Spring 2003

Spring 2003

Second Chances

Second Chances

Carlos X. Garcia wants to be a radiologist. “At first I wanted to be a nurse, but you have to stick needles into people,” the 18-year-old explains as he presents a PowerPoint “autobiography” as part of a “presentation of learning” ceremony at Holyoke Community College one evening in February. “Then I was going to be a surgeon. But I’d probably be dropping hearts all over the place.” His audience, which includes two dozen fellow students, along with his Puerto Rican-born parents, laughs as he moves to the next slide, about his “future goals,” which include driving a Mercedes-Benz E-Class by the time he’s 25, and owning “a nice house in Puerto Rico.” The rest of the kids nod–and howl–their approval.

Carlos X. Garcia raised his career
goals after passing the MCAS.

Garcia’s ambitions don’t seem out of the ordinary for a graduating senior, a standard late-adolescent mix of bread-and-butter and pie-in-the-sky. But last fall, his prospects were looking bleak. He was getting mediocre grades and he had failed the MCAS graduation test. Garcia was not expecting to graduate.

Then a counselor at Springfield High School of Science and Technology got him into Another Route to College (ARC), a pilot program funded by the state and developed collaboratively by the nonprofit Commonwealth Corp., the Lawrence and Springfield public schools, and Holyoke and Northern Essex community colleges. Garcia is one of 25 ARC students at Holyoke; another 30 students are enrolled at the Northern Essex campus in Lawrence. Today, Garcia is taking college-level courses in English and human anatomy; the classes are small and he receives one-on-one tutoring. He is also an intern in the medical imaging department at Mercy Hospital in Springfield.

Facing an uncertain future just a year ago, Garcia is now thinking about college and a career–and that Mercedes. What’s more, he’s passed MCAS, in a retest.

That makes him one of the lucky ones. An estimated 6,000 students–mostly minority students from urban districts like Chelsea, Holyoke, and Springfield–face the prospect of not graduating this June because they have not passed the English and math MCAS exams, even after four tries. By the middle of spring semester 2003, it was still unclear what options would be there for them.

“The big issue is, what pathways are available to the kids?” says Paul Reville, executive director of the Center for Education Research and Policy at MassINC. “Right now, it depends on where you live. Right now, it’s a hit-or-miss strategy. We need something systemic so every kid knows there are ways to keep at it.”

That such pathways seem a hit-or-miss proposition at this point on the MCAS timeline is frustrating to those who work with students facing a diploma-less June, many of whom remain in the dark about options for remediation services. “There are attempts being organized, but they’re coming slower than we would like and later than we would like,” says Richard Robison, executive director of the Federation for Children with Special Needs, a parent training and information resource center. “It’s not clear to me yet where the funding is coming from, where those initiatives will be offered, and who is eligible to receive them.”

The state’s 15 community colleges, with their tradition of local service and their expertise in post-high school remedial education, might seem like a natural choice to serve the students who have left high school but without MCAS certification. And several of them, like Holyoke, Northern Essex, and North Shore community colleges, are already working with students at risk of MCAS failure while they’re still in high school. But although some institutions have embraced a role in post-high school MCAS assistance, there has also been reluctance.

For some, it’s a matter of philosophy. Prepping students for a high-school test, they say, is a distraction from their proper functions–that is, training high school grads for careers and further education at four-year colleges. But it’s also about money. As community colleges scramble to adjust to the state’s budget cuts, the last thing they want is a new mandate, the funding of which is uncertain. Then there’s the suddenly heaving institutional landscape. Under Gov. Mitt Romney’s proposed overhaul of public higher education, two community colleges–Holyoke and Greenfield–would merge, and all would become part of regionally focused systems of public higher education ultimately accountable to a proposed new secretary of education. The administration plan is supposed to result in $100 million in “savings”–$37 million from community colleges –that, to campus administrators, look more like simple funding cuts than organizational efficiencies.

Finally, there is the nature of community colleges themselves. They are locally controlled institutions with a mandate to meet local education-and-training needs. That makes channeling a statewide mission like MCAS remediation through community colleges a bit like herding porcupines.

“Community colleges don’t speak with a single voice,” says Reville. “Each has its own board [of trustees] and does its own thing, and no one has the authority to tell them what to do.”

Beating a path to their doors

Everybody knew the day would come when several thousand kids from the “canary class,” the first to face the state’s MCAS graduation standard, would emerge from high school without diplomas. These students were in second grade when the Education Reform Act of 1993 was signed and funding began to flow to cash-starved schools. But they were nearing high school before statewide curriculum frameworks and standards were in place, and their schools have been scrambling to align instruction with state requirements ever since. State officials expect the number of MCAS casualties to diminish over time, but they’ve always known that the test requirement would trip up a substantial number of students, especially in the first few years of enforcement. To avoid the fate of those canaries in the mine, these all-but-MCAS students are going to need post-high school help.

In March 2002, a committee that included state Board of Education chairman James Peyser, Department of Education Commissioner David Driscoll, and Chancellor of Higher Education Judith Gill outlined several alternative routes, or “pathways,” that would get these students to MCAS certification and beyond. These routes included a “13th year” at community college. For some, particularly those at vocational schools, staying on an extra year seemed like a viable option. Others who pass the “AccuPlacer” test, which establishes their “ability to benefit” from post-secondary study at their local community colleges, could become eligible for federal financial aid and enroll without a diploma. Once there, they could take non-credit “developmental education” courses to get them prepared for college-level work, then pursue a professional certificate or associate’s degree.

These pathways all made sense on paper. But paving them turned out to be problematic. Board of Higher Education Chairman Stephen Tocco acknowledges that community-college cooperation was “sporadic” in the beginning. “They were worried that this would become a new mission,” says Tocco.

Stephen Tocco: The state’s community colleges
fear being saddled with “a new mission.”

Reville says discussions bogged down in what he calls “a game of chicken” over money. “The community colleges said, we’ll queue up if you deliver the resources,” he says. “But this is the population they would have served anyway.”

For their part, some community colleges see themselves as getting pressed into service, on an emergency basis, to solve an all-too-predictable crisis. “I’ve been concerned all along that we didn’t plan well for students who got caught in the high-stakes aspect of this test,” says Wayne M. Burton, president of North Shore Community College.

Some community college leaders say they shouldn’t be saddled with the job of making up for the deficiencies of K-12 education. The developmental programs they provide aren’t the same as MCAS remediation, which prepares students for a specific test that’s based on a specific curriculum, they say. “The help to pass the test is not generally coming from the post-secondary [world],” says Janice Motta, executive director of the Massachusetts Community Colleges Executive Office. “It’s the K-through-12 faculty who are the experts with the frameworks.”

These institutions have been burned by MCAS before.

Some community college presidents also worry about “mission creep.” Already responsible for providing career training and a low-cost foundation for students who later transfer to four-year colleges, community colleges worry about taking on MCAS remediation as a new line of work without a clear source of financing. “We’re concerned about adding another responsibility to the colleges without the money to pay for it,” says Burton.

These institutions have been burned on MCAS help before, they say. In Worcester, an analysis of MCAS scores showed a pattern of deficiencies among roughly 400 students who were at risk of not graduating, many of whom lived in the same public housing project. Together with Quinsigamond Community College, the district set up a program that brought students to the campus for three hours, half of which was spent in a math lab. Students were also provided with on-campus mentors and work-study jobs. The district had specific MCAS-remediation money from the state Department of Education to support the program, but QCC covered some staff salaries and work study costs on its own. Then came a round of budget cuts imposed by acting Gov. Jane Swift. Quinsigamond could no longer hold up its part of the deal, says Worcester Superintendent of Schools James Caradonio.

Wayne M. Burton: “We didn’t plan well for students
who got caught in the high-stakes aspect of the test.”

“You can understand why the community colleges are mad,” says Caradonio. “The community colleges know what to do, but the same state wanting them to do more is whacking them to death.”

Indeed, the fiscal crisis has not made it any easier to make provision for a group of students who, because of MCAS, will be falling into a limbo between high school and college. “The state’s difficulties have pushed this MCAS issue away from some of the attention it was getting, even last fall,” says Paul Raverta, executive vice president of Holyoke Community College. “It’s unfortunate that this group [of students] is coming through at a time of economic difficulties, which makes it even harder.”

Transitional assistance

Tocco, chairman of the board of higher education, says that’s all behind us now, and that the state’s 15 community colleges –or at least most of them–stand ready to do their part. “What broke the logjam was that we said it was a transition,” says Tocco. “If we really believe the MCAS is working, in three years, we won’t need this anymore.” As a result, he says, “They’ve all, with the exception of four or five schools, gotten on board at this point.”

It helped that Gov. Romney’s proposed 2004 budget calls for $3 million to fund MCAS remediation for students who have left high school. Ostensibly, that would provide payment of $1,500 to $2,000 per student–that’s less than half the $5,500 full-year cost per student for ARC–for short-term remedial programs. Even at that rate, the funding would pay to serve no more than 2,000 of the 6,000 seniors who will leave high school without a diploma. And so far, at least, the community colleges are far from reassured, according to a spokesman, who says they are waiting for details from the governor before counting on these funds.

Still, the announcement of the latest MCAS retest scores injected a new urgency into the development of pathways, says Andrew Caulkins, executive director of the Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, a pro-MCAS education reform group. “Everyone agrees it would have been better if it had been articulated sooner,” says Caulkins. “But there’s a lot of effort dedicated to bringing coherence to the pathways now. A lot of kids will find there are open doors this spring if they are ready to look for them.”

Even then, it may take some looking. In March, after release of the latest MCAS retest results, the state Department of Education sent information to school districts outlining “options” for seniors who still did not have MCAS certification. These include MCAS appeals (about 460 seniors have been given waivers of the graduation requirement), additional tries at the MCAS in May and in July, offered in conjunction with summer school, and “certificates of attainment” granted for meeting local standards, but not MCAS. Students are directed to the state’s One-Stop Career Centers for advice on career training, and to military recruiters (“The Army and the Navy will accept students without a high school diploma, so long as they commit to earning one within one year”). And then: “This fall, students who have not yet earned a diploma will be eligible to take remedial courses at local community colleges at no cost. On some campuses students will also be able to begin work toward an associate’s degree at the same time.”

