolidate production. Bottlers began to collect milk from farms, process it, and deliver it milkman style, door-to-door, a practice that lasted into the 1960s.

Competition from large dairy farms in the Midwest forced farmers like Brox’s father to abandon commercial dairy production altogether. The few cows the family did keep provided milk for crumbly Syrian cheese and laban, a yogurt-like staple the Broxes savored. In the summer they mixed laban with cucumber and mint; in the winter, they mixed it with sweet jam. Much of Brox’s grandparents’ legacy manifests itself in the foods Brox remembers from her own childhood: laban, kousa, shish kebab, tabbouleh.

To keep his farm operating, Brox’s father turned to growing vegetables for markets in Lawrence, Lowell, and Boston: corn, tomatoes, eggplant, pumpkins, apples. Apple growing, once integral to New England’s agricultural economy, had begun to fade decades before Brox’s father planted his orchard. Brox quotes Henry David Thoreau lamenting that “none of the farmers’ sons are willing to be farmers, and the apple trees are decayed.” Even though her father never counted apples among his most lucrative crops, when Brox contemplates the future of the farm, it’s the apple trees she can’t imagine losing. The history of the orchard itself is a treasure of family lore: Brox’s grandparents created it unwittingly, while logging white pines to meet mortgage payments. Brox’s father painstakingly replaced the pines with apple trees. The memory of his special pruning technique, honed over the years, nearly prevented Brox from hiring a young pruner who had worked for Brox’s father the year he died.

From a historical perspective, the most valuable essays in Five Thousand Days Like This One address working conditions in the mills and the famed “Bread and Roses” labor strike of 1912. Again, Brox turns to fascinating primary sources to cobble together what amounts to a short narrative of the strike. To her credit, she maintains a professional perspective, even though her maternal grandfather, an Italian weaver, spent his adult life in the mills. This affable man grew his own fruits and vegetables, including, miraculously, fresh figs. He died when Brox was just four, but his favorite toast is the title of this book: “Cinque mille questo giorno,” a four-word shorthand, Brox says, for “May there be . . . may you have . . . may we all have five thousand days like this one.”

At the time of the strike, Brox reports that as many as 60 different languages and dialects could be heard in the streets of Lawrence. To illustrate this point, Brox strings words for “snow” and “bread” together to marvelous effect–“la neca, neige, schnee, snow, snow, snow,” and “brot, bread, pain, pane, khoubz.” Fortunately, language barriers did not prevent workers from finding common ground. After refusing to work for 10 weeks, the strikers won an extra penny or two an hour–enough, at the end of the week, to buy four loaves of bread.

The strike of 1912 is the most written-about event in Lawrence’s history. Brox acknowledges, “A hundred historians have tugged at the same set of facts and statistics to gain their perspectives, to tell labor’s version, the feminists’ version, management’s version, a version roused by speech, a version roused by singing.” It would seem impossible to add a new perspective. But Brox has written one, infused with a woman’s love of words and love of place. Part memoir, part history, this is a family’s version, and, as such, unlike anything I’ve ever read.

Katherine Guckenberger is a new-media editor of The Atlantic Monthly.

Make Way for Motherhood

I write this nearing my 36th week of pregnancy, when words like “sleep” or “concentration” or “breathing” can only be uttered with derisive little quotation marks around them. Forgive me, therefore, if the following thoughts seem a little scattered. Blame CommonWealth‘s editors. They’ve asked me to, um, weigh in about what it’s like being an expectant mother in Boston and if I can just concentrate and breathe at the same time (make that “same time”) there are a few revelations to note.

Such as, for starters, the loss of anonymity. Every mom-to-be evolves into a conversation piece. But it’s a more sharply sweet and startling occurrence in any city, I’d wager, because many of us have chosen an urban life in order to win, as E.B. White famously said of New York, “such queer prizes” as “the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” Adios, prizes.

The city looks different when you’re carrying a child.

Sure, plenty of strangers still pay me no mind–like all you bleepin’ finks who never gave up your seat on the T! But there’s a high proportion of passersby who glance at my belly, then my eyes, then smile in complicity. Some have stopped to empathize about the summer’s heat. Some–literally–wink. I’d swear that Duck Tours single me out for especially hearty quacking. And anyone and everyone feels free to ask when I’m due; when I disclosed the date to the gay man who sells me my morning muffin, he gushed “That’s when Madonna had Lourdes!”

By now, I’m can’t-miss-it big. When I answer the bell at my office in Bay Village, mailmen and UPS guys note my condition and tell me about their wives’ labor experiences. “I deliver…” the Airborne Express guy even joked “…but not babies.” On a tar-liquifying afternoon in August, I was laboriously crossing the Tremont intersection by the Transportation Building when a trucker cheerfully, knowingly, yelled out, “That’s quite a load to carry on a hot day!” He drove rather a big rig himself. I’d never compared myself to a truck, but there was a certain identity merge that, in the heat and with my aforementioned dearth of brainpower and breath, seemed profound. Le Mack, c’est moi.

So anonymity is gone. But paranoia has arrived. Before the baby, I felt relatively savvy about what was safe in the city and what wasn’t, where to walk, where to avoid. But now that I feel so noticed, my radar is all scrambled. In Cambridge’s Central Square, the local mentally ill outpatients or homeless drunks unsettle me more now. A guilty, painful fact, that. It also stings that my skeptical-but-still-lefty politics are fraying. I’ve always been proud that humaneness used to beat out gentrification in Central Square–a crime that Harvard Donut died for Starbucks, Woolworth’s tanked for Foot Locker. But, on one especially fatiguing day, I spied the big, comfy chairs in the hated Starbucks. I’d vowed never to go in the doors–an activist friend of ours had been protesting their more-odious-than-usual predatory business tactics. But the idea of plush furniture was too powerful. I sank into the cushions.

Okay, taking a seat at Starbucks is hardly a felony. But it’s an indicator of the fact that I’m about to be a mother, someone whose sense of ease, of caution, has new colors and depth. Is this how you become more conservative? Is this how the tectonics of anxiety shift into an exodus from the city? I hope not, but I’m not sure.

What else? Well, I’m one of those people whose world, whose urban existence, was revamped from the very start of pregnancy. That’s because I was apocalyptically nauseous. A friend artfully coined the euphemism “your friend Ralph” for my condition and Ralph visited as often and with as much welcome as a telemarketer on speed dial. As a result, various spots around Cambridge and Boston–the part of Mt. Auburn street leading to Mt. Auburn Hospital, the intersection of Comm. Ave. and Clarendon–still bring on a Pavlovian response. I won’t say I won’t drive or walk on either street. I do think twice, though.

In the end, there was only one place in the city where I could lean into the proper state of maternal awe and anticipation. Blessings on the Public Garden! All those strollers. All those toddlers chasing after ducks. All that dappled grass and heartening luminosity from the water, the flowers, the sky. I would picture my husband and me and our child amidst these other families and feel what one so needs to feel during pregnancy: that everything’s going to be all right. No matter all my ambivalences, that was Boston’s sweetest gift.

Contributing Writer Katharine Whittemore lives in Cambridge and is the editor of American Movie Classics Magazine.

West Springfield and Southampton

West Springfield and Southampton

WEST SPRINGFIELD — Every town has one — the captious critic who angrily insists that local government is being run by a band of incompetents. Most often the gadfly is ignored and the public shows scant desire to march on town hall and throw the scoundrels out. The wheels of government grind on as they always have.

In West Springfield, the usual scenario is upside-down. A lonely dissident has emerged to make the case that the town is a shining example of good government, perhaps one of the best-managed, most forward-looking, well-respected towns in Massachusetts. Yet his efforts have been met, so far, with a collective yawn in and around town hall. And all the while, a drive to restructure local government from top to bottom moves forward with the apparent approval of a majority of residents.

The dissenter in question is F. Bernard (better known as “Bernie”) Lally, a retired schoolteacher who holds the honorary title of “town historian.” Mr. Lally admits to being puzzled from the start about why some would push to revolutionize the town government. But after voters decided two Springs ago, by a nearly 3 to 1 margin, to set up a Charter Commission to reexamine the way business is done at town hall, Mr. Lally decided to get involved. He was elected to the nine-person commission and has since sat through about 45 meetings, becoming ever more certain that the group was on the wrong track, even as his fellow commissioners were won over by arguments for change. This summer Mr. Lally was on the short end of an 8-1 vote in which the commission decided to recommend that the traditional town government structure be scrapped in favor of a mayor-council form.

The arguments outlined in the commission’s preliminary report are easily grasped and, from a certain point of view, common-sensical. The town has a population of more than 26,000, and there is a good deal of commercial development. The proposed new structure for local government reflects a desire for a professional, streamlined, and centralized administration. “There is currently no single focal point within the existing executive branch of our town that can be identified as the ‘head’ of town government,” according to the commission’s report. A “lack of accountability” worried the majority of commission members. Electing a mayor would allow voters to know who was in charge.

So what was preventing Mr. Lally from joining the movement for a more efficient and “responsive” government? What kind of contrarian would wish to stand alone to insist that the town’s leadership has been exemplary — that West Springfield, in fact, did not need a “head of town government”? On a morning in early September, I drove west to meet Mr. Lally and find out.

est Springfield is at the intersection of the Massachusetts Turnpike and Interstate 91, making it one of the busiest hubs of commercial and tourist traffic in New England. Its eastern border is the Connecticut River; Agawam is to the south and Holyoke to the north. Bernie Lally lives on Amostown Road, toward the west side of town, which has the feel of a place that used to be rural, but hasn’t been for quite a while.

Mr. Lally lives in a restored 1826 farm house. A towering apple tree in his backyard was loaded with fruit when I visited. He would have to rely on his grown sons to pick the apples this year, he told me in his driveway, since he was recovering from back surgery and was under doctor’s orders to avoid strenuous activity.

He was dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt. He has snowy white hair combed over in a boyish style, and a white beard, and wears rimless glasses. As we took a seat in his dining room, he told of growing up not far down the road from here, never suspecting that one day he might own the old farmhouse on the corner. He taught science for 32 years in the Chicopee school system and was able to retire last year at the age of 62.