This community-college piece of the puzzle will be coming together on the fly. Four colleges–Holyoke, North Shore, Quinsigamond, and Cape Cod–have received grants from the Department of Education to provide remedial math and English programs over the summer. Some other community-college offerings are up and running, or easily could be, as extensions of what these institutions are doing with high schools, such as Middlesex Community College’s work in remedial math with students from Lowell High School. In addition to the ARC program, for instance, HCC has introduced a “transitional acceptance” program, in which high school seniors attend Saturday classes for 10 weeks, then retake the MCAS, and, if they pass, enter college.

But it’s clear that even the institutions most committed to doing their pathways duty are scrambling to get ready for the all-but-MCAS cohort. North Shore Community College, which has been named a “lead institution” for pathway development by the state, is heading up an effort to have a demonstration program in place by May. Massachusetts Bay, Middlesex, and Quinsigamond colleges are participating in the program; three others (Bristol, Holyoke, and Roxbury) have expressed interest as well.

“The intent is to pilot it over the summer and implement it in the fall,” says Laura Ventimiglia, dean of academic assessment at North Shore. But, with the state budget far from final, she says the community colleges are swinging into action largely on faith. “Part of the project is to identify the cost,” says Ventimiglia. “The funding will follow the student, but where that funding will come from still hasn’t been determined.”

Something different

Those who develop remediation programs say the community college is an ideal setting, because it provides a change of scene, along with a more adult-like experience, for kids who have outgrown high school, even if they don’t have the state certification to prove it.

“These kids are ready for something different,” says Terry Grobe, program manager with the Commonwealth Corp. “If you get them out into the world, they get excited about things, they get…buzzed about what they’re doing.”

And it’s hard not to feel that buzz when you sit with the kids in the ARC program. Far from being near-dropouts, discouraged about their future, these young people seem to be actively exploring life options–from Vanessa, who wants to go to culinary school and one day open her own wedding-cake shop, to Ruben, who used to think school was “whack” but now wants to become an emergency room nurse.

“We’ve found that for students who have checkered academic careers, that this is key,” says Commonwealth Corp. vice president Ephraim Weisstein. “To show them they can do it, and to show them how to do it. It’s amazing, the turnaround you see. Students say on questionnaires, ‘I never in my life thought that I could do college work.'”

But with the right support, many of them can, and ARC is one program that proves it. When MCAS re-test scores arrived this winter, all the students at Holyoke passed the English portion of the test. Six have yet to pass the math portion, but they were getting closer. At the same time, a new group of students arrived to begin coursework.

“I don’t think any one approach is right for every one of the 6,000 kids who need help,” says Weisstein. But he says ARC “could be ratcheted up at most of the 15 community colleges around the state. Certainly we could do a thousand kids.”

Whether ARC, or programs like it, are going to be ratcheted up in time for the first all-but-MCAS crop is another question. “I think we should have started earlier,” says Burton. “But you can’t go back.”

Fiscally strapped Hopkinton puts its own citizens on the hot seat

HOPKINTON–On a sunny Saturday morning in March, nearly 110 Hopkinton residents sit down to solve a problem that their elected officials would prefer not to touch: the town’s budget crisis. Ensconced in the parish room of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, they’ve worked three hours last evening, and will clock eight more before they’re finished today. Their mission: the thankless task of weighing and prioritizing town expenditures. “There’s people here who would kill before the schools lose one penny, and there are others who want the senior center to be the Taj Mahal,” says Eric Sonnett, chairman of the Hopkinton Board of Selectmen.

Hopkintown Quick Facts

Founded: 1715
Population: 14,131
Town Meeting: Open

Facts:

  • Hopkinton covers 28 square miles of Middlesex County. It is located 26 miles from Boston and 17 miles from Worcester.
  • According to the town Board of Assessors, the average assessment of a single-family home is $371,300.
  • Best known as the starting line for the Boston Marathon, Hopkinton is a suburban residential community that prides itself on its schools and comprehensive recycling system. The largest employer is EMC Corp., the data-storage company. Other significant employers include Zymark Corp., which develops laboratory automation equipment; the Richmond Group, which builds high-tech and biotech properties; and Weston Nursuries.

Putting conflicting priorities in rank order is never easy, but in Hopkinton, like many towns, it’s suddenly gotten a lot harder. This is a town of white-collar professionals–more than half of Hopkinton households earn more than $100,000 per year–but it now faces tough budget choices. The town had been projecting its budget for the 2004 fiscal year based on a three-year plan created in flush times, when the town was pumping money into education and public safety. But following through on that expansive spending plan would saddle Hopkinton with an $8 million deficit–roughly 15 percent of the annual budget. Simply maintaining services from the current year would still yield a deficit of between $5 million and $6.5 million. And the town’s fiscal condition remains a moving target. “It’s a very fluid time,” says Sonnett. “We look at it every week.”

Hopkinton’s economic situation mirrors that of its largest employer, the data-storage giant EMC. The company’s stock price reached stratospheric heights at the turn of the millennium, climbing well above $100 per share, but now it trades for less than $10. The town’s population hasn’t fluctuated in quite the same way, but there are signs of slowdown there, too. Thanks to the roaring economy here, along with small-town charm and convenience (it’s just off I-495 and the Massachusetts Turnpike), Hopkinton was the seventh fastest-growing community in the state during the 1990s, its population increasing by 45 percent (from 9,191 to 13,346), with growth sharpest during the last few years of the decade. But the town’s 2002 count shows a gain of less than 800 since the 2000 US Census. Similarly, permits for new construction fell from a height of 190 in 1999 to 48 in 2001.

When Hopkinton’s population was growing rapidly, the increased tax base and the fees from development permits meant that the town could ramp up its infrastructure and expand services. During the 1990s, the town built two new schools and added police and fire personnel. Public works trucks, whose lives are extended with patchwork repairs during less prosperous times, were replaced with new vehicles. Most importantly, the town pumped money into its once-ailing school system, creating an educational juggernaut (96 percent of Hopkinton’s class of 2003 passed the MCAS test) and enticing more and more young parents to move here. School enrollment increased 110 percent between 1992 and 2002, and youngsters under age 10 now comprise 20 percent of the community–the largest percentage in the state.

“When the economy slowed down, the needs for services didn’t.”

“The growth of this town and its services has been sustained through new growth and a strong economy,” says Ron Eldridge, chairman of the Hopkinton Appropriations Committee. “When the economy slowed down, the need for services didn’t.”

Hopkinton also has urgent infrastructure needs. A new police station is under construction, the funding is already approved for a new senior center, and the architectural plans have been approved for a new department of public works headquarters. With its burgeoning population of youngsters, Hopkinton will soon require a new elementary school, and another school is in need of renovation. The town is also paying off the $6.4 million purchase last fall of the former Pyne Sand and Gravel property–257 prime acres local officials hope to use for open space, athletic fields, the new DPW building and elementary school, and several town wells. Meanwhile, Hopkinton girds itself for a cut in state local aid, the size of which depends on budget deliberations on Beacon Hill. Regardless, the town expects to face a deficit of more than 10 percent in its nearly $50 million annual budget.

In this, Hopkinton is not unique. All Massachusetts cities and towns are facing higher costs, a sluggish economy, and local aid cuts. What does make Hopkinton unique is what its officials are doing in response to tough choices: asking the public to help make them.

When appropriations committee chairman Eldridge first discovered the impending multimillion-dollar shortfall last summer, he had an idea: Organize a conference to determine the budget priorities of the town’s citizens.

The concept wasn’t entirely without precedent. In the early 1990s, the town held a one-time forum called “Hopkinton 2000” to discuss town priorities. One participant says “the people of the community felt they were participating in the decision-making process” as a result of the gathering, but otherwise the impact on town affairs was minimal. A 1994 community forum on education solidified relationships between interest groups, including local businesspeople, school administrators, teachers, students, and elected officials, according to Trish Perry, who attended and also helped organize this year’s event. But, she says, “There was no specific follow-up.”

Last June, the board of selectmen appointed a nine-member Civic Engagement Committee, with Eldridge as chairman. Together, they planned the citizens’ forum, which they dubbed “Voices for Vision.” They reserved slightly more than half the slots for representatives of various organizations and committees–planning board members, senior citizen advocates, and organizers of youth sports. The rest were “at-large” seats for interested residents. The goal was “to get regular people, not the people who go to town meetings and appear before boards, to talk about what we love about being here and prioritize for the future,” says Doug Resnick, a local real estate lawyer who served as a volunteer facilitator for the forum. “We recognize there are some things we can’t achieve, and hopefully in the end this can chart at least a rough course for where we’re going to go, to make a road map for local officials.”

Those who chose to attend clearly had a stake in the town.

Bringing out the least-involved residents is always a challenge, particularly when it means asking them to give up almost an entire weekend for the sake of Hopkinton. Those who chose to attend clearly had a stake in the town: Only a handful were people who commuted to Boston or Worcester, while more than two-thirds worked in Hopkinton itself. Almost all were between the ages of 30 and 50, and therefore likely to have children in the school system. The forum did succeed in drawing one other key group of residents: newcomers. The town census shows that 45 percent of Hopkinton residents moved here since 1995, as did more than one-third of Voices for Vision participants. These facts came to light when professional facilitator David Peter Stroh conducted an informal demographic exercise at the beginning of the weekend, with people identifying themselves by standing.

Hunched around circular tables, the residents snack on an array of goodies as the hours pass: creamy chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner on Friday, bagels and coffee for Saturday breakfast, pasta and meatballs for lunch, and a steady stream of cookies. Participants begin with getting-to-know-you exercises, wandering around the room holding placards listing their favorite foods and world leaders, and searching for others with similar tastes. (One had to wonder: Could admirers of Robert E. Lee and Bernie Sanders find common ground when it came to Hopkinton’s water supply and trash collection?)

Switching tables four times in the course of the forum, each resident has the chance to meet with 40 other people and take responsibility for town leadership, with Stroh leading the groups through a step-by-step process: “Building a Vision for Hopkinton,” “Identifying Roadblocks and Obstacles,” “Determining Decision-Making Criteria,” and “Developing Creative Solutions to Achieve the Vision.”

“One of the major goals of the meeting is to have people think about the town as a whole, and not just their individual favorite project, if they have one,” says Stroh.

But project advocates can be forceful–and compelling. There’s Jim Rogoze, president of the Hopkinton Chamber of Commerce, who wants to look at “revitalizing downtown and ways of attracting more business and revenue to town.” There’s high school senior Pete Marchant, asked to attend by his government teacher, who is pushing “to get more things for teens in town, because there aren’t a lot of places we can go.” And there’s Hopkinton Garden Club co-president Joan Luciano, who has “an interest in the beautification of the town.”

Participants brainstorm in small groups, with facilitators writing down suggestions on flip charts, and the best ideas are presented to the entire room. After lunch, the top 15 “visions,” “conflicts,” and “obstacles” are written on large sheets of paper and taped to the walls. Armed with colored stickers, participants prowl the room, putting dots next to their top five choices in each category.

In a town of 14,000 residents, the 110 people in the room are more focus group than vox populi, but trends clearly emerge. Unsurprising in a town with so many children, education ranks first. A revitalized downtown, maintaining open space, increasing the commercial and industrial tax base, and fiscal responsibility also make the list. Participants cite an already-high tax burden, the “not in my backyard” syndrome, and community apathy as obstacles, and conflicts include “open space versus economic development”-type quandaries.

Armed with this information, Stroh leads the group into the next phase: pretending to be elected officials. The principles they come up with to guide their decisions, formulated in just half an hour, make the residents sound like administrators: paying attention to the wishes of citizens, trying to meet the town’s needs without raising residential taxes, and focusing on economizing and increasing efficiency. Specifics are left to the “creative solutions” session, which yields some interesting suggestions. Groups mention civic engagement classes for adults, to stimulate more residents to get involved in local politics; marketing the town in association with the Boston Marathon (which begins in Hopkinton each year); and holding the annual town meeting on a Saturday to make it more accessible.

Most proposals for closing the fiscal gap, however, mirror those being tossed around at the state level: increasing user fees for sports, trash pickup, and recycling; centralizing town functions such as purchasing. One group suggests hunting down grants from foundations, a practice Hopkinton already follows. (“We do that all the time, but need to do more of it,” says Eldridge. “Of course, everyone else is thinking the same thing.”) Others put forth the possibility of public-private partnerships, or soliciting donations of supplies from the community. But dollar figures and line-item cuts are never addressed.

Ironically, considering the lay nature of the forum, one idea that is mentioned repeatedly throughout the weekend is hiring a professional town manager who could oversee budgeting–a process that even selectmen chair Eric Sonnett believes is becoming too unwieldy for the all-volunteer town government.

Each table’s facilitator takes responsibility for typing up notes from the flip charts. The overall results, compiled by Stroh, were scheduled for presentation at the board of selectmen’s meeting on March 18. (Eldridge also hoped to post them on the town’s Web site, http://www.hopkinton.org.)

“I got a real sense of community involvement.”

The Voices for Vision weekend forum may not have solved Hopkinton’s budget woes, but it certainly drew citizens into sharing the town’s dilemmas. Says Barbara Berke, a former school committee member: “I’ve lived here for 17 years and there were more people here I had not met before [than ones I had met], or at least half-and-half.” One such participant was Kate Gasser, an 11-year resident who was making her first foray into town government. “I got a real sense of community involvement,” she says.

Some felt the event could have gone farther. “I wish we’d spent more time on creative solutions,” says Brad Fenn, president emeritus of the Hopkinton Youth Soccer Association. “It was a tiny block at the end, but was almost the whole reason we were here.”

“It confirms what I had been thinking,” says school committee member Phil Totino. “I don’t think anything new came out of it, but it’s good for town officials to get a formal reading of what the town thinks.”

Sonnett does glean one consensus view, however. “[Residents] want the downtown area to be a destination rather than a pass-through,” he notes. “We’ll probably have the selectmen appoint a downtown revitalization committee, and get some energy behind it.” He says of the forum, “This is going to help big-time.” What could also help is a “steering committee” formed to address the town’s budget crisis in an as-yet-undetermined manner; 51 forum participants signed up to serve on it.

If it does help, the citizen-forum idea just might catch on elsewhere. In Somerville, Alderman-at-Large Denise Provost proposed a similar confab earlier this year in response to Mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay’s appeal for budget-cutting suggestions. She hopes to hold several evenings’ worth of meetings before the city’s 2004 fiscal year budget is finalized in late June. “I think it makes sense to ask the end users what they think of the services they’re getting,” says Provost.

And keep asking. “If it stops today, this forum is going to be of marginal use,” says Jack Speranza of the Hopkinton Capital Improvements Committee, who hopes that attendees will stay active in town politics. “It’s much more useful if it continues and if people who aren’t involved on a regular basis stay interested and aware.”

“That’s always the risk with these high-energy, feel-good processes,” says Trish Perry. “It’s hard to keep that going.” But Perry is optimistic. “Everybody goes back to the real world,” she says, “but I do think the connections can continue.”

“We’ve got to make their time valuable, and that means continuing the process,” says Eldridge, of his fellow citizens who contributed 11 hours of their time to charting Hopkinton’s future. “Otherwise, they’ll say, ‘Why did I bother?'”

Dorie Clark is a freelance writer living in Somerville.

The Legislature splits the difference between Dr Seuss and the ducklings

From Mayzie to Mrs. Mallard, our official children’s tales are telling

Last December, a sundered Massachusetts was united by a compromise worthy of the greatest statesmen. Robert McCloskey’s classic children’s book about how the Mallard family settled in the Public Gardens, Make Way for Ducklings, had been the odds-on favorite to become the “Official Children’s Book of the Commonwealth,” even though Ducklings is a book about, let’s face it, Boston, written and illustrated by a man from, let’s face it, Maine. But then western Massachusetts (“We are here! We are here!”) put forward its own candidate, Dr. Seuss, a Springfield boy (who grew up as Ted Geisel) whose first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, is about a real street in the state’s third-largest city and whose fanciful landscapes clearly inspired several Big Dig detours.

The issue had been joined since May 2001, when Rep. William Galvin of Canton and Sen. Brian Joyce of Milton, acting on behalf of a group of schoolchildren, petitioned the Great and General Court to grant Make Way for Ducklings official status–actually, the initial bill would have proclaimed Ducklings the Official Book, not children’s book, making it the state’s book for all ages–only to be met by a pro-Seuss counterpropo-sal from a different group of schoolkids. Roughly 18 months later, a compromise bill emerged from committee naming the McCloskey classic as the Commonwealth’s “Official Children’s Book” and declaring the late Dr. Seuss Massachusetts’s “Official Children’s Author and Children’s Illustrator.” (Unable to choose one over the other, these legislative Solomons picked both; no wonder the state budget’s in trouble.) The measure, which also designated the Boston Cream as the state’s official doughnut, was enacted and signed into law on January 1 by Acting Gov. Jane Swift, mother of three, in one of her last official acts.

Are lawmakers foisting upon our young an agenda that’s various but nefarious?

So both ends of the state ended up satisfied and a couple of classes of schoolchildren learned a valuable civics lesson (“How a Bill Becomes a Law After a Whole Lot of Talking and Delays and Interruptions and Petty Politics and Recesses and Vacations”). But what does it mean to anoint as the state’s official bedtime stories the work of these two very different authors? Could it be that lawmakers, wittingly or not, are foisting on our young an agenda that’s various but nefarious? Are they reading between the seemingly innocent lines of Geisel and McCloskey and engaging in a little social engineering?

If so, they have capitalized on regional constituencies going against type. Traditionally, western Massachusetts has been more conservative than the eastern part of the state. Yet it is their boy, Seuss, who is the social subversive of the nominees. In The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Seuss creates an allegorical socio-political landscape that mocks the status quo:

Far off in the fields, on the edge of a cranberry bog, stood the hut of the Cubbins family. From the small door, Bartholomew looked across the huts of the farmers, to the houses of the townsfolk, then to the rich men’s mansions and the noblemen’s castles, up to the great towering palace of the King. It was exactly the same view that King Derwin saw from his balcony, but Bartholomew saw it backward.

It was a mighty view, but it made Bartholomew Cubbins feel mighty small.

Many Massachusetts citizens might feel the same way gazing toward Beacon Hill. But in 500 Hats there is an even more revolutionary scheme at play. When Bartholomew goes to the city and takes off his hat as the King passes by, the lad finds that another, slightly more elegant, hat grows in its place. The same thing happens whenever he removes his headgear, each new hat becoming more elaborate. Bartholomew is innocent of any wrongdoing, yet he is set upon by a thuggish “Captain of the King’s Own Guard” and is saved from execution by a rule that only the bare-headed may be beheaded. But in the end, it’s the King’s greed and vanity–he simply must have the last and most opulent hat –that saves Bartholomew. The State, in the person of the King, has profited from the innocent child’s inability to conform to its draconian laws. Shame!

The King’s Own Guard has a kindlier face in liberal Boston’s entry in the children’s-lit sweepstakes: Ducklings‘ Officer Michael. In McCloskey’s perfect world, Michael spends his days in a little kiosk apparently guarding the Charles River, only raising his voice once, to alert several other policemen (interrupting checker games, whistling-while-twirling-nightstick practice, and soda buying for small contrite runaways) to help a family of ducks cross the street. You see, schoolchildren of the Commonwealth? Authority is our friend!

The regional contradiction is just the start of the mixed messages sent by the state’s official storytellers. When their fishing in the Public Garden comes to naught, McCloskey’s ducks have no qualms about feasting on handouts of peanuts from public employees when not shamelessly panhandling from tourists on the Swan Boats. By contrast, what are we to make of Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, Seuss’s anti-charity screed? Cheerful Thidwick, naïve do-gooder that he is, offers a lift on his antlers to a small Bingle Bug.

There’s room here to spare, and I’m happy to share!
Be my guest and I hope that you’re comfortable there!