Mr. Lally described a few recent battles in town that involved development decisions. His participation in local controversies has been as an elected member of West Springfield’s town meeting, a representative body of 259 members. One thing that worries him about the proposed changes in the town’s charter is that the town meeting would be replaced by a nine-member town council.

One can see by driving around West Springfield that the town has not been reflexively opposed to development. According to Mr. Lally there are more than 20 hotels in town and more than 80 restaurants. Yet not every proposal meets with town meeting approval. Last fall, for example, the town rejected a plan by the Pyramid shopping mall company to expand the already huge Holyoke Mall at Ingleside, which would have put a large parking garage in West Springfield.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m so fervent about keeping town meeting,” Mr. Lally said. The zoning change for the Holyoke mall failed for lack of a two-thirds majority, he recalled. Mr. Lally sees great value in the two-thirds rule: “It gives the minority a serious say in what happens in their town.” The advantage of the present government, with a three-person Board of Selectmen, and budget and zoning authority residing with the town meeting, is that “it keeps the power out of the hands of the few.”

Such are the arguments one might expect from a town historian, if one assumes the historian would favor long-established traditions. But Mr. Lally, in a two-hour conversation, showed little nostalgia and betrayed no belief that old ways are inherently superior. “I’m not a conservative thinker in any way,” he said, “but I do have that science thing in me where I say ‘show me the evidence.'”

The problem he sees, after a year’s worth of Charter Commission meetings, is that nobody has laid out in detail the specific failures of recent and current town officials. Meanwhile, Mr. Lally has been assembling fact sheets and memos that compare West Springfield to nearby towns (always to West Springfield’s advantage). He will tell you about the money West Springfield has saved by taking care of infrastructure needs before problems have occurred. He will note that the roads are well-paved and that 90 percent of the town is connected to the town water supply and to the town sewer system. He praises the police and fire departments. He contends the town’s bond rating is the best in Western Massachusetts. And there has been no serious charge of municipal hijinks in 40 years, he said. “There’s just no corruption, never has been.”

Standing up and beginning to pace, like a lawyer making his summation, Mr. Lally said, “My entire argument is going to be positive. My challenge to the people is going to be, if you can’t find a complaint, it must be working right.”

Mr. Lally plans to start organizing small meetings of like-minded citizens this fall, spreading the good news about town government. The debate will play out this winter, leading to a town vote on the proposed new charter in April 2000. It’s not hard to imagine that there will be town critics who take Mr. Lally up on his challenge to specify what’s wrong with West Springfield. It’s no secret that the town’s business leaders are unhappy with the relatively high tax rates. In 1995 the residential property tax was $14.84 per $1,000 of value and the commercial rate was $24.43. This year the residential rate is up to $17.64 and the commercial rate is up to $31.78. And Democrats in town note that the original petition drive to create a Charter Commission was led by the Republican Town Committee. Perhaps, they whisper, Republicans are unhappy with the current balance of power, which leans toward Democrats.

All of which is more evidence of the topsy-turvy state of things in West Springfield politics: While some conservative leaders in town are pushing for change, it will be up to a self-described progressive schoolteacher to rally the traditionalists. It’s an assignment that Mr. Lally insisted he does not relish. “I hate this. I hate this — this political stuff. I’m not enjoying this,” he said as we spoke in his dining room.

But on that point, he wasn’t wholly convincing.


The right to ‘blindside’

By Dave Denison
Fall 1999

SOUTHAMPTON — It’s not often a town moderator makes newspaper headlines. The job description practically requires a moderator to be invisible in town politics — or if not invisible, at least reliably impartial in presiding over the town meeting.

But this summer Town Moderator Gary R. Swanson made the news. Mr. Swanson caused a stir when he issued a new rule regulating the distribution of printed information to town meeting voters. The rule was immediately denounced by an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, which led to coverage in the Northampton Daily Hampshire Gazette, along with a stern editorial. The newspaper said the “edict” by Mr. Swanson amounted to censorship — “a practice one might expect in China, not in Southampton.”

What Mr. Swanson wanted to do was to prohibit unauthorized leaflets from being handed out within 150 feet of the building where the town meeting was being held — a rule inspired by state election law, which similarly restricts electioneering near a polling place. Naturally, a hotly contested local issue set the controversy in motion: Just before a June town meeting a former Selectman had distributed an argument against a proposed land deal. The material may have played a role in voters’ rejection of the proposal. Mr. Swanson believed town officials had been “blindsided” by the distributed material.

By the time I reached Mr. Swanson on the phone in late August he had rescinded the policy. “There’s been a lot of notoriety about that over the last couple of weeks,” he acknowledged. When Southampton’s town counsel agreed with the ACLU that the policy was unconstitutional, he relented. “I wasn’t aware that I was infringing on anyone’s rights,” he said. “But I was enlightened.” What became clear soon enough was that Mr. Swanson wasn’t taking the setback too hard. “‘Bout the time the ACLU letter came across my fax machine, I figured I’d made the Big Time!” he said, letting out a belly laugh. He then agreed to show me around town the following week and tell me more about Southampton. “Small-town politics can be fascinating,” he said.

r. Swanson, a self-employed engineer, was at work in his home office when I arrived. He lives in a log-cabin-style house on East Road, about a mile from the town hall. Southampton is less than 15 miles west of Springfield and shares a border with Holyoke, yet it has the feel of a farm town. There has been little development. Though it is almost as large geographically as neighboring Northampton, Southampton has only a fraction as many people: about 5,000 by current estimates.

Dressed in khaki shorts, a white polo-style shirt and top-siders with no socks, Mr. Swanson had the air of someone who is happy not to report to a central office. He grew up on a dairy farm in Agawam, and moved here 31 years ago. The first thing Mr. Swanson explained about Southampton is that it hasn’t put much money into infrastructure, and that has kept development to a minimum. “There isn’t a foot of sanitary sewer in Southampton,” he said. It’s all septic? I asked. “One hundred percent point zero-zero,” he responded.

On an afternoon driving tour, it became apparent that Mr. Swanson knows most of what there is to know about his town. He pointed out the bar where scenes were shot for the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and later a stately house where part of the recent Hollywood offering In Dreams was filmed. He pointed out a field where about 300,000 tires are buried — a farmer got clearance to use old tires for erosion control and then, realizing he could make 50 cents a tire, went large-scale into the tire disposal business. In another part of town he identified the field where Ted Kennedy’s plane went down in 1964, resulting in the Senator’s serious back injury.

What Mr. Swanson knows most about is the way the water systems work in the area. He showed me the Hampton Pond region, where a few years ago traces of trichloroethylene (TCE) began appearing in people’s well water, requiring installation of new water mains that draw from a reservoir across town. He also pointed out the parcels of land that were involved in the town meeting controversy this summer.

Eventually I got around to asking about the free speech issues that were raised by his no-leafleting rule. “That flap is done and over with,” he said. “I explained to the general public that I have seen the light.” He went on to explain that he had understood free speech as a matter of verbal rights, and that the rights of a free press were unquestioned. But he hadn’t thought about the constitutional rights involved in the distribution of leaflets and such. He believes the material handed out before June’s meeting scuttled the proposed land swap, which was intended to add a key parcel to school land. But, he said, “I suppose a person has the right to blindside an opponent.”

He reflected that the one thing he doesn’t like about being moderator is that sometimes he has to refrain from taking a stand on issues about which he has strong opinions. “Sometimes I think they made me town moderator just to shut me up,” he said. Nevertheless, he said he plans to run for re-election. He seems to like the job; lately he created a Moderator’s Web Page that allows for electronic filing of warrant articles and which collects sundry information about the town government. He said he wasn’t worried about opposition next spring. “There aren’t a lot of people who are interested in this job,” he said. “It doesn’t pay a lot.” The annual stipend, he noted, is $75.


When towns become cities

By Dave Denison
Fall 1999

When Weymouth decided last fall to change its form of government, it became the 10th town to end its town meeting tradition since the 1966 Home Rule Amendment to the state constitution gave towns the right to revise their charters.

Agawam became the first town to adopt a home-rule charter, moving in 1971 to a town council form of government. In the last three years, Easthampton, Amesbury, and Weymouth have voted to elect a mayor and a town council. This spring, Agawam’s neighbor to the north, West Springfield, as well as nearby South Hadley, will vote on whether to change over to city-style government.

But 10 conversions over 30 years is hardly a stampede. There are still 302 out of 351 municipalities in the commonwealth governed by a board of selectmen and a town meeting. And such is the sentimental preference for town government that most of the new “cities” insist on calling themselves towns, becoming in official parlance “the city known as the Town of…” Of the 10, only Easthampton has decided to call itself a city.

Local-government-watchers note that most towns that have had recent changes, as well as those where changes are afoot, are towns with representative town meeting (in which members are elected by precinct). These are usually larger, more urban, municipalities such as Weymouth and West Springfield. (Under state law, towns with fewer than 6,000 residents are required to have an open town meeting form, in which any registered voter may attend and vote.)

“It’s representative town meeting that’s taken a pounding,” says Marilyn Contreas, an expert on local government who works for the state department of housing and community development. Ms. Contreas notes that there are five towns that have eliminated representative town meeting in recent years.

In addition to the three that have elected mayors and councils, there are two, Seekonk and Webster, that decided to go back to open town meeting. The Western Massachusetts town of Lee also took up such a question this fall, and Athol is considering the change back, as well.

Lee has been one of the smallest towns to hold representative town meeting — population there has dipped below 6,000. Town Moderator Christopher Hodgkins (who is also the state representative for the area) says in the days of open town meeting in Lee “they literally had to blow the fire whistle to get [enough people for] a quorum.” But recently, he recounts, some large capital spending decisions caused townspeople to feel they did not have a voice in the town meeting. The town’s six precincts each elected nine representatives, for a town meeting of 54 people (not much larger than the town council in Greenfield, which has 27 members). In a non-binding referendum last spring, Lee’s voters favored moving back to the open town meeting. On Sept. 23, the town meeting reps approved the change, voting themselves out of office.

In other towns, however, the representative town meeting is going strong. Framingham (population 64,536) and Brookline (population 54,137) are city-size towns with representative government. And in Plymouth (48,329), voters approved a new charter in May that makes significant changes designed to strengthen the town meeting. According to new rules that took effect this summer, town meeting representatives will be required to abstain from voting on financial issues that directly affect them. The rule was put in place to answer critics who say too many town employees vote on their own salaries.

“The conflict of interest rules are pretty innovative,” says Bill Abbott, a lawyer who was chairman of the town’s charter commission. Mr. Abbott estimates there have been about two dozen town employees among Plymouth’s 104 elected members (the total will go up to 117 under the new charter). The rules require town meeting members to declare possible conflicts of interest to the town clerk before the meeting. They also prohibit anyone from holding more than one elected office at a time, meaning that school committee members, for example, cannot be town meeting members.

The Plymouth charter commission looked at other towns that had moved to a mayor-council form, but concluded that town meetings are “less prone to political shenanigans,” says Mr. Abbott. “We didn’t want to do away with town meeting,” he says. The point was “to make it the best town meeting possible.”

Sissela Bok on Violence Entertainment and the Nations Youth

Is the American entertainment industry allergic to ethical reflection about its use of violent images? If so, what might the effects be on the nation’s youth? Such questions have become more pressing in recent decades, as television, movies, and video games have become more prevalent–and more violent. A number of school shootings captured the nation’s attention last year at about the time Perseus Books published Sissela Bok’s study Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment. Last spring, shortly after the paperback edition was released, two boys in Columbine High School in Colorado killed 12 students, one teacher, and themselves, in one of the most horrific examples of deadly adolescent rage. The debate about who and what is to blame–guns? the media? bad parents? bad schools?–has intensified, although its treatment in the mass media has often been simplistic.

In Mayhem, Bok makes a nuanced yet clear-headed case against “entertainment violence.” The author sweeps aside in the earliest pages objections to examining the roles of the media and the entertainment industry. One doesn’t have to believe that Hollywood or television are the only factors–or even the most important ones–to take up questions of what moral responsibility the industries, and the public, might have “to guard against the flow of media violence,” she argues.

Nor does she pin her case entirely on establishing a link between violent images and outright aggression. Psychological studies suggest other ill effects: increased fear of victimization; a decrease in sensitivity toward the suffering of others; and the stoking of some viewers’ appetite for violence.

Mayhem is the third in a series of probing works that Bok has written about everyday ethical concerns. She is the author of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1978), and Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (1983). Born in Sweden and educated in Switzerland, France, and the United States, she has degrees in psychology and a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard. She is the daughter of Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, both of whom were awarded Nobel Prizes (her father for economics in 1974; her mother won the peace prize in 1982). She had just returned from two months of study (along with her husband, former president of Harvard University Derek Bok) at the Bellagio Center in Italy when CommonWealth magazine caught up with her in September. She reports that she is now finishing work on a new book, On Practical Ethics, that examines ways current science and technology raise ethical questions, especially concerning such issues as bio-engineering and euthanasia. We met at her office at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, where she is a Distinguished Fellow. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

CommonWealth: Your book came out before the student killings in Littleton, Colorado…. I was wondering what your reaction was. Do you remember hearing the news about Colorado and how you reacted to that?

Bok: I was shocked, as everybody else was, of course. One has to ask oneself about these particular young people and their families. But as with all the other school shootings, it was a fact also that the young people who got involved in them almost all seemed to have a fascination for media violence. They also had access to guns. They obviously were troubled human beings, and this could be seen from the beginning.

What I noticed that interested me so much in the media was that for awhile it became possible for people to entertain the idea that there could be several factors involved. Whereas, when I was writing the book, very often people said, “Why are you working on the media? Why aren’t you just talking about guns?” Or people in the arms industry would say, “Why talk about guns? Why don’t you talk about broken families, or the media?” This seemed to me to be so crazy–that with respect to this particular problem it’s very hard for people to entertain the idea that there are several factors coming together. Even though, when we think about an illness, such as heart disease, we know very well that it’s not just heredity, or exercise, or cholesterol, or diet, or smoking. It’s really a number of things working together. So what happened with the debate about the school shootings that I thought was good afterward [was] it really brought home to Americans the kind of atmosphere many young people grow up in, and that this is not necessary, and it is unprecedented in many ways. Not that people haven’t heard fairy tales or read comics in the past, but I don’t think most Americans realized the kind of media environment that young people grow up in now.

CommonWealth: In the aftermath of this shooting, there was attention in the mass media to the effect, supposedly, of the movie The Basketball Diaries, and that [the movie] might have played some role.

Bok: There are a number of films that kids see and know about very well where there is shooting in a school, or shooting of teachers, shooting by young people. There are video games involving that–video games where you can target your teachers, your parents, whoever you want, and be a so-called “first-person shooter.” When people who are somewhat older ask, “Well, what’s the matter? Haven’t we always had violence in the media?” they don’t understand what’s happened in the last decade or so with respect to the graphic nature of the so-called interactive games. That is something very new.

CommonWealth: I thought it was evocative that your book began by talking about entertainment violence in the Roman Empire. That’s so common that we hear warnings that our society could some day begin to go into decline the way the Romans’ did. That’s not the specific point that you made in the book, but I wonder if in the back of your mind it was meant to hint at that. Do you think that this sort of violence in the media is a sign that the society is in serious decline?

Bok: No, and I’m glad you said that wasn’t the point of my book. Definitely, there are lots of people saying we’re on the way to decline. I feel very differently. I feel strongly that there are forces going in opposite directions. There are indeed people who profiteer from violence. Obviously, there are industries selling weapons all over the world and violent entertainment, but there also are quite a few people working in the opposite direction, working to curtail this, working as peacekeepers and as peacemakers. So I didn’t at all want to say that America is in decline.

“The Romans would have been fascinated by our kind of entertainment violence.”

The reason I used the Romans was, they’re a model example of entertainment violence more than almost any other society. They loved it. It was encouraged by the state. It was a way of making people not think about matters of citizenship, for instance. It interested me also because there was so much evidence of the kind of brutalization that took place. In the beginning when people would go to gladiatorial games, they would be horrified, disgusted. But after a while, they could tolerate it quite well. And it did brutalize society. It was also used there to see if people couldn’t be trained to tolerate the kind of violence that the Roman military empire was perpetrating, especially with respect to distant peoples. I also began to think, as I was working on the book, that the Romans would have been fascinated by our kind of entertainment violence. Because, as we know, they loved, for instance, to pipe water to all kinds of places, into houses–how amazed they would have been to see the piping of entertainment violence into homes so that children and others could watch!

CommonWealth: You mentioned that the argument is often made that there are other things to criticize and direct your attention to, and I know you’ve heard many times people say that the roots of violence in this society are elsewhere, and that if you’re concentrating, as your book does, on media violence, you’re looking at just one small part of it–and maybe not the most important part.

Bok: I think that’s perfectly legitimate to say. Again, if we use the comparison, for instance, with heart disease, I don’t think there’s a problem with people writing about the role of exercise, or the role of smoking, or the role of something else. But I did mention other factors as well. I would say that the easy availability of guns in America is the largest factor, definitely. But it plays in with the media because media violence glamorizes weapons and guns. These things act together.

But the linkage between exposure to media violence and aggression–that’s only one of the factors that I was studying. It’s so clear that most Americans are never going to go out and perpetrate a school shooting or anything else. But they can be damaged in other ways. They can be desensitized [or] become more fearful. We have huge rates of depression among young people, and also adults. We have forms of desensitization that allow us to live with problems such as that of the homeless that would otherwise be very difficult. I think the fact that people see so much suffering and injury on television may make it easier for them to tolerate suffering out there in the society.

CommonWealth: The argument you made about desensitization made me wonder if there was a little bit of a leap in logic there. You conclude that seeing too much violence from movies and television can make us not feel anything toward the suffering of other people. I was wondering if perhaps it could be put differently–if that sort of desensitization could in fact mean only that we don’t feel anything toward the fake suffering of these fictitious characters that we understand are just part of a movie.

Bok: That’s a good point when it comes to adults, especially adults who are not disturbed in some particular way. Normal adults can learn to make that distinction. It’s not a distinction that young children can make. They cannot say, “Oh, those are only actors.” Indeed, the more realistic the program, the more graphic the photography, the harder it is for anybody to make that distinction. But in particular for young kids–that’s been shown. They may see violence on the street, and they may see it on the screen, or they may see it happening in their family and on the screen, and it’s just impossible for them to disentangle.

CommonWealth: I know that one can cite reams of studies by child psychologists, but I was thinking that by now, with generations of people who have grown up with television, and children understanding what TV is–I mean, children come to a point where it’s very easy for them to understand at an early age what it means to pretend. Why should we not assume that it’s fairly easy for a child to get to that understanding that what they see on television is “just pretend”?

Bok: I think at some point that can definitely happen–at some age. Obviously it can’t happen from the beginning.

CommonWealth: Not a three-year-old or a four-year-old, but maybe a five-, or an eight-, or a 10-year-old.

Bok: That’s right. That can begin to happen, but you have to realize that two-year-olds sit in front of the television a lot. Three-year-olds and four-year-olds do, too. So therefore we do want to help them figure out what’s pretend and what is not. But then you also have to take into account the news programs and the endless focus, for instance, on the school shootings. And we know that so-called copycat crimes are crimes where people have become obsessed by seeing a particular kind of violence on the news–not pretend at all–and have felt that they wanted to engage in that same kind of violence.

CommonWealth: What do you mean when you talk about “media literacy”?

Bok: Media literacy is a movement that has been going on in Canada, and New Zealand, and Australia, and that some schools in America are also engaging in. What that means is to recognize, first of all, that the media play a huge role in our society and for our children, and that they need to learn to examine critically what comes across on the media, just as they need to learn to become literate with respect to the printed word. I talk in the book about school classes where children are asked to look at the amount of violence in programs that they see at home. And often those kids are quite amazed. Many of them don’t even know what the word violence really means. And then they begin to step back and say, “What is being done here? What is it the advertisers want me to buy? What is it that programmers want me to keep looking at, and why, and what is my role in this? Is this good for me? Do I like it? Does it scare me? Does it desensitize me?” All of those questions are questions that are very important for kids to ask. And here we’re not only talking about violence. It could be, for instance, a question of how you respond to advertising, or more generally, how you respond to salesmanship.