Poor Thidwick, whose head bows further down as each successive freeloader climbs aboard, is welfare taken advantage of. After the moose nearly perishes from serial generosity, he finds he must abandon the antlers of obligation to preserve his own infrastructure. The political overtones ring loud, if not clear.

And what lessons do these official books teach about single mothers? Abandoned by her spouse on the pretext of “a trip to see what the rest of the river was like, further on,” Mrs. Mallard, no longer on the city dole, needs no help whatsoever in providing food and transportation for her children, even home-schooling them.

Then there is Seuss’s Mayzie the Lazy Bird. In Horton Hatches the Egg, it is Mayzie who abandons her child– because she’s “tired” and “bored” and has kinks in her leg. Mayzie, like Mrs. Mallard, seems to have no support system in place, but unlike Mrs. Mallard, she shirks her responsibilities (“Work! How I hate it! I’d much rather play!”). Mayzie recruits a passing elephant to provide foster care, then she’s off! While our admiration for Horton the elephant grows, our contempt for Mayzie’s irresponsibility changes to pity when she ruefully sees that her own child has become estranged from her.

As a discouragement to working mothers, we have, in The Cat in the Hat, terrors endured by children abandoned by Mom to the care of a fish. What’s wrong with these women? Elephants! Fish! Why can’t they stay home where they belong? Mrs. Mallard seems perfectly contented, and she has eight kids!

Aside from such coded messages about authority, welfare, and parenting, what other politically charged lessons are buried in the Commonwealth’s official children’s books? Seuss’s Thidwick could be anticipating the influx of Democratic National Convention delegates–whether with resignation, enthusiasm, or sarcasm it’s hard to know–when he says:

A host has to put up with all kinds of pests
For a host, above all, must be nice to his guests

And what does it portend for our favorite-son 2004 presidential candidate when the conservative Mallards reject Louisburg Square for their home? “Because there was no water to swim in”–what kind of an excuse is that for rejecting Massachusetts’s junior senator as a neighbor? Is there a message here?

Like State House reporters, our children must learn to glean meaning from obscure signals. Do the state’s invisible citizens have a voice, if only our leaders would listen (Horton Hears a Who)? Or, like the Mallards, must the homeless be cut off from public assistance and left to fend for themselves? And is Harvard a treasure or a menace? Thidwick, after all, is pursued and nearly shot by men who want his head for the Harvard Club wall.

Even more frightening bogeymen may be lurking in the shadows. On page seven of Make Way for Ducklings, behind the happily snacking ducks, the unmistakable likeness of Richard Nixon glides silently by in the rear of a Swan Boat, staring blankly ahead. What was he doing in Boston and who paid his Swan Boat fare? Massachusetts was the one state he couldn’t win. What did we know and when did we know it?

Their impressionable minds shaped by such tales, now elevated to official status, the children of the Commonwealth will spend their lives pondering questions like these. And, of course, there’s the greatest lesson of all for our cynical, smart-aleck, wonderful children–the one taught at Fenway every fall–summed up in the words of Dr. Seuss:

Oh the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball
Will make you the winningest winner of all . . .
Except when they don’t. Because sometimes they won’t.

Sleep tight, kids. It’ll be okay.

Susannah Garboden is a freelance writer and children’s book reviewer.

The way we tax

With revenue diminishing due to the stock market downturn and rising unemployment rates, the Bay State is experiencing the same fiscal squeeze being felt nationwide. As states across the country struggle with tax levies that no longer seem to be covering the spending obligations they took on during the 1990s boom years, the adequacy, fairness, and efficiency of state revenue regimes have become critical issues. How appropriate, then, it is that this year’s Government Performance Project report, in the February issues of Governing magazine, is titled “The Way We Tax.” In this 50-state evaluation, Governing graded each state on a scale of one to four stars in three areas of taxation: how well it generates money sufficient to support services the state offers; the equity of the system for taxpayers; and how well the tax-collection system is managed. Although the magazine of state and local government concludes that “most state tax systems are inadequate for the task of funding a 21st Century government,” Massachusetts makes it into the middle of the pack, receiving seven out of a possible 12 stars.

One reason for the middling score is the Bay State’s heavy reliance on the personal income tax (third highest among the 50 states). This costs Massachusetts points in both adequacy (income taxes are volatile, more subject to swings in the economy than property or sales tax, and therefore subject to shortfalls) and fairness to taxpayers (this is not fully explained, but the non-means-tested exemption of all services and many goods from the sales tax seems to score against us, a well as placing the bulk of last year’s tax-hike burden on individual tax-filers). But Governing is impressed by the Commonwealth’s management of tax collection. It notes that electronic filings amount to one-third of all tax returns (saving the state time and money), and that last year’s tax amnesty program, expected to generate $42 million, brought in more than $100 million. The magazine also calls the Bay State a “pioneer” in pulling cash directly from the bank accounts of tax debtors.

State
Total Score (stars)
Adequecy of Revenue
Fairness To Taxpayers
Management of System
% of Revenue From Income Tax (rank)
Delaware
11
* * * *
* * *
* * * *
33.1 (28)
Hawaii
9
* * * * * * * * *
31.5 (33)
North Dakota
9
* * * * * * * * *
17.3 (41)
South Dakota
9
* * * * * * * * *
*
Idaho
8
* * * * * * * *
40.3 (20)
Indiana
8
* * * * * * * *
37.0 (23)
Michigan
8
* * * * * * * *
30.5 (35)
Minnesota
8
* * * * * * * *
43.6 (11)
Missouri
8
* * * * * * * *
43.2 (13)
New Mexico
8
* * * * * * * *
20.7 (40)
Utah
8
* * * * * * * *
41.9 (16)
Vermont
8
* * * * * * * *
31.1 (34)
Wisconsin
8
* * * * * * * *
43.8 (9)
Wyoming
8
* * * * * * * *
*
Georgia
7
* * * * * * *
48.2 (7)
Iowa
7
* * * * * * *
36.6 (24)
Kansas
7
* * * * * * *
39.8 (21)
Maine
7
* * * * * * *
43.5 (12)
Maryland
7
* * * * * * *
43.8 (9)
Massachusetts
7
* * * * * * *
57.7 (3)
Nebraska
7
* * * * * * *
40.5 (19)
New Hampshire
7
* * * * * * *
4.3** (42)
New Jersey
7
* * * * * * *
41.5 (17)
New York
7
* * * * * * *
59.0 (2)
North Carolina
7
* * * * * * *
48.2 (7)
Ohio
7
* * * * * * *
42.3 (14)
Oregon
7
* * * * * * *
74.4 (1)
Pennsylvania
7
* * * * * * *
31.7 (32)
Washington
7
* * * * * * *
*
Alaska
6
* * * * * *
*
Arizona
6
* * * * * *
22.7 (38)
Arkansas
6
* * * * * *
31.9 (31)
Connecticut
6
* * * * * *
42.2 (15)
Florida
6
* * * * * *
*
Kentucky
6
* * * * * *
33.8 (27)
Louisiana
6
* * * * * *
24.3 (37)
Montana
6
* * * * * *
37.2 (22)
Oklahoma
6
* * * * * *
35.9 (25)
Rhode Island
6
* * * * * *
41.4 (18)
South Carolina
6
* * * * * *
34.6 (26)
Virginia
6
* * * * * *
55.1 (4)
West Virginia
6
* * * * * *
28.8 (36)
California
5
* * * * *
49.3 (5)
Colorado
5
* * * * *
48.8 (6)
Illinois
5
* * * * *
33.1 (38)
Mississippi
5
* * * * *
21.8 (39)
Texas
5
* * * * *
*
Alabama
4
* * * *
33.0 (30)
Tennessee
4
* * * *
2.5** (43)
Nevada
3
* * *
*

* State has no income tax.
** Income tax applies only to interest and dividends.

Source: Governing magazine (www.governing.com)

 

State
Total Score (stars)
Adequecy of Revenue
Fairness To Taxpayers
Management of System
% of Revenue From Income Tax (rank)
Delaware
11
* * * *
* * *
* * * *
33.1 (28)
Hawaii
9
* * * * * * * * *
31.5 (33)
North Dakota
9
* * * * * * * * *
17.3 (41)
South Dakota
9
* * * * * * * * *
*
Idaho
8
* * * * * * * *
40.3 (20)
Indiana
8
* * * * * * * *
37.0 (23)
Michigan
8
* * * * * * * *
30.5 (35)
Minnesota
8
* * * * * * * *
43.6 (11)
Missouri
8
* * * * * * * *
43.2 (13)
New Mexico
8
* * * * * * * *
20.7 (40)
Utah
8
* * * * * * * *
41.9 (16)
Vermont
8
* * * * * * * *
31.1 (34)
Wisconsin
8
* * * * * * * *
43.8 (9)
Wyoming
8
* * * * * * * *
*
Georgia
7
* * * * * * *
48.2 (7)
Iowa
7
* * * * * * *
36.6 (24)
Kansas
7
* * * * * * *
39.8 (21)
Maine
7
* * * * * * *
43.5 (12)
Maryland
7
* * * * * * *
43.8 (9)
Massachusetts
7
* * * * * * *
57.7 (3)
Nebraska
7
* * * * * * *
40.5 (19)
New Hampshire
7
* * * * * * *
4.3** (42)
New Jersey
7
* * * * * * *
41.5 (17)
New York
7
* * * * * * *
59.0 (2)
North Carolina
7
* * * * * * *
48.2 (7)
Ohio
7
* * * * * * *
42.3 (14)
Oregon
7
* * * * * * *
74.4 (1)
Pennsylvania
7
* * * * * * *
31.7 (32)
Washington
7
* * * * * * *
*
Alaska
6
* * * * * *
*
Arizona
6
* * * * * *
22.7 (38)
Arkansas
6
* * * * * *
31.9 (31)
Connecticut
6
* * * * * *
42.2 (15)
Florida
6
* * * * * *
*
Kentucky
6
* * * * * *
33.8 (27)
Louisiana
6
* * * * * *
24.3 (37)
Montana
6
* * * * * *
37.2 (22)
Oklahoma
6
* * * * * *
35.9 (25)
Rhode Island
6
* * * * * *
41.4 (18)
South Carolina
6
* * * * * *
34.6 (26)
Virginia
6
* * * * * *
55.1 (4)
West Virginia
6
* * * * * *
28.8 (36)
California
5
* * * * *
49.3 (5)
Colorado
5
* * * * *
48.8 (6)
Illinois
5
* * * * *
33.1 (38)
Mississippi
5
* * * * *
21.8 (39)
Texas
5
* * * * *
*
Alabama
4
* * * *
33.0 (30)
Tennessee
4
* * * *
2.5** (43)
Nevada
3
* * *
*

* State has no income tax.
** Income tax applies only to interest and dividends.

Source: Governing magazine (www.governing.com)

State
Total Score (stars)
Adequecy of Revenue
Fairness To Taxpayers
Management of System
% of Revenue From Income Tax (rank)
Delaware
11
* * * *
* * *
* * * *
33.1 (28)
Hawaii
9
* * * * * * * * *
31.5 (33)
North Dakota
9
* * * * * * * * *
17.3 (41)
South Dakota
9
* * * * * * * * *
*
Idaho
8
* * * * * * * *
40.3 (20)
Indiana
8
* * * * * * * *
37.0 (23)
Michigan
8
* * * * * * * *
30.5 (35)
Minnesota
8
* * * * * * * *
43.6 (11)
Missouri
8
* * * * * * * *
43.2 (13)
New Mexico
8
* * * * * * * *
20.7 (40)
Utah
8
* * * * * * * *
41.9 (16)
Vermont
8
* * * * * * * *
31.1 (34)
Wisconsin
8
* * * * * * * *
43.8 (9)
Wyoming
8
* * * * * * * *
*
Georgia
7
* * * * * * *
48.2 (7)
Iowa
7
* * * * * * *
36.6 (24)
Kansas
7
* * * * * * *
39.8 (21)
Maine
7
* * * * * * *
43.5 (12)
Maryland
7
* * * * * * *
43.8 (9)
Massachusetts
7
* * * * * * *
57.7 (3)
Nebraska
7
* * * * * * *
40.5 (19)
New Hampshire
7
* * * * * * *
4.3** (42)
New Jersey
7
* * * * * * *
41.5 (17)
New York
7
* * * * * * *
59.0 (2)
North Carolina
7
* * * * * * *
48.2 (7)
Ohio
7
* * * * * * *
42.3 (14)
Oregon
7
* * * * * * *
74.4 (1)
Pennsylvania
7
* * * * * * *
31.7 (32)
Washington
7
* * * * * * *
*
Alaska
6
* * * * * *
*
Arizona
6
* * * * * *
22.7 (38)
Arkansas
6
* * * * * *
31.9 (31)
Connecticut
6
* * * * * *
42.2 (15)
Florida
6
* * * * * *
*
Kentucky
6
* * * * * *
33.8 (27)
Louisiana
6
* * * * * *
24.3 (37)
Montana
6
* * * * * *
37.2 (22)
Oklahoma
6
* * * * * *
35.9 (25)
Rhode Island
6
* * * * * *
41.4 (18)
South Carolina
6
* * * * * *
34.6 (26)
Virginia
6
* * * * * *
55.1 (4)
West Virginia
6
* * * * * *
28.8 (36)
California
5
* * * * *
49.3 (5)
Colorado
5
* * * * *
48.8 (6)
Illinois
5
* * * * *
33.1 (38)
Mississippi
5
* * * * *
21.8 (39)
Texas
5
* * * * *
*
Alabama
4
* * * *
33.0 (30)
Tennessee
4
* * * *
2.5** (43)
Nevada
3
* * *
*

* State has no income tax.
** Income tax applies only to interest and dividends.

Source: Governing magazine (www.governing.com)

Letters

The commonly used measures of state and local tax burden – revenues per capita and in proportion to personal income – are both apples-and-oranges comparisons, primarily because the revenues are not exclusively from personal taxes. But CommonWealth‘s attempt to improve upon these flawed methods by charting average tax burden as a percentage of median household income (“Weighing the tax burden,” Winter 2003) amounts to comparing apples and marmalade.

Even if your compote of averages and medians made sense, the method would add no useful information about taxes, because it cannot get to the matter of who pays what. At best the results suggest something for which we already had far stronger evidence: that, at least in 1999, an above-average share of Massachusetts tax revenues came from upper-income households.

André Mayer
Cambridge

 

Charter schools aren’t the ones under the gun

Reporter Laura Pappano did not file an accurate report on the Framingham Community Charter School in her article (“Multiple Choice”). Her failure resulted in a very misleading and negative impression of the town of Framingham and leads the informed reader to question the validity and accuracy of the whole article.

Pappano opens her article dramatically, describing an alleged shooting. She then reports on executive director Rob Kaufman and principal Michael Delman forcing an emergency lockdown of students in the Framingham Community Charter School and likens the situation in Framingham to that in the war-torn Balkans. (The charter school is not in Kosovo, but located in busy downtown Framingham in sight of police headquarters and down the street from Framingham Town Hall.) Most surprisingly, Pappano never mentions how the Framingham Police responded to and handled such a serious incident, implying a lack of effort on their part.

On February 24, I spoke with Framingham police chief Steven Carl and learned that there is no police report of the incident. The chief said no person was shot that day and neither Kaufman nor Delman ever called the police to report the “emergency” situation. A minor BB gun incident took place in a different neighborhood that day, but children at the Framingham Community Charter School were never at risk.

Pappano also omits or fails to verify critical facts about charter schools in general and the Framingham Community Charter School in particular. According to the October 2002 state student census, the Framingham public school system is 69 percent white, 26 percent low-income, and 51 percent male. The Framingham Community Charter School is 89 percent white, 11 percent low income, and 66 percent male. It serves a white, affluent, largely male student population that is not representative of the town. In fact, the state is paying big bucks to fund a school that actually increases de facto segregation in the public school system. This is especially relevant because the state has imposed a costly racial balance plan on the town but has exempted the charter school from it.

In the 2003 fiscal year, the state awarded the 8,500 students in the Framingham public schools $1,050 per pupil in Chapter 70 funds. At the same time, the state gave the Framingham Community Charter School $9,600 per pupil, taken from Framingham’s Chapter 70 funds. The state considers charter school students nine times more valuable than Framingham public school students. The state actually took dollars away from the less affluent, more diverse Framingham public school students to give to the charter school students.

Right now Framingham must tackle a disastrous $4 million deficit in a level services budget for the 2004 fiscal year. Half of the projected deficit results from the loss of nearly $2 million in Chapter 70 funds to the charter school. Framingham faces the closure of two award-winning elementary schools and the layoff of 35 town employees, negatively impacting all town services, property values, and the quality of life for the our 66,000 residents and businesses.

According to the charter school’s Kaufman, 100 families — such as selectman candidate and charter school founder Katie Murphy — are not happy with the Framingham public schools. Framingham has over 26,000 households. Is it right to satisfy those 100 families by slashing educational opportunities for 8,500 other children and town services to 26,000 households and 2,000 businesses? Charter schools are dividing and destroying the very communities they purport to serve.

Maureen Dunne
Framingham town meeting member
Framingham

Laura Pappano responds:
The opening scene of my story, at the Framingham Community Charter School, was based on my being there as the incident unfolded. I was in the room as school principal Delman and executive director Kaufman received word over walkie-talkies of a shooting, called students in from outdoors, and put the school in “lockdown mode.” I did not intended to suggest that this situation is typical of life in Framingham, nor to make any observation about police response. Rather, I saw in this incident, and its resonance with Kaufman’s Kosovo experience, a fair war-zone metaphor for the increasingly pitched battle between school districts and Commonwealth charter schools.

Gale force

Gale force

Cape Cod Times blasts offshore wind farms

For there is a health along this golden shore,
Climbing the dunes and hearing sea birds cry,
Braving the winds and stormy ocean’s roar
Under an endless blue or cloudy sky;
Then, freed at last, on soaring, flashing wings
in perfect tune the human spirit soars.

This paean to the Cape Cod seascape, from Dennis poet Elizabeth Wysor, affixed atop the Cape Cod Times editorial page more than a year ago, would seem like the epigraph for an innocuous commentary on the region’s natural beauty. But it was far more than that. It was a poetic shot across the bow, a sign that the most powerful media outlet on the Cape thought that Nantucket Sound’s Horseshoe Shoal is no place for the nation’s first offshore wind farm.

In what has become a pitched battle over Cape Wind Associates’ proposal to generate power through the construction of 130 large wind turbines in a spot about seven miles from Hyannis, no single factor may be as significant as the Times‘s fierce opposition to the project. It is a view hammered home relentlessly on a take-no-prisoners editorial page determined to strangle the wind farm idea in its cradle.

Has the Times launched a journalistic jihad?

“Hostile, tinged with fearmongering,” is the way Cape Wind president James Gordon describes the Times‘s commentaries. “The quantity and voraciousness of their editorials have been unusual,” adds company communications director Mark Rodgers.

In fact, the daily paper’s role has become almost as hot a topic of debate as the project itself, with one key question emerging: Is the Times engaged in vigilant coverage and civic-minded commentary? Or has it launched a dubious journalistic jihad?

Those at the top of the Times masthead say they’ve got nothing to apologize for, in their reports or their editorials. “I’m proud of our coverage and I’m comfortable with our editorial opinions,” says editor Cliff Schechtman. “We’re trying really hard to be fair and balanced, and it’s not always easy.” Publisher Peter Meyer also rejects the notion the Times is engaged in “an angry crusade” against Cape Wind. “We’ve taken a strong editorial position on this,” says Meyer. “[But] as strongly as we feel about the wind farm from an editorial position, we feel more strongly about…our editorial integrity.”

Cape Wind’s James Gordon
calls the coverage “hostile.”

The wind farm debate is a veritable perfect storm of public policy battles. For starters, it represents what Glenn Ritt, editor of the weekly Cape Codder, calls “as important an issue as the Cape has encountered in a generation.” Opponents decry the project as ill-conceived and slapped together, threatening permanent environmental and visual degradation. Supporters sing the praises of a benign installation on the distant horizon generating clean power that would help wean the US off foreign oil. In the context of current events, the proposal has even become intertwined with the war on terror.