CommonWealth: It’s a suggestive idea because it’s almost as if you’re saying, and others are saying, that there’s a cultural lag here. We’ve had 50 years of television, and a whole explosion of movies and video games more recently, and yet we haven’t put something in place in a systemic way to counteract the effects of that.

Bok: I think that’s true. However, I would also say that there are a number of people who want to live quite differently. There are a number of people who do, for instance, limit what their kids see. And who spend much more time with them reading, for instance. To me, that’s very important. Regardless of how good the television programming may be, it’s not good for children, pediatricians have shown, for them to sit in front of the TV set for hour upon hour. I saw a figure somewhere that 50 percent of American kids have television in their own rooms. Now, this is really crazy from the point of [considering their] interaction with other human beings. I noticed that the American Academy of Pediatricians came out and said if there is going to be television, it should be somewhere where the entire family can be aware of what’s going on.

CommonWealth: Television can be, if you let it be, mesmerizing.

Bok: Yes, and it is very much so for small kids. As psychologists and other teachers point out, when small children are frightened by a program, they are too frightened even to turn it off. They’re too frightened to get up and leave the room. They just sit there mesmerized.

CommonWealth: Have you experienced that in the earlier part of your life? Did you go through a period in your life where you were hooked on a particular show, or felt the pull of the television the way many people do?

Bok: When I was about 12, or maybe 14, I had a period when I liked horror movies. But in those days, you’d go to the movies once a month, if you had the money. So it wasn’t something that I could engage in all the time. And that’s another thing that is very important. It’s not just that kids now have more money to go to the movies, and that they can turn violent programming on in their homes–they can also videotape it and then play it over and over and over. That’s what some of the young people who are most morbidly fascinated–I think that’s what they do.

CommonWealth: How do you account for the way that boys seem to be affected by this differently than girls? Because there are some who suggest that the largest part of this violence problem in America may well be with what The New York Times Magazine recently called “the troubled life of boys.”

Bok: It’s true that the world over there is a huge difference between the amount of violence men engage in and the amount of violence women engage in. Men and boys, women and girls. But the fact is that our society has so much more of it than any other industrialized democracy…. I was told by one expert on violent crime that in America we’re now beginning to experience a third wave of violence. The first wave was that of inner-city violence and had a lot to do with crack cocaine and everything like that. The second wave is moving out into the suburbs and the rural areas, and that’s where many of these school shootings took place. The third wave has to do with young girls being arrested for violent crime, and that’s gone up a lot recently. Very often those young girls have been abused at home and are lashing out at other people. And of course it’s also true that many of the young boys who engage in violence have been abused. Almost all serial killers have, too.

CommonWealth: So far all the school shootings have been conducted by boys. It just seems to me that there is something about–and there are a number of books that are out about this recently–about the way we’re bringing up boys and the kinds of male role models they have. But also that the media violence that you talk about has more of an effect on them, is more frequently consumed by boys than girls. Even with the rise in some violence by young girls, is it not still primarily in your mind a boy problem?

Bok: Well, there again I’d like to draw the distinction between the one factor of aggression and the others–fear, desensitization, and appetite for more violence. Now, I think girls are more often affected through fear, and to some extent, in response to fear, desensitization affects them as well. It’s definitely true so far that boys are affected by media violence in the direction of aggression and to some extent also, appetite. The same is the case when it comes to sexual violence. When young men and women are exposed to films about sexual violence, the young women on the whole, and rather naturally, will feel increased fear; and the young men may feel increased sexual aggression.

CommonWealth: You have addressed the tendency of a certain segment of our population to avert our eyes, not to see all these violent images around us. And I think that’s what a lot, and maybe a growing number, of people do. Maybe I’m not really the best person to do this interview because I’m one of these persons who is so put off by violent shows and violent movies…I haven’t even seen Saving Private Ryan.

Bok: I haven’t either, actually.

CommonWealth: You haven’t either? Let’s use Schindler’s List–I haven’t seen that either. Can one go so far in the other direction to miss out on important movies if we were to avoid all films that had violent content?

Bok: That is a good question. I think that we have to work at keeping ourselves open to the violence in the world and the reality of that violence–which is why I think Schindler’s List is extremely important to see. I don’t think we have to see every violent film that comes down the road, and I think there’s a big difference [with] a film like Schindler’s List, which is not at all what I call entertainment violence. That’s the last thing that Spielberg wanted to do; he did not want to entertain with that film. And there are other films: There was a Dutch film called Character, for instance, that was quite violent and an extraordinarily powerful film that helps us understand violence better. So I would not say that one should shy away from all of it. To the extent that you don’t want to be exploited by people who try to make you think that violence is fun and entertaining, to that extent, yes, you do want to shield yourself from those. But it would be wrong to say, okay, therefore I’m not going to read the Iliad. I’m not going to watch Schindler’s List. I’m not going to think about war or anything else that’s happened in the world. There are some people who shield themselves that way.

CommonWealth: Was it hard for you in writing this book to wade into that world and to watch some of this stuff?

Bok: Well it was, and yet I felt that I shouldn’t mention films, or programs, or video games that I didn’t know anything about, that I hadn’t seen. So I did have to see the ones that I mentioned. And I felt that this was not how I wanted to spend a large period of my life, but I did it for that purpose.

CommonWealth: Did you reach your fill, and that’s why you didn’t go off to see Saving Private Ryan?

Bok: Well, Saving Private Ryan; again, I don’t think that was an entertainment violence film. But I guess there I felt that I know what I need to know about the violence of war. I don’t think I need to see another film about that.

CommonWealth: This summer Professor David Lowenthal of Boston College made the case for censorship in the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, and at least one syndicated conservative columnist joined in, arguing that “the question of censorship cannot be off the table.”

Bok: I’ve heard those people, too. In my view, censorship is absolutely the wrong way to go for several reasons. First of all, it does go against something very important in our society, freedom of speech and the First Amendment. Secondly, when societies engage in censorship they censor a lot more than something having to do with violence; [there can be] political censorship, every other form. But third, and in some ways the most important: It isn’t going to work in the long run. It’s very interesting that China right now is trying hard to continue with media censorship. It’s not working very well. Countries like Iran are having a lot of trouble keeping people from accessing material that the government doesn’t want them to access. I just saw an article saying Singapore is having to recognize that censorship is not going to work as it has been working for some time. So the argument that we must move toward censorship at the very time when even the most oppressive governments can’t make it work seems erroneous to me. I just don’t think it’s right. However, some people use the word censorship very broadly to mean what families do in their homes and what individuals do in their own lives, and I don’t call that censorship. When you talk about censorship, you really have to talk about government censorship. Individuals have every right to shut out anything they want from their own lives, and parents also have a responsibility to see to it that their children are not overwhelmed by what they see.

“Censorship is the wrong way to go. It isn’t going to work.”

CommonWealth: Well in one respect we do have a successful example of censorship in our media now. On network television right now you cannot, for example, show blatant nudity. We have a pretty effective censorship policy when it comes to sex. If we’ve come to accept that, why would you not support the same policy for network TV about allowing censorship of blatant maiming and killing?

Bok: First of all, there are now so many channels–many, many families have cable and, of course, the Internet–so that what the networks do isn’t going to change that much what people see. Secondly, it’s been fascinating to me throughout that in the old days the discussion did center so much on sexuality rather than on violence. Now from what I know, the American public thinks that the question of violence is much more important. It’s much more important to see if the networks, and the cable channels, and everybody else who purveys violent material [will] exercise judgment in what they do and exercise responsibility with respect to violence. Why sexuality should have been selected as the one area where responsibility matters is very strange for me. Now, I’m not sure that I would call what networks do “censorship,” necessarily. I think for them it is a matter of exercising editorial judgment and responsibility.

CommonWealth: Well there are network censors in that, for example, [when] Madonna comes on David Letterman and says certain words, they do get bleeped out.

Bok: That’s internally. I don’t think that’s the government saying you have to do that, but this would be something I’d need to look into.

CommonWealth: Whatever the reasons are, it has been fairly–especially up to maybe 10 years ago or 15 years ago–it was fairly well policed what images about sex were allowed to come through, while [violent content] was not policed at all from the earliest days of westerns and [action] movies.

Bok: Yes, although even those movies, if you look back at them–I saw one about gladiators some months ago. There was almost no blood, and there was the mildest kind of hitting, really. Even now in newscasting and everything else, the dwelling of the camera on bleeding bodies on sidewalks, for instance, in an emergency or a crisis–that’s something that is just increasing all the time.

CommonWealth: The whole question of violence on television news is something that I think a lot of us in the media have mixed feelings about. Because on the one hand, if journalists perceive that we have a societal crisis on our hands, and that more kids have weapons, and more kids are violent, and there are violent outbreaks in the city, you feel an obligation to ring the alarm and get that news out there. It’s what journalists do. And at the same time, I can’t stand to watch local news.

Bok: Yes, it’s interesting you can’t, because partly it is meant to entertain people. It’s meant to excite them. It’s meant to excite them so much in fact that they would be more disposed to buy whatever it is being advertised, and that has been shown to be the case. And so if you say you can’t stand to see it, I think you’re just holding out from being a part of that. There’s something called “the Mayhem Index.” I quote in my book the Rocky Mountain Media Watch where twice a year, all kinds of volunteers all over the country count the amount of violence on local news stations. And some have a lot more than others. Some have about 75 or 80 percent of their news being violent news, and sometimes when they can’t think of anything in their own community, they go somewhere else to talk about violent crime, wars, terrorism, and disasters. What that’s really doing, when there’s such a large proportion of news in that category, that’s really falsifying reality. Because obviously there’s so much more that goes on of a different nature as well.

CommonWealth: But if we also believe that it desensitizes the viewer, it seems to raise the possibility that we’re going to be so tired of seeing it after awhile, that it’s going to become boring. We’ll turn the channel.

Bok: That does happen. Sometimes it’s called “compassion fatigue.” Even though terrible things are being shown, a lot of people just click past. They don’t want to see that.

CommonWealth: Do you have any sense that the important people in the entertainment industry picked up Mayhem, and read it and were affected by it?