Then throw in the fascinating array of passions and forces aligned on both sides. Cape Wind rolls out sympathizers ranging from the Conservation Law Foundation and Greenpeace to Physicians for Social Responsibility founder Dr. Helen Caldicott and longtime Boston television meteorologist Bruce Schwoegler. Allies of the chief opposition group–the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound–range from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce and the Humane Society of the United States to state Attorney General Thomas Reilly and part-time Martha’s Vineyard resident Walter Cronkite, who went so far as to make an ad for the Alliance.

Finally, mix in the might of the Cape Cod Times–the 800-pound gorilla of local media–and the stewardship of Schechtman, who is widely described as a tough-minded editor intent on producing a more muscular paper. “For good or for ill, it’s the newspaper of record down there,” says Steve Young, broadcast director of National Public Radio’s Cape and Islands outlet, WCAI.

No one knows how this drama will play out and whether Cape Wind–which says it has already spent about $8 million to develop the project–will launch a groundbreaking renewable-energy plant or find itself on the losing end of an expensive experiment. Whatever the outcome, the Cape Cod Times has used the occasion to assert itself as the pre-eminent player in local politics and policy on the Cape, unafraid to use all the editorial force it can muster.

Tough Times

When asked who’s behind the Times‘s staunch opposition to the wind farm plan, officials at Cape Wind Associates don’t hesitate. “I would attribute that, by and large, to Cliff Schechtman,” says Rodgers, the company spokesman.

It’s not a bad guess. Schechtman is an aggressive, ambitious editor who came to the Times–a 53,000-circulation daily owned by Ottaway Newspapers, a subsidiary of Dow Jones, since 1966–from the Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Times Leader seven years ago. Besides overseeing news coverage, Schechtman also sits on the paper’s five-person editorial board, which determines the views expressed in Times editorials. (At many larger newspapers, including The Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, there is a formal line of demarcation between news reporters, who report to the editor, and editorial-page editors, who report to the publisher. But at other newspapers in the region–including the Lowell Sun, the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, andMetroWest Daily News–it is common for the editor to sit on the editorial board.) That makes Schechtman the Times‘s main man.

Times editor Cliff Schectman:
defending a “pristine area.”

Fans and detractors alike describe Schechtman in similar terms–a sometimes abrasive, confrontational, hard-driving man who understands his outsider status and has no intention of playing the part of avuncular country editor at a small-town daily. “Communities want aggressive newspapers,” says Schechtman. “When I got here, I think we were a little too soft and cuddly. We don’t want to hurt anyone, [but] I think an outspoken, vocal paper is good for the community.”

His arrival, observers say, seems to have coincided with a conscious effort to transform the Times, with its editorial staff of about 75, into a larger journalistic presence–one that earns prizes, kudos, and attention. Its signature achievement was a prize-winning 1997 series on toxic waste problems at the Massachusetts Military Reservation (see “Raking Muck on the Cape,” CW, Spring 1999). Months in the making, the five-day series was a herculean effort for a paper of modest resources. In order to open up space for the stories, the paper had to shrink its news hole for months afterward.

Since then, Times staffers have been sent to chase stories in such faraway locales as Belgium and Alaska. The business editor recently traveled to Brazil to learn why so many immigrants from that country are settling on the Cape. “It is a paper where they encourage you to think big, to be aggressive,” says political reporter Jack Coleman.

Tilting at wind farms

Aggressive has certainly been the word for the Times‘s treatment of the wind farm story, with news reports and editorials sometimes working in tandem. On February 28, for instance, the Times published a story reporting on a letter Attorney General Reilly sent to Gov. Mitt Romney asking him to take a more active role in halting the project. The next day, even though Romney had not yet seen the letter, the Times ran an article reiterating the governor’s previously stated position that he is “opposed to wind farms off Cape Cod.” Also that day, the Times editorialized on the matter, insisting that “Romney must work closely with Reilly, become more familiar with the details of the project and support his call for a moratorium.” In boxing, that would be a three-punch combination.

If there is consensus on anything, it’s that the Times‘s editorials–they often begin with the phrase, “this is another in a series of occasional editorials on offshore wind farms”–have been insistent and more than occasional. Times editorials have railed against the “proposed mega wind farm”; called for the state’s congressional delegation to “protect” Nantucket Sound; endorsed Reilly’s request that federal officials stymie the wind farm until a better review process is in place; warned that “21st Century squatters on Nantucket Sound” are creating a “Wild West of wind farms”; and told environmental groups not to be fooled by the Cape Wind “smokescreen.” In making their case, the editorials have not been above sarcasm.

“Why don’t we just surround the Cape with windmills?” declared one editorial. “Perhaps the Barnstable County Commissioners should join the 21st-Century gold rush and stake their claim on all waters within two miles of Cape Cod beaches.”

In waging their war of words, the Times has even fought a battle over imagery that is by itself worth the price of admission. Whereas Cape Wind likes to call its project “an offshore wind park,” words with a soft, benign feel, the Times calls it “a huge industrial power plant,” conjuring up images of smokestacks and transformers. The paper also created a logo to accompany the wind farm editorials: a narrow silhouette of the Cape surrounded by menacing-looking wind turbines.

For the Times, the wind farm issue seems even to have become a political litmus test. Last fall, the newspaper didn’t even invite incumbent state Rep. Matthew Patrick, a Falmouth Democrat who is pro-wind farm, for an editorial board interview before endorsing his Republican opponent, wind farm foe and Barnstable resident Larry Wheatley. (The Democratic-controlled House voted to seat Patrick in March, ignoring an order by a Barnstable Superior Court judge to hold a new election because ballot irregularities may have tainted Patrick’s 17-vote win.) Schechtman admits there was criticism of the endorsement in the newsroom. But even after the election, aTimes editorial sternly warned Patrick that he “is going to encounter rough waters if he stubbornly resists legitimate concerns about the CapeWind project.”

In a post-campaign op-ed column that appeared in the Times, Patrick shot back. “Offshore wind farms have existed for years in Northern European waters and the experience has been quite the opposite of what [the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound] would have you believe,” Patrick wrote. “But most people don’t know that because their major source of information, theCape Cod Times, does not want any facts to confuse the issue…. We all need the newspaper of record to be objective and open. That has not been the case to date.”

Ocean views

Privately, some observers say they have been taken aback by the ferocity of the Times‘s opposition. Certainly, Cape Wind officials never figured on such an unfriendly reception. “Every paper’s entitled to their editorial position,” says spokesman Rodgers. But, he adds, “they write about it so often and they are so far out on one end.” Gordon, the company’s chief executive, calls the paper’s editorializing a “relentless drumbeat.”

Most of the editorials have been written by editorial-page editor Bill Mills, but “I’ve put in a few [para]graphs,” Schechtman allows. “We think the issue is that important. The problem is the issue is also that complicated. The public needs a lot of depth to understand the issue.”

For the editor, as well as publisher Meyer, the issue seems to come down to aesthetics. Schechtman sees the Cape’s natural beauty at risk. “We are opposing something we think will industrialize another pristine area,” he says, adding his distaste for “the notion that a private corporation can profit from a pristine public resource.”

Meyer, who lives in Osterville, rhapsodizes about shoreline views. “Little did I know that someone would be putting structures in the ocean behind me,” he says.

Looking at the wind farm issue this way, the Times honchos see eye to eye with the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. Providence Journal editorial-page editor Robert Whitcomb, a staunch advocate of the wind farm proposal, characterizes these opponents as “a bunch of rich people taking care of their views.” The alliance also has the support of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, as well as local chambers representing Falmouth, Hyannis, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Yarmouth, members of which depend heavily on the tourist trade. Thus Rodgers sees business reasons for theTimes‘s hostility. “That’s their advertisers,” he says.

Whatever the Times‘s motivations, not all local media outlets covering the controversy share its just-say-no stance. “I feel very strongly that the entire issue has to be framed within the context of a national energy policy,” says Glenn Ritt, of the Cape Codder. “We remain unconvinced one way or another about the actual siting issue.” The biweekly Cape Cod Voice has adopted a skeptical but moderate position, holding that the wind farm isn’t a great idea but land-based alternatives should be considered.

Then there are publications that actively support the concept. “As the first in the nation to allow wind turbines in our shallow offshore waters, Cape Cod can lead the fight against terror” by reducing our dependence on Middle East oil, editorialized Walter Brooks, a veteran journalist who is editor and publisher of the Best Read Guide and Cape Cod Today, an online newspaper. In an interview, Brooks says that his mind is “boggled” that a paper with the Times‘s solid record on the environment would be so opposed to developing a new, renewable energy source.

And off the Cape, the editorial pages of The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and Providence Journal have all weighed in, to varying degrees, behind the wind farm idea, arguing it would provide a desperately needed source of clean energy. “It’s extremely bad environmental policy to block it,” says the Journal‘s Whitcomb.

Playing it straight?

No one disputes the Times‘s right to its editorial opinion, even if that opinion is expressed in ways that seem excessive, at times. The more serious question is, has the paper’s editorial stance colored its news coverage?

There are some grounds for asking. In April 2002, a Times story about a meeting at Barnstable Town Hall reported that supporters of Cape Wind’s bid to build a data tower in Nantucket Sound, the first step in developing the wind farm, “were clearly in the minority,” a point made several times. Cape Wind officials insisted that the crowd was split evenly, if not leaning in their favor, something they believed transcripts of the meeting proved.

Last November, the Times reported on conflicting polls released by Cape Wind and the Alliance. Not surprisingly, the Cape Wind poll showed 55 percent of Cape residents in support of the project while the Alliance claimed 58 percent were opposed. The one objective expert quoted in the story characterized the Cape Wind poll as “straightforward,” but charged that the Alliance poll “kind of loaded the deck” to influence the results. Still, the story ran under the headline DUELING WIND FARM POLLS ENCOURAGE SKEPTICISM, suggesting neither poll was to be trusted.

And just before Election Day, the Times reported that Rep. Patrick had collected campaign contributions from Cape Wind executives, and gave prominence to challenger Wheatley’s charges that such donations were “inappropriate.” In that same article, Wheatley acknowledged accepting contributions from members of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound but said he would not take money from officers of that organization. Only after the election was it reported in the Times that Wheatley had in fact received funds from members of the Alliance’s board of directors.

These and other news stories inspired one public critic–environment writer and former Times staffer Wendy Williams–to pen an editorial for Cape Cod Today blasting “the consistent inaccuracies routinely appearing in [theTimes‘s] rabid coverage of the proposed wind farm.”

The Times admits some mistakes have been made along the way, but not many. Schechtman says, “I think they [Cape Wind] were right” about the head count at Barnstable Town Hall, but that the transcript proving their point arrived long after the story appeared. “I regret the whole incident.” As to the overly even-handed title on the poll story, he says “that was the product of a very specific conversation I had with the copy desk” about maintaining neutrality in headlines. Schechtman dismisses the issues raised in the political fundraising story as “inside baseball.”

“I have never been pressured to write a certain way.”

But for his part, reporter Jack Coleman, who wrote both the Patrick story and the post-election column on Wheatley, is apologetic. He says he reported the facts on both campaigns’ finances as soon as he knew them, but he regrets that the Patrick article appeared before the balloting while Wheatley’s contributions weren’t detailed until later.

“I think my October 28 story about donations from Cape Wind and the Alliance going to Patrick and Wheatley was unfair not just to Patrick, but to Cape Wind as well,” he says. Coleman is quick to deny that the paper follows any preset agenda in its reporting, however. “I have never been pressured to write a certain way or not to write a certain way,” he states.

Indeed, some observers vouch for the basic fairness of the wind farm news coverage. “They really have spent a lot of ink on [the editorial position]” says WCAI’s Young. “At the same time, though, their reporting is very solid.” Seth Rolbein, editor and publisher of the Cape Cod Voice, says theTimes‘s “regular reporting on the issue has been generally good.” Larry Rosenberg, chief of public affairs for the Army Corps of Engineers–the federal oversight agency that is preparing a draft environmental impact statement on the project–says, “I do not see the editorial position of theCape Cod Times affecting the reporting.”

Even between the main combatants in the wind farm dispute, who have good reason to have dramatically different views of the Cape Cod Times, there is broad agreement that the news coverage has not been an extension of the editorial page.

“There’s no question that on the editorial page, they’ve made their voice heard…. I give them credit for recognizing the magnitude of the project and what’s at stake,” says Isaac Rosen, executive director of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. “I have not seen any bleed-over from the editorial position of the Cape Cod Times to the news pages. I think they’ve been unbelievably balanced.”

Cape Wind is more grudging in its approval, but it credits two main reporters on the story, Coleman and John Leaning, for their professionalism. “I think early on you could see a lot of skepticism in the reporting,” asserts company president Gordon. “But now, with all the public hearings and meetings we’ve had on the project, I see the reporting evolving into honest and thorough coverage.”

Hearing voices

And as relentless as the paper’s editorial page has been in tearing down the project, it has opened its “My View” opinion columns to a large number of wind farm backers, including Patrick, Gordon, Rodgers, and Cape Wind vice president of regulatory affairs Dennis Duffy. Francis Broadhurst, a former chairman of the Barnstable Board of Selectmen and a regular Times columnist, has written a number of pieces extolling the project and attacking its detractors.

The salty Broadhurst says, “I’m not too goddamned pleased” with his paper’s editorial stance. But he does say that, except for removing a reference to one of the project’s biggest foes “because they were afraid of a lawsuit,”Times editors have not tinkered with his dissenting copy.

And while the Times may bruit its anti-wind farm views far and wide, it may not have entirely convinced its own staff. “There’s quite a split on theTimes itself, quite a few reporters who support the wind farm,” says Broadhurst. Schechtman himself acknowledges “some healthy debate” in the newsroom. Coleman, for instance, thinks the “paper should at least wait until environmental reviews are done” before making an editorial call on the project. Thus, the intensity of the Times‘s editorial assault may have been as surprising for some inside the building as it was for readers, let alone Cape Wind.

The Cape Cod Times anti-wind farm crusade is a classic example of an activist newspaper choosing to become a player–if not the key player–in a pressing public dispute. The wisdom of that choice can be debated. There’s no question that the Times has been tough on Cape Wind’s cherished wind farms, and that, on the opinion page, at least, it is well within the newspaper’s rights to do so. Whether the tone and tenor of the editorial attack has overwhelmed the paper’s other roles–providing balanced news coverage and a forum for vigorous public debate–is in the eye of the beholder. Right now, the beholder who counts is Times editor Cliff Schechtman. And Coleman, for one, defends the man behind the paper’s news and editorial voice.

“Some people I think find him too driven,” he says. “But they might not be in the right business then.”

Mark Jurkowitz is the media writer for The Boston Globe.

Historian Jackson Lears reconciles the American work ethic with our attraction to every gambling scheme under the sun

Historian Jackson Lears reconciles the American work ethic with our attraction to every gambling scheme under the sun

It’s often said, better to be lucky than good, but in truth, most of us want to be both. Virtue may be its own reward, but who among the virtuous doesn’t want to hit the jackpot as well? Things start to get dicey, however, when we confuse good fortune with innate goodness. We start to mistake right-place-at-the-right-time serendipity for talent and rectitude; we make role models out of opportunists and blame the hapless for their own misfortunes. Still, even when we acknowledge that forces beyond our control multiply–or spoil–the fruits of our righteous labors, it’s hard to resist the notion that we are masters of our own fate. Sometimes we even tell ourselves we make our own luck. That can be a useful motivational tool, especially when luck seems not to be coming along of its own accord, but it’s also a form of self-flattery. Any breaks we happen to get we are entitled to because they are of our own making. And when our luck runs out, it’s hard not to feel we’ve been wronged.

The tension between chance and merit (and frequent confusion of the two) can be seen throughout human history, but nowhere more than in American society, where a culture has been built out of two very different means of achieving success: the work ethic and the big gamble. This nation was built by risk-takers: settlers who opened frontier after frontier; immigrants who left tradition-bound homes to seek their fortunes in a strange and often inhospitable new land that promised opportunity for all but guaranteed success for none; tinkerers and salesmen who started from nothing and built great empires of industry and wealth. But as a society that sees itself as rewarding hard work and responsible behavior, we are loath to exalt the gambler–the reckless adventurer who would blow it all on the slim chance of striking it rich–as a cultural icon. We make heroes out of pioneers and entrepreneurs, but those who blow their paychecks at Suffolk Downs or Foxwoods are cast in cautionary tales.

With casino gambling once again in the air–nothing like a fiscal crisis to prompt a rethinking of moral objections to indulging, if not exploiting, the weakness for wagering among our fellow citizens–I struck up a conversation about chance and its consequences with Rutgers University historian Jackson Lears, author of the new book Something for Nothing: Luck in America. I did so because it seemed to me that talk of slot machines (or payments from out-of-state operators for keeping them illegal here) is only the newest way the state–with the acquiescence of its citizens–flirts with fate and fortune, cashing in on the winnings. First, of course, there’s the Lottery, which pumps up municipal coffers and drains wallets yet never seems to inspire a taxpayer revolt. Then there is the stock market, which in the roaring ’90s filled the state treasury to overflowing, allowing the Commonwealth to invest in schools and pay off Big Dig overruns even as it rolled back taxes. But now, amidst recriminations from the right for profligate spending and from the left for corporate giveaways, no one portrays the state’s current fiscal shortfall as the margin call that it is.

Though not a big gambler himself, Lears was exposed to what he calls the “culture of chance” from an early age. “I’m probably one of the few kids of my generation or any other who grew up with slot machines in his house,” he says. “Slot machines were legal in Maryland when I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s. My father was in the furniture business–he sold to hotels, restaurants, and so on–and one of his clients was a little short of cash and decided he’d give my father a nickel machine and a dime machine in lieu of cash payment. We had these things in our house when we were kids. The babysitters pumped a lot of their earnings into them, to the point where my father had to lock them up, because the babysitters’ parents were not amused.”

But as a scholar and culture critic, the “epiphany” that Lears says put him on a gambling roll came on a subway platform in lower Manhattan in 1994. “It was the middle of the so-called Republican Revolution, the Gingrich-led revolution, the Contract with America,” Lears recalls. “The din of talk about personal moral responsibility and the corrupting effects of welfare and other forms of handout was pervasive. And yet on the subway platform I noticed a long line of people at the lottery machine. I began to think, well, these are people who, even if they might be hardworking, are nevertheless skeptical about the idea that the only way to succeed is through hard work. They seem to implicitly recognize that you don’t always get what you deserve, you get what you get. Sometimes luck has a good deal to do with that.”

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

CommonWealth: Let me tell you about the epiphany I had about the public ambivalence toward gambling. Several years ago I took my family on a vacation through the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest and we ended up at Las Vegas. We stayed for one night at the MGM Grand and, you know, you can’t turn around in one of these places without seeing a slot machine. You can’t walk anywhere without passing through the casino.

Lears: Right. They’ve arranged it very carefully.

CommonWealth: Absolutely. My wife and I are not big gamblers, but my kids, who were ages 11 and 9 at the time, all they wanted to do was watch Mom and Dad gamble. But that was the one thing the casino would not allow them to do. Anytime a kid would slow down and start to watch the action there would be some casino centurion to hustle him along. There were employees whose entire job seemed to be keeping the kids moving through the casino. So even there in the gambling capital of the United States, a place that increasingly presents itself to the world as a family resort, the main activity and the main attraction is treated as something we need to shield our children’s eyes from. What does that tell you about official attitudes toward this increasingly popular and increasingly legalized activity?