Bok: I have had a number of letters. There are statements [against violence] being made by some people in the movie industry, in the television industry. I don’t know whether they’re picking up on my book in particular but they are picking up on a general more critical mood. People asking much more, “Why are you doing this?” Sometimes people say, “Well, we’re doing it to make money.” But, in fact, the most violent movies do not make all that much money in this country. They make more because they are sold abroad. However, very often, the way they’re sold abroad is as part of a package. The industry will say, “Well you can have this news program if you also take this violent film”–sometimes forcing those onto a number of other societies.

CommonWealth: What about conservative activists out there? Most prominent, I guess, is [former Secretary of Education] Bill Bennett. Do you feel some common cause with what he and others have been trying to do to protest against Hollywood?

Bok: I signed a statement with conservative and liberal critics, and I think Bill Bennett was one. I think there can be common cause with respect to some of the most irresponsible activities on the part of the media industry. However, the statement that I signed specifically said there should be no censorship. And really that the parents should exercise more responsibility, and the media should exercise more responsibility. I think that’s where I would come down, and if there are conservative thinkers and critics who agree with that, that’s fine with me. There are some others, as I say, who also said, “Let’s have censorship,” and that’s where I would absolutely draw the line.

CommonWealth: Well you’ve talked about what parents should do. You talked about what responsibility people in the media have. What about public-policy approaches? Suppose Sissela Bok ran for governor and won in the state of Massachusetts. Could you tell us one or two political changes that you would push for to address specifically the problems of media violence?

Bok: One larger issue that I would press for strongly would be having to do with the family, with child care, with allowing parents to be home more so that it wouldn’t be the case that so many children come home alone. I think we’re a very unusual society in the sense that we say we care about children a lot, and yet we abandon them in many ways. Very often our public policies force parents sometimes to be away from home, and therefore when people argue that parents should exercise more control over what their children see, the fact is that a lot of parents can’t do that because they’re not at home. Now sometimes they’re out playing bridge or something else when in fact they could be home. But at other times, our society needs to do a lot more.

“We say we care about children and yet we abandon them in many ways.”

Then to cycle back to media violence, I think leadership works there. I do think President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton have spoken up when it comes to media violence, and what children deserve and what young people deserve. That could also be done much more, I think, on the state level. I mentioned this program, “Flashpoint” [a media literacy program developed by Essex County District Attorney Kevin Burke’s office], to you to show that in Massachusetts there is also work [underway] on these questions. I would also say another arena where work needs to be done is in the schools. When I’ve spoken about this book [Mayhem] in various school settings, I’ve been very impressed with how many teachers and parents and others stand up and contribute information about particular efforts they’re making and programs they’re involved with. So it really has to go on at many different levels.


Ed Moscovitch’s proposal for a statewide property tax to fund the costs of a basic education in each community in the Commonwealth has two important policy objectives: to sustain the state’s striking success in bringing underfunded schools up to a more adequate level of spending, and to bring about greater tax equity in the financing of local education.

Over the last seven years, the state has made an enormous investment in its local schools, with $1.4 billion of new state aid–a 110 percent increase–that will allow every school district to meet the education reform law’s “foundation budget” standard of adequate spending in fiscal 2000. Moscovitch’s proposal would reinforce that commitment by transferring to the state responsibility for raising $3 billion through a new statewide property tax, roughly 40 percent of the local property tax levy, and imposing a new $6 billion annual obligation to fund foundation education costs in every district.

In some ways, the proposal is a natural extension of the current reform law, which seeks to correct inequities in local school funding that arise from unequal property wealth among communities. The law defined a statewide standard for local tax effort. This proposal would take us a step further, imposing a uniform school tax rate for property owners across the state, a change that would eliminate differences in local property wealth among communities as a factor in funding the costs of a basic education. The recommended approach is analogous to the income tax, generally considered the fairest state tax; there is a single tax rate and exemptions that take into account ability to pay.

However, Moscovitch’s proposed statewide property tax for education has a serious shortcoming–it would almost certainly cause even further erosion in support for the large numbers of better-funded schools that have lost ground since the education reform law was adopted.

Of 147 districts whose spending in 1993 exceeded the law’s foundation standard, 71 districts spent less as a percent of the foundation goal in 1999 than they did in 1993. This alarming decline is due to the combined effect of rapid enrollment increases, the Proposition 2? tax limits, and the minimal additional aid available to these districts under education reform’s school funding formula. The slippage in support for our better-financed schools was clearly not the intent of the education reform law and is a serious concern for a state that prides itself on the quality of its workforce.

Even with the envisioned $600 million of property tax relief (which would be funded from surplus state income tax revenues), the proposal would result in significant tax increases for local property taxpayers in many of the communities that have already suffered funding declines. Taxpayers in these communities would face a tax increase just to maintain their current levels of school support, never mind trying to regain lost ground. Local voters faced with such choices would be understandably reluctant to approve even higher taxes, setting in motion further deterioration in the quality of schools in these communities. Such an outcome would be a serious threat to the economic future of the state, and sheer folly given the huge investment that the state has made in the past seven years to improve its schools.

Finally, there are a number of other important issues that would have to be worked out in order to implement the proposed new financing scheme. These range from ensuring equitable treatment for renters who would not directly benefit from the homeowner exemption, to mitigating the higher property tax burdens that businesses–who are already contending with the high costs of doing business in the state–would face as a result of that exemption, to reconciling a uniform statewide property tax rate with the realities of the classification law, which allows communities to impose higher tax rates on business taxpayers than on residential taxpayers.

Michael J. Widmer is President of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

Redistribution scheme could harm public schools

by Deborah Ecker
Fall 1999

Massachusetts will soon have had seven years to test the effectiveness of the funding formula established by the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. We in the League of Women Voters applaud the state’s financial commitment to local schools, but we find the present distribution of $2.7 billion far too erratic to be continued into a limitless future. Like Moscovitch, we urge the Legislature to look closely at the current formula and revise it to make it fairer and simpler. At the same time, we disagree with Moscovitch on how to reach these goals.

Moscovitch proposes a shift to an entirely different approach to financing local schools. His plan would follow the example of Vermont and place heavy reliance on property taxes to bring about financial equalization among cities and towns.

Requiring all cities and towns to apply a statewide property tax rate to finance schools is intended to capture the “excess” property tax revenue of property-rich localities for redistribution to the property-poor. The “excess” would be what the tax rate would raise above the amount needed to reach foundation budgets in the wealthier municipalities.

This approach presents numerous problems. The most elementary is that the excess revenue raised from the state’s better-off communities would simply not produce enough revenue to compensate for the disruption that would come in the wake of steeply increased property taxes in these mostly small, residential towns.

A second problem caused by applying a statewide property tax rate is that instead of state equalizing aid, which gives less money to property-rich communities and more to the property-poor, the Moscovitch plan would have the wealthier communities receive their full foundation budget from the state.

But a more serious concern about a plan that redistributes property tax revenues is the harm it could do to public schools. How many localities whose “excess” tax revenue is being spent on others’ schools will choose to tax themselves even higher to spend more on their own? In these communities the foundation budget–defined as being enough to offer an adequate education–will likely become the maximum school budget. What was meant to be the floor may become the ceiling. As in Vermont, this could well lead to a serious deterioration in the quality of many public school systems.

How many localities whose “excess” tax revenue is spent on others’ schools will tax themselves more for their own?

The League has proposed a plan that would retain what Moscovitch aptly describes as “a vision of fairness that says every child should have an education funded at least at the foundation level.” But we sharply differ on his heavy reliance on redistributed property taxes as a major source of compensating revenues.

The League’s correction to the current education aid formula relies entirely on the state’s general tax revenues to equalize local school funding. Unlike the formulas embodied in the Reform Act, the League’s formula is easily explained and is based entirely on up-to-date school enrollment and financial figures. Compare this with the roughly 48 percent of current education aid distributed on pre-1993 data.

Under the League’s plan every city and town would receive some school aid; none would be required to send money to the state for redistribution. The state would provide the average-wealth town with 30 percent of its foundation budget and give equalizing financial aid to all of the state’s 351 cities and towns, ranging from 80 percent for the poorest to 1 percent for the most wealthy. Again, compare this with the fiscal year 2000 proposed budget in which 43 percent of increased education funding goes out on a flat, per-pupil basis. Equalizing education plans allocate less aid to the wealthiest and more to their needier neighbors.

Now is the time to reevaluate the state’s aid to education. It would be a shame not to keep what works–heavy reliance on progressive state taxes to help support local schools–and instead to require still greater use of property taxes for close to half the cities and towns in the state. The League’s education aid plan continues the shift embodied in the 1993 Education Reform Act to increased funding for schools from state-collected taxes and distributes all of the state’s multi-billion dollars on an equalizing basis that assures that more aid will go to the neediest communities and less to the better-off.

Deborah Ecker is Fiscal Policy Specialist for the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts.

Where’s the money to make it work?

by James R. St. George
Fall 1999

Ed Moscovitch is on the right path in suggesting that Massachusetts should use state revenue to lower property taxes and increase state support for local schools. Gov. Cellucci’s alternative–a massive $1.4 billion income tax cut primarily benefiting high-income households–is a low priority for most people. But Moscovitch leaves a key question unanswered. Where is the “excess” income tax revenue to fund his proposal?

At its core, Moscovitch’s approach makes sense; we should increase state funding for education. Schools in Massachusetts receive just 36 percent of their revenue from state aid, compared to the national average of 49 percent; as a result, the Commonwealth ranks 45th in the nation in the share of education spending financed by the state.

At the same time, it may not be necessary or even prudent to go as far as Moscovitch suggests by eliminating the local property tax for educational purposes. There are three problems with this idea. First, to the extent that education is more reliant on income tax revenue and state funding, it is also more vulnerable to the ups and downs of economic fluctuations. In tight years, schools will face fierce competition for the funds they need.

The second problem is the golden rule of public finance: She who has the gold, rules. Giving the state total responsibility for funding education would, over the long term, substantially reduce local control over education.