Lears: Yes, well, I think it’s very revealing. I think it suggests how deeply our ethic of self-control remains embedded in our everyday life, even in the midst of the temples of chance that we call casinos. I think there is a desire to shield children from any sort of adult behavior that is out of control, whether it’s drunkenness or sexual misbehavior or drug addiction or gambling. Gambling is traditionally linked with these vices, these sins against the ethic of self-control, ranging these days from tobacco smoking to idiosyncratic sexual tastes. The gambler has always, in what is still a deeply Protestant culture, stood with these other violators of the ethic of self-control–the drunk, the prostitute, the dope addict, the sexual pervert, all of these things. He is a risk-taker, but he’s an illicit risk-taker. So there’s a vestige of disapproval there, even –ironically, as you say–in a place that is encouraging adults, at least, to empty their pockets with abandon into the machines and the games. It’s indicative of how strong that moral censure remains.

“People were outraged by the fact that [a convcted felon] had won the lottery.”

I was in Atlanta a few years ago when the Georgia state lottery was won by a man who happened to be a convicted felon. He was out of jail and back in normal society, but he was a convicted felon. The letters page in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was full of people who were outraged by the fact that this man had won the lottery, the assumption being that even though this was entirely a product of chance, there was something immoral about an ex-convict winning it.

CommonWealth: Nobody that bad should be that lucky, I guess.

Lears: Exactly. So there’s still that sort of confusion between moral reward and mere chance.

CommonWealth: You say in your book, “the debate about gambling reveals fundamental fault lines in the American character, sharp tensions between an impulse toward risk and a zeal for control.” That is, America preaches the work ethic, but it’s also the land of opportunity, a place where anybody can strike it rich. What do you think this tension in American character means for notions of virtue and obligation? Have we Americans come to terms with the role of chance in our own society?

Lears: I don’t think so. In many ways, the last 25 years or so of our political and cultural history have seen a growing insistence on the old 19th-century bourgeois ethic of personal responsibility, disciplined
achievement, the work ethic as the only means of economic security. The welfare state, which has come under so much criticism politically from the center and right, was rooted in an awareness of accident. It was an attempt to counteract the destructive power of chance in people’s lives. It was a recognition that many people were economically destitute or at least insecure for reasons that had nothing to do with their own virtue or lack of it. It had everything to do with the vagaries of fate, beginning with who their parents happened to be and how much money they happened to have, but going on from there to the possibility of industrial accidents or illness or lost jobs and the like. I think welfare-state measures generally were efforts to acknowledge that chance and accident and bad luck were everywhere and that a humane society attempts, as best it’s able, to counteract them. Of course, no one can eliminate chance altogether, but a humane society, it seems to me, does its best to counteract it.

CommonWealth: We tend not to talk, as a society, very much about what happens when your luck turns bad. But risk- taking has always been admired and rewarded throughout American history, from the settlement of the frontier to the building of industry by our mythologized self-made man. At the same time, games of chance have traditionally been frowned upon, if not outlawed. That official attitude has been breaking down gradually, to the point today that most state governments have gotten into the gaming business themselves. Here in Massachusetts, the Lottery is regularly touted as one of the most successful in the nation; that is, it manages to get more people to spend more of their money playing these games–and losing it–than other states do. At the same time, it’s hard to deny that buying a Mass Millions ticket with the hope, however slim it may be, of a personal payoff is more fun and less painful than having taxes withheld from your paycheck. And nobody makes you do it. What does it mean when government accommodates, and cashes in on, people’s preference for trying their luck over paying their taxes?

Lears: Well, you can certainly understand how government officials, faced with the catastrophic consequences of raising taxes–politically, that is, the near certainty they’ll be voted out of office at the next election, as our Gov. Jim Florio was here in New Jersey in the early ’90s–are looking for alternatives that are more politically palatable and that will allow them to stay in office. And there are good reasons that these are more politically palatable alternatives, as you say. Nevertheless, the consequences, I think, are undesirable in many ways. It reinforces a regressive revenue system, a regressive means of raising public monies. It is not a means of funding necessary public services that takes the actual needs of the public into account. It’s really very much a stopgap measure, and it involves a kind of refusal to carefully manage money for public purposes.

In that way, it’s roughly analogous to the larger problem that we have in the society. At the highest federal levels and state levels as well, there’s a pervasive fear of planning. And for good reason. We have examples where planners have made a muddle of economies, and, of course, we always have the starkest examples of the Soviet Union and other overtly managed economies. But in the last 25 years or so we have swung to the opposite extreme. Free-market fundamentalism has returned to the center of debate in a way it has not been since the 1920s. As John Maynard Keynes said some 65 years or so ago, when the capital development of a country is left to the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill done. I think the willingness to leave revenue raising in the states up to the lottery system and the vagaries of chance, in that respect–who’s going to buy a lottery ticket and who isn’t–ensures that the people who are least able to support public-sector expenditures are the ones who pay for a disproportionate amount of them.

CommonWealth: Nonetheless, as the fiscal pressures have mounted, more and more states seem to be getting interested in expanded gambling as a way to avoid or at least limit spending cuts and tax hikes, two options that are politically unpalatable for different reasons. In Massachusetts, there’s been some flirtation with casino gambling. Ironically, one of the strongest arguments against it is the damage it would do to our existing form of gambling, which is the Lottery. Still, is it only a matter of time before our puritanical streak, not only in Massachusetts but elsewhere across the country, gives out, and there are gambling parlors from sea to shining sea?

Lears: I think that in the last 25 years government has been so delegitimized, public spending has been so thoroughly called into question, and taxes have been in such bad odor among the public and among the electorate–or at least that part of it that votes regularly, which tends to be the most affluent part and the one that has the most to lose in terms of taxation–that it’s quite likely that casinos will continue to spread, as the only available alternative for revenue enhancement.

I don’t think it’s just puritanism that holds us back when it comes to legalizing casinos. I think there are other legitimate arguments. I don’t think casinos, for example, are the best way to rebuild economically depressed areas. I don’t think these are the kinds of jobs that are in the long run likely to contribute that much to the well-being of a community. I don’t think it’s just concern about the individual gambler’s soul that gives us pause when it comes to legalizing gambling. I think it’s the whole package that comes with
gambling. On the other hand, I put myself among those who say that it’s really impossible to prohibit gambling as we attempted to do in the middle part of this century with more success than we’ve had before or since–though never complete success even then–from about the 1910s to the 1960s. That always leads to police corruption and flouting the law and more and more pervasive under-the-table sorts of gambling. I’m not opposed to making gambling available and regulating it because I think it’s going to happen one way or another.

CommonWealth: For a while, Gov. Romney toyed with a novel idea in this regard, which is the notion of demanding millions of dollars in “blocking” payments from casinos in Connecticut and racetracks in Rhode Island that have slot machines, in exchange for not allowing legalized gaming in Massachusetts which was to expand. This would have kept us out of the gambling business, but still put us in the rackets.

Lears: Yes, it sounds a lot like protection money, doesn’t it?

CommonWealth: It does, it does. You have to give them credit for inventiveness, I think.

Lears: Audacity, too. Points for audacity on that.

CommonWealth: Absolutely. But gambling is not the only way the tension between luck and deserts, risk and persistence, plays out in American society and in our politics. Ever since I saw that your book was coming out, I’ve found myself coming back to the title, Something for Nothing, as a way of thinking about the situation our state, like many others, finds itself in. For much of the 1990s, the revenue was flowing into the state’s coffers faster than it could be spent. This allowed for an enormous investment in our schools and prescription drug coverage for senior citizens, just to cite a couple of initiatives. All this could be done without raising taxes. Indeed, more than 40 tax cuts were signed by three successive governors in our state. If that’s not getting something for nothing, I don’t know what is. But that notion doesn’t seem to be informing the way we talk about our current budget crisis. Might it be easier to face up to the tough choices we now have before us if we recognized how much of a free ride we’ve been on up to now?

“There were a lot of dot-com millionaires getting something for nothing, too.”

Lears: That’s probably true. But it is important to remember that the reason the state was getting something for nothing is that there were a lot of dot-com millionaires getting something for nothing, too. Where that money was coming from was the ridiculously inflated stock prices of the ’90s. Of course, we’ve seen a lot of air escape from that balloon in just the last two or three years. But at least when the going was good, the Massachusetts lawmakers tried to spread some of the money around for the public good. And I would applaud them for that. I wish New Jersey had done that, frankly. But I agree. The free riders, on whom the state was in turn riding, were the guys who were issuing IPOs on companies that had never made a profit and yet were vastly inflating their value in the stock market and paying huge sums to investors. The big flaw in the picture was that so many economists and soothsayers predicted that things were just going to go up and up, that we had somehow escaped the business cycle. As J.P. Morgan once famously and laconically put it, when asked to predict the market: The market will fluctuate.

CommonWealth: A safe bet, if there ever was one.

Lears: Yes, that was a safe prediction. But we actually had economists, as I’m sure you remember, predicting the Dow Jones Industrial Average was going to hit 36,000, that there was no reason that we couldn’t just keep going up and up and up. A lot of investors became convinced of that, too. Now we’re realizing that there isn’t the proverbial free lunch after all.

CommonWealth: So now today, in all the states, people are asking, are there ways to restrain spending without cutting into what government is rightly obligated to do for its citizens, or does living up to our obligations mean digging deeper into our pockets, in the form of tax increases? It seems to me, one of the things that’s missing in that conversation is an honest debate about what it takes to carry out, in the long run, those initiatives that, in the ’90s, we began on the grounds they were affordable within a level of revenue nobody had to make any sacrifice to produce.

Lears: Exactly, yes.

CommonWealth: We never really had the discussion about whether these commitments were sustainable, or if we’d be willing to sustain them when the going got tougher.

Lears: Yes, that’s exactly right. It’s because of the delusion of the New Economy ideology that we had somehow escaped the fluctuations of the past and we were going to move forward into this endlessly expansive future. There were a lot of people making those claims and a lot of them are still around; they haven’t been put in jail like Enron executives. I’m not saying they should be, but they do have some explaining to do, as far as I’m concerned. This fellow James Glassman, the coauthor of Dow 36,000, is a perfect example. Now he’s working for the Heritage Foundation and he’s appearing regularly on television applauding President Bush’s tax cut program, and we’re supposed to accept this as disinterested expertise. I find it very strange.

CommonWealth: And what about those attitudes about risk and reward throughout society and particularly the economy, not just government? In