Finally, total state funding for the foundation budget could lead many local officials and taxpayers to believe that there is no need for any local property taxes to fund education. The foundation budget was never intended as a ceiling. But if residents believe the state is picking up all the necessary costs of education, they may be more reluctant than ever to support the resources that many cities and towns now provide to go above and beyond the foundation budget.

Thus we should move cautiously to mitigate the risks involved in swinging too far toward exclusive state funding for education. Simply put, we should reduce the property tax for education, not replace it.

All of this begs the fundamental question, though. Where is the money to finance such a proposal? Moscovitch suggests his proposal would be an alternative to Gov. Cellucci’s proposed income tax cut, but Cellucci has never demonstrated that his tax cut is affordable. A recent 50-state analysis of state budget and revenue trends by Hal Hovey, one of the most respected fiscal analysts in the country, provides good evidence that the proposed income tax cut would generate large budget deficits. Any massive new tax cut–income tax or property tax–is simply irresponsible.

Any massive new tax cut–income tax or property tax–is simply irresponsible.

Still, state officials would be well advised to pay attention. Replacing more of local education costs with state funding would help students, communities, and local governments. As with so many good ideas, the problem is how to pay for it. Unfortunately, relying on phantom budget surpluses won’t do the job.

James R. St. George is Executive Director of the Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts and the TEAM Education Fund.


Fairer funding need not harm schools in wealthy, suburban communities

by Ed Moscovitch
Fall 1999

Michael Widmer, Deborah Ecker, and Jim St. George are concerned that wealthier towns might cut their school spending if a statewide property tax were used to fund the foundation portion of the school budget. In Vermont, which has a statewide property tax, almost every district continues to supplement it with local funds. Unlike the Vermont statute, my plan places no surcharge on the funds raised by wealthier towns to fund above-foundation spending.

Because of the additional state income tax funds, average property taxes would fall. Still, owners of high-value homes in wealthier towns would probably find that the combined state and local property taxes would exceed current tax levels. St. George, Ecker, and Widmer worry that this might lead towns like Weston to reduce school spending. Perhaps. But even in wealthy towns, the homestead exemption would mean lower taxes for the elderly and owners of low-value homes–the people who are now most vociferous in opposing school spending. With protection for those least able to pay, it might actually be easier to raise supplemental funds. To move further in this direction, we might emulate Vermont’s idea of letting low and moderate income homeowners pay an income tax in lieu of their statewide property tax.

In effect, the three critics argue that taxpayers in cities like Lowell and Worcester should continue to pay higher school tax rates than homeowners in Wellesley and Chatham, since otherwise these wealthier towns might reduce school spending. They may be right, but there must be a fairer way to maintain school excellence in suburban towns!

Ecker wants to use additional state revenues to reduce property tax discrepancies; this is what I have proposed. As anyone who has read it or tried to reproduce it on a computer knows full well, the League of Women Voters plan is not simple. It is based only on differences in property wealth and does not take into account differences in student poverty. As a result, it will curtail aid increases to the poorest cities and towns, forcing them to increase further already high tax rates–all in order to increase funds going to wealthier suburbs. How sad that the League now supports a plan that leads to school tax rates in Lowell or Brockton three times those in Weston or Wellesley!

My proposal has the same goal as current state law–supporting foundation-level spending with essentially equal tax rates across the state. But it does so in a way that is simple, clean, and easily explained.


There’s a debate brewing over whether to change the state’s school funding formula. Common wisdom (as reported in The Boston Globe) is that the aid formulas in the 1993 Education Reform Act expire in the current fiscal year and that the Legislature will have to decide what to do next.

The common wisdom is wrong. The formulas defining the spending goal for each pupil–“the foundation budget”–and how state and local governments should share the cost of funding that goal have no time limit. Barring new legislation, these formulas remain in place, and the logic of the 1993 Supreme Judicial Court decision on school funding gives the state little choice but to continue funding them. The state has officially adopted (and funded) a definition of what constitutes adequate school spending. Were it to renege on its support of this concept, the court would almost certainly intervene, and would do so on an accelerated schedule.

What does end with the current year is the transition period built into the reform law, which envisioned that the transition to full funding of the foundation budget would be made over seven years. To that end, the law specified the spending increases to be made in each of the seven years–spending increases designed to “catch up” to the foundation. No spending targets were specified after that period, since the cost of maintaining foundation funding depends on ongoing inflation and enrollment increases and can easily be calculated each year.

Of course, the fact that the law remains in effect doesn’t mean it is perfect. The Legislature and the Governor informally agreed to postpone any major debate on the formula until the phase-in period was complete, thus setting the stage for a debate next year over possible changes.

What is Fairness?

Most complaints about the formula boil down to the simple desire to get more state money for one’s own town. However, any serious debate over the formula has to begin with an understanding of what the formula is trying to accomplish and what vision of fairness underlies it.

Although the details are complex, the underlying goal is not. The state wants to make sure that every district spends enough to provide its students with an adequate education. This foundation budget currently averages $6,500 per pupil–about $6,000 for average or wealthy districts, but as much as $7,500 for districts with a high proportion of children in poverty and $9,500 or so for the vocational high schools.

The law sets a ceiling on the local property tax rate required to support schools at the foundation level. If a city or town is taxing itself at the desired level but (because of low property values) falls short of the funding goal, the state makes up the difference.

The reason that Worcester, Chelsea, Brockton, and Lowell receive so much state aid is that, despite high local tax rates, their local revenues fall far short of the need.

In effect, the current formula is based on a vision of fairness that says every child should have an education funded at least at the foundation level and that the local property taxes necessary to support this should be roughly equal.

The law does not fully equalize property tax burdens around the state. The average “school tax rate” as measured by the reform law is $8.07 per thousand dollars of adjusted valuation.* Oddly, the loudest complaints are not coming from communities with the highest tax rates. For example, Barnstable, with a school tax of $6.36 (about 20 percent below the state average) has been vociferous about what it regards as unfairness. Perhaps this is because it looks at very wealthy nearby towns like Orleans with even lower rates ($2.75).

Paradoxically, the highest tax rates are paid by residents of some of the low-income cities. Despite its high state aid, Lowell is still taxing itself at $15.48; Lynn at $13.84; Worcester at $14.33. If fairness is defined as equal tax effort, first priority for additional aid should go to these high-tax cities.

*State education aid under the 1993 law is based on “adjusted property wealth” per student. Adjusted property wealth is a town’s equalized valuation multiplied by per-capita income in the town as a percentage of the statewide average. Thus, a low-income town with per-capita income 30 percent below the average is credited with only 70 percent of its equalized valuation. As a result, it tends to receive more state aid. The tax rates referred to here are calculated in relation to this adjusted valuation. For towns with average income, the two measures of property wealth are identical.

How to Make it Fairer and Simpler

The formula could be much fairer and simpler. We should replace the portion of the local property tax that supports the foundation budget with a statewide property tax. Each school district would simply receive state funds equal to its foundation budget. This would eliminate all the complexity and argument associated with regional school districts and vocational schools. Wherever he or she lived in the state, each property owner would pay the same school tax rate. What could be fairer?

A statewide property tax would solve several problems at once.

Instead of cutting the state income tax, we should divert excess state income tax funds to school aid, thus decreasing the statewide property tax. For example, cutting the income tax to 5.5 percent (about half the cut the Governor has recommended) would cost about $600 million. Using this money to fund schools would cut the statewide property tax by almost 20 percent, assuring that most taxpayers would see a reduction as a result of the change. By adjusting Proposition 2? levy limits downward, we could assure that these property tax reductions really occurred and that new state money was not simply used to raise local taxes for other purposes. Why cut the income tax, which is the fairest state tax and which does not generate much protest, when instead we could cut the property tax, which imposes genuine hardship on low-income and elderly families that have lived for a long time in homes that have greatly appreciated in value?

To further ease the burden on low-income and elderly homeowners, I’d propose a homestead exemption of $50,000 for all taxpayers and $100,000 for the elderly. Thus, a low-income family with a home valued at $150,000 would pay property taxes on only $100,000 worth of their home’s value; if the head of the family were over 65, tax would be paid on only $50,000.

The accompanying chart shows how this would work in a town that is now at the statewide average school tax rate of just over $8. The new statewide tax rate would be $9.51, but because of the homestead exemption this would actually mean lower taxes for most homeowners. As matters now stand, a taxpayer with an average home ($150,000) would pay $1,212; this would fall to $951. If the homeowner were elderly, the tax would be only $476. Homes valued at $100,000 would save even more under this proposal; an elderly family with a $100,000 home would pay no tax. On the other hand, a non-elderly homeowner with a $250,000 home would save very little ($1,903 under my proposal as opposed to the current $2,020). The property tax savings depend not only on home value but also on a town’s current property tax. Thus, in a town like Barnstable with lower than average tax rates, the elderly and those with relatively inexpensive homes would still enjoy savings, but non-elderly homeowners with homes worth $250,000 would have to pay slightly more than at present. On the other hand, property taxes would fall dramatically in over-taxed cities like Lowell.

These examples suggest why such a plan is unlikely to be adopted. While it is fairer, simpler, and easier to understand, some taxpayers who now enjoy good schools with very low tax rates would have to pay more. Even though most taxpayers would be better off, the Legislature has been reluctant to make anyone worse off. A more likely outcome is that we’ll see a contorted effort to find ways to give more money to towns that already enjoy low taxes. To do so, the Legislature will make the formula even more complex and will increase rather than lessen current tax inequality. Alas.

Ed Moscovitch is President of Cape Ann Economics, a Gloucester, Massachusetts consulting firm. As a consultant to the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, he helped draft the proposals that served as a basis for the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. This article is an expanded version of a column originally published in the Boston Herald.

Special Education

Massachusetts is no longer in a class by itself when it comes to special education. According to figures from the federal government, Massachusetts for the first time does not lead the 50 states in special-ed enrollment. Rhode Island has taken over that distinction, with the Bay State runner-up and three other states close behind.

This reshuffling in the rankings is due not to a reduction in Massachusetts of the number of students getting special help, but by other states slowly and steadily offering these services to an increasing portion of their students. Though still not exactly middle of the pack, Massachusetts no longer stands out as classifying a disproportionate share of its schoolchildren as having “special needs.”

In contrast to the state Department of Education, which calculates special-ed enrollment as a percentage of public school students–unchanged, at 17 percent–the federal numbers tally special needs students in proportion to the state population in the age group eligible for special education. Massachusetts has long led the nation in this measure, serving 10.74 percent of 3-to-21-year-olds during the 1994-95 school year, compared to an average of 7.67 percent nationally. But in 1997-98, the latest year for which the statistics are available, Rhode Island overtook the Bay State, with 11.21 percent of youngsters served by special ed, compared to 10.88 percent in Massachusetts and 8.11 nationwide.

Three states–West Virginia, Maine, and New Jersey–are close behind Massachusetts, with special-ed enrollment rates over 10 percent. Three years earlier, no other state was within a full percentage point of the Massachusetts rate.

Federal officials see much of the continuing growth in special-ed enrollment nationwide coming from earlier identification–at preschool age and even in infancy–of children with disabilities, as well as a rise in the number of kids with more severe disabilities.

But the state Department of Education says it has seen no change in special-ed enrollment over the past several years. “It’s pretty much leveled off,” says department spokesman Jonathan Palumbo.

Which may be the point. In the federal figures, the Commonwealth has held steady in the school-aged group, age 6 to 17, in recent years, even declining from a peak of 15.1 percent in 1991-92 to 14.5 in 1997-98. In those same years, the 50-state average for school-age special ed rose from 10.2 percent to 10.9 percent. Only in the youngest age group, age 3 to 5, did the rate of special-ed enrollment in Massachusetts go up.

The Commonwealth’s relative stability in special education may be traced to a tightening of eligibility by the Legislature in 1992. That change in the state special-ed law, known as Chapter 766, clarified the definition of a special-needs child as one with a “disability” that hinders progress in regular education, and specifically prohibited placement in special education solely because “the child’s behavior violates the school’s disciplinary code.”

“With this change in statute, Massachusetts is doing a much better job at making sure the kids in special education are those who belong there,” says Julia Landau of the Massachusetts Advocacy Center. “It does a disservice to have any child misclassified as special-ed.”

The change was hardly enough to satisfy critics of the state’s special-ed law, which they call overly generous and overly expensive. This fall, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, Arts and Humanities once again takes up proposals to reform special education, which would further tighten eligibility and possibly revise the state’s high standard of service (entitling children to the “maximum feasible benefit,” as opposed to the federal guarantee of a “free and appropriate public education”).

But Landau hopes the new evidence that Massachusetts is no longer so far out of the mainstream in its use of special education will focus attention on what she considers the real issue: money. Massachusetts forces local school systems to bear more of the burden of special-ed costs than do most states, she says, and that problem will only get worse as children who would not have survived were it not for new medical technologies reach school age.

“The fact is, these kids have more severe disabilities,” says Landau. “These costs are going to continue. These kids are not going to go away.”

With reporting by Carol Gerwin.

Governors Proclamations

Nurses Hall in the State House is all decked out, chairs lined up before a podium, people milling around eyeing the spread of fruit, baked goods, and soft drinks for the reception to come. The cameras are rolling as Gov. A. Paul Cellucci descends the stairs, scribbles his signature, then hands out pens as souvenirs.

A bill signing? No. It’s a gubernatorial proclamation declaring September 9, 1999 to be “Grandparent Recognition Day”–the first ever, he notes. “I don’t know what’s taken us so long to do this,” says the governor.

Nothing relieves the daily tedium of government like a little pomp and circumstance. And the steadiest flow of pomp out of the governor’s office comes in the form of proclamations.

These ceremonial parchments take note of events great and (mostly) small in the life of the Commonwealth and its citizens. The earliest proclamation the governor’s office can find any trace of is from March 11, 1862, when Gov. John A. Andrew proclaimed “Thursday the third day of April next to be observed throughout the Commonwealth as a day of public humiliation, fasting and prayer.”

The governor’s office gets about 800 requests for commemoration each year. Staff members sort through the requests, some of which are thought to be more appropriately satisfied with a citation or letter from the governor. But even after culling, Gov. Cellucci handed out 640 of these declarations last year, proclaiming Alzheimer’s Awareness Week, Safe Boating Week, and Homeless Animals Day, among others.

Even if the governor were to refuse to indulge his constituents, he would still be forced by law to do a great deal of proclaiming. Some 140 proclamations have been written into statute as annual events. Each year, the governor is required to declare January 8th “New Orleans Day” and the last Saturday in June “Winthrop Beach Awareness Day.” February 28th is “Kalevala Day,” in celebration of a Finnish fraternal organization. May 1st is “Loyalty Day,” which offers Massachusetts citizens “a special opportunity to express their love and dedication to the United States and its principles.”

The calendar gets crowded, particularly for longer observances. “American Indian Heritage Week,” “Visiting Nurse Association Week,” and “National Family Week” all have to share the third week in May.

October is particularly beset by commemoration, being simultaneously “Pro-Life Month,” “Lupus Awareness Month,” “Head Injury Awareness Month,” and “Polish-American Heritage Month.” The first week of the month is both “Employ Handicapped Persons Week” and “Employee Involvement and Ownership Week;” the second is “Home Composting Recognition Week.” Luckily, “American Education Week” can be in either October or November. Even individual days get jammed in this busy month. October 8th is both “Town Meeting Day” and “Leif Ericson Day.”

For one select group, however, a single dedication on the calendar is not sufficient. Public servants get served on both “Public Employees Appreciation Day,” the first Wednesday in June, and “Public Employees Week,” the first week of August, which many no doubt observe in the best possible way: by going on vacation.

Governors Digs

The question usually comes up when some out-of-towner discovers that Gov. Paul Cellucci drives home to his three-bedroom house in Hudson every night. In one recent instance, a Hollywood film producer was chatting with the governor about the movie biz and Cellucci mentioned that he sees at least one film a week, sometimes two on the weekend. Naturally, the producer wanted to know, “Do you have a private screening room in the governor’s mansion?” Cellucci was nonplused, politely explaining that not only does he go without a private screening room, he doesn’t hold the keys to an executive mansion. To see a new movie, he drives 3.1 miles to the local multiplex. To get to work, he faces the same traffic the rest of Boston’s commuters do.

The heads of 45 other states get to live in an official governor’s residence when they take office. Why not here? Doesn’t the top dog in the Bay State rate? Surely there’s no shortage of beautiful historic homes to fit the bill. Curious about this anomaly, CommonWealth investigated.

As it turns out, there have been several attempts to establish an official, state-owned home for the Commonwealth’s governors, but all fizzled–often because of the anticipated expense. [See below.] Since the 1970s, how- ever, none of the sitting governors has expressed interest in the idea.

Wouldn’t Cellucci prefer a grand manor house in the city to his relatively modest home in Hudson? His response is straight down the Republican line: “It’s unnecessary and would be an added expense for taxpayers,” says his spokesman Jason Kauppi. “If you consider not only the cost of the home, but staff and upkeep, it can get quite expensive.”

Plus, Kauppi notes, any official function that might be held in a governor’s mansion in another state is held here at the State House, which Cellucci says “seems to work just fine.” Besides, Kauppi adds, “I think he very much likes being able to go home to his own private house every night.”

Other recent governors apparently shared that sentiment. Dick Manley, a senior fellow at UMass-Boston’s McCormack Institute who kibitzed with several governors as longtime president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, says all seemed content in their own abodes. Once, during Mike Dukakis’s tenure, Manley suggested using a budget surplus to pay for a governor’s mansion. The Duke’s response? “Why the heck do we need to do that?” Manley recalls him saying. “I have a house.”

But not everyone is pleased with the status quo. “It’s embarrassing and unfortunate” that Massachusetts has no executive mansion, says former state representative John Sears, who proposed legislation to look into the possibility of establishing one in the 1960s. “There’s something Yankee and flinty and sort of penny-pinching about it.”

Chief executives need a place where they can “receive guests with dignity and give them hospitality,” adds Sears, the Republican candidate for governor (who lost to Dukakis) in 1982. Sears felt so strongly about the issue that he even considered trying to move to the historic Shirley-Eustis House in Roxbury–formerly the private home of two governors–if elected. “Gov. Eustis entertained [the Marquis de] Lafayette in the Shirley house for two weeks,” Sears says. “Heaven knows what we’d do with him today.”

What might have been

By Carol Gerwin
Fall 1999

Gov. Paul Cellucci may be perfectly happy in his Hudson home, but several previous governors liked the idea of letting the state pay the mortgage. Proposals for establishing an official governor’s residence have come and gone for more than 200 years, ever since the Commonwealth’s first governor, John Hancock, took office in 1780.

At least four different buildings have been considered for the honor, according to Thomas Lyman, who gives State House tours and researched the subject at the request of Susan Weld during her husband’s administration. (Another state’s First Lady was writing a book about governors’ mansions and asked Weld why there was none in Massachusetts. Weld asked the Division of State House Tours and Government Education to find out.)

These are the stories of the attempts that came closest to fruition, culled from Lyman’s research and other sources:

The Endicott Estate, Dedham

Gov. John Volpe came the closest of any Massachusetts chief executive to living in a state-owned house — at one point even holding the keys to the 25-room manse in Dedham known as the Endicott Estate.

The town of Dedham received the yellow-and-white manor near Route 128 from Katherine Endicott, the daughter of a shoe magnate, soon after her death in 1967. But “the town didn’t know quite what to do with it,” recalls former historical society president Robert Hanson, “and the governor’s mansion issue was at one of its periodic peaks at that time.” So Dedham’s town meeting voted to offer it to the Commonwealth.

Volpe took title to the 21-acre property, which included a ballroom, Italian marble fireplaces, and mahogany paneling at a ceremony on the grounds on Dec. 1, 1967. Members of the public were invited in for tours and sandwiches, and the governor’s wife, Jennie, chatted with her soon-to-be neighbors.

The local paper, The Dedham Transcript, hailed the imminent move with an editorial headlined, “Welcome, Governor Volpe!” and the declaration that Dedham would be the “second capital” of the Commonwealth. A few months later, the Volpes sold their house in suburban Winchester and moved to an apartment in Boston in preparation for occupying the estate by Christmas 1969.

But the family Christmas tree never made it to Dedham. The plan “came to a screeching halt,” according to The Dedham Times, when the cost of the renovations became clear. Originally, the Volpes believed they could do the work for about $100,000. But once state building experts had a chance to examine the house, the estimate jumped to a staggering $700,000 to $1 million. It would have been cheaper to build a new mansion to the First Family’s exact specifications.

The house needed extensive rewiring and new plumbing, to be sure. But another problem might have been Jennie Volpe’s lavish taste. “Her notion was to have all the gorgeous wood paneling ripped out and replaced with pastel-colored plaster,” Hanson says. “Then other people started tacking on foolishness. They wanted an addition suitable for seating 400 for dinner…. They had all sorts of crazy notions.”

The state decided to give the property back to the town, which now rents it out for weddings, parties, meetings, and other events.

The Shirley-Eustis House, Roxbury

The only mansion left today in the Dudley Street section of Roxbury, the Shirley-Eustis House was a frequent target of talk about an official governor’s residence in the 1950s and ’60s. The yellow, green, and white Georgian edifice was the private home of two governors — William Shirley (a British colonial governor who built the house in 1747) and William Eustis (who served from 1823 to 1825) — but never made it into the hands of the state.

The idea of turning the house into an executive mansion was first floated by members of a group working to save the then-dilapidated building from demolition in the 1950s. When Gov. Christian Herter became intrigued by the idea of establishing a governor’s mansion, one of the group’s members convinced him that the Shirley-Eustis House could be used for the purpose if moved — possibly to Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, near the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Herter named a special commission to investigate the possibility in 1955, but its report concluded that the commission “could not visualize an auspicious future for the house.”

The idea resurfaced two years later when the Legislature’s Committee on Cities recommended giving the state three acres on Jamaica Pond for a governor’s mansion and moving the Shirley-Eustis House there. But the new governor, Foster Furcolo, balked at the $300,000 price tag, despite his 100-mile commute from East Longmeadow. A formal bill for the project was never proposed.

None of this stopped Gov. Endicott Peabody and his wife from raising the matter several years later. Barbara Peabody, known as “Toni,” says she realized the pressing need for an executive mansion while her husband was governor, from 1963 to 1965.

“It wasn’t the material side of it,” Peabody, who now splits her time between Boston and New Hampshire, told CommonWealth. “We had a tiny house in Cambridge, and I used to put a tent up early in the morning and sometimes I would entertain eight groups during the day…. It was very hard. You couldn’t put up a tent every day.”

The Shirley-Eustis House would have been perfect, she said, even though 20th-century amenities, such as indoor plumbing, would have had to be installed. “It’s one of the most beautiful houses,” Peabody said. “It has the most beautiful hallway when you go in. You see this spiral staircase and you think you can go right to heaven.”

Peabody says she broached the subject with many different people in Boston, but couldn’t convince any of them to help out. “I went to see a lot of the bigshots in town, the bigwigs, and they thought it was ridiculous,” she said.

Now a museum, the house is slowly being renovated. It is open for tours June through October.

The Province House, Boston

One of the Commonwealth’s earliest office buildings, the Province House was considered for a governor’s mansion in the years after the Revolutionary War. The Legislature even went so far as to appropriate money to turn the colonial-style building into an official executive residence. But the plan fell through, perhaps overshadowed by the construction of the State House on Beacon Street in the late 1700s.

Built in 1679, the Province House was originally the home of a wealthy Boston merchant and was later occupied by several British royal governors. After the Revolution, it housed the offices of the governor, the secretary of state, and the receiver-general. Eventually the building became a tavern and was gutted in a fire in 1864.

The John Hancock House, Boston

It would have been the shortest of commutes for Massachusetts governors had John Hancock received his wish to make his home into an executive mansion. The 1737 stone building was situated next to the present State House on Beacon Street, on what is now the west lawn.

Hancock, whose wealthy uncle built the house, lived there during his terms as the Commonwealth’s first and third governors. Though he intended to give it to the state for use as an official governor’s mansion following his death, he died before signing a will.

Despite protests from preservationists, the building was destroyed in 1863 and replaced by brownstones — which were demolished about 50 years later to make way for the State House’s new West Wing. But the allure of Hancock’s property remained. When Gov. Samuel McCall grew interested in the idea of a governor’s mansion in 1917, he recommended to the Legislature that Hancock’s home be reconstructed for the purpose on its original site.

A Prescription for Literacy

Each year standardized tests reveal that thousands of Massachusetts schoolchildren can’t read at basic levels and each year educators are pressed for solutions. But a Boston-based, national literacy program suggests the best place to look for solutions may not be in the classroom but in the doctor’s office.

Reach Out and Read, created 10 years ago at Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center), trains pediatricians to view early literacy as a vital part of every child’s health. At each check-up from six months to five years, volunteers read to children in the waiting room, doctors encourage parents to read to their kids, and they give each child a book to take home. By kindergarten, each child has a library of at least 10 books.

Reading aloud to young children is the single most important factor in preparing them to learn to read, according to research, but fewer than half of American parents read to their infants and toddlers regularly.

Dr. Perri Klass, the program’s medical director, started expanding Reach Out and Read beyond Massachusetts in 1993. Today there are 492 sites in 47 states. About 5,000 pediatricians have been trained and 830,000 children–most from low-income families–are served annually.

Klass admits her interest is at least a bit selfish. An award-winning writer, she is the author of five books, including the 1990 novel Other Women’s Children, and dozens of short stories and articles. She often jokes that she wants to guarantee herself a future audience. But she has also seen the dramatic impact of books on her own three children–and on the kids at Dorchester House, the neighborhood health center where she is a staff pediatrician.

CommonWealth caught up with Klass at Boston Medical Center to learn more. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.

What can a six-month-old, or any very young child, learn from a book besides its taste?

Of course you can learn how the book tastes, and chewing on books is fine. That’s why we use the board books. But then in addition…you’re on your parent’s lap…. The child learns this is associated with good times, with being safe, with warmth, with my mommy paying attention to me, with her voice. And very quickly the repetition becomes important because children love repetition. You go through the same books over and over. And you’re learning what we call the book-handling skills. Say from six months to a year, you go from a baby who doesn’t care whether the book is upside-down or right-side-up to a baby who will deliberately turn the book right-side-up because he wants the pictures right-side-up….

And by one-and-a-half, they’ll ask to be read to. They don’t necessarily have any words, but they’ll go choose the book they want and give it to you. And then they start…filling in words, and they start to correct you if you get anything wrong. They build on these literacy skills, which leads you eventually to the point where your two-and-a-half-year-old is reading to you and knows exactly which words go on which page. This has nothing to do with recognizing letters or interpreting the text, but it’s about an incredibly strong attachment to the books and the stories, and it’s about language and repetition. But it’s also about the beginning of that feeling of, I like these books, they bring me pleasure, they bring me information.

Why is early literacy something pediatricians should concern themselves with when there are so many important medical issues to monitor at each check-up?

First of all, logistically, we have the kids. We see them over and over during these years–six months, nine months, 12 months, 15 months–because of all those important medical issues and immunizations. For many parents, the only person that they talk to regularly about child development, the only person with training that they’re seeing, is the pediatrician.

But the other side of it is that if you’re thinking about what makes a healthy child, it isn’t just preventing diseases…. The pediatrician who’s busy giving the kid all his immunizations but has never looked into the question of whether or not he’s learning speech, that pediatrician is not doing a good job. That’s not a healthy, happy child. Early literacy as a contributor to school success is part of children growing up healthy, children able to do what they’re supposed to do…. This is a way of trying to look at it preventively. Instead of just treating the disasters, what can we do so that in general our patients are a little more likely to get to school and succeed and be happy?

Research shows that children have trouble learning to read if they’re not exposed to books early. Are there also longer-term issues in terms of how children fare in school later on?

Let me not exaggerate what you can say. What is true is that not reading in school, not reading at grade level, is a real risk factor for general school failure. Especially after the fourth grade, almost all school success just really depends on reading success. You have to be able to get information out of a printed text. So what that does mean is that kids who come to school and don’t learn to read on time, if the school can’t give them the extra help they need, if there’s nobody to help them catch up, those kids a few years down the line are going to be the ones at risk for school failure. And those are the kids who are at risk for truancy and absenteeism and dropping out, but also for early pregnancy and sub-stance abuse and for juvenile delinquency…. I don’t want to say, you don’t read to a young child, the child ends up in jail. But I do want to say that there [can be] a sort of cascade of events.

How do you persuade reluctant parents to read regularly to their children?

I think there’s an issue with parents who don’t read well, who don’t have good associations with reading, aren’t comfortable with reading. And it brings up all kinds of anxieties and worries and that’s a really hard thing…. If you get a feeling the parent really can’t read comfortably, you have to have a place to send them [for help]. And we look for some books with very few words on the page, or even with no words on the page, just pictures. And we talk in training about [how] you don’t have to use the word “read,” you can say to parents, “Look at the book together, at the pictures together, tell a story together.” But I think the hope is really that parents are seeing from the beginning that this is important and they will start thinking, “Should I be doing adult literacy or family literacy?” We’re looking to collaborate with national family literacy organizations so those referrals can get made as effectively as possible.

What makes you so passionate about this cause?

Little children are really smart; they can do all this stuff we can’t do, like learn whole languages and pick up all these things without being formally taught. It’s very sad if their lives don’t offer them enough to take advantage of these unbelievable years with the remarkable brain….When you talk to elementary school teachers or Head Start teachers or day care workers, one of the things they say over and over is you can tell immediately on Day One who’s been read to and who hasn’t…. And it seems so sad to me that by five or by six you can already be behind that way. It’s not teaching them to read. It’s that by that age they should really want to read. By that age they should feel that reading is the secret code and if I can crack it then I’ll be able to get into all these stories myself and the world will make sense.

I can’t imagine growing up without the various kinds of pleasures and excitement that you get from a book…. I don’t think anyone should have to grow up without that…. And the thing about children is… if you get the right books in there, you have to tell them to stop. That’s the fun part-“Put that book down while you’re talking to me! Put that book down while you’re putting on your shoes!”…. If you end up with a child who is truly hooked, then you just have to make sure the books keep coming and stand out of the way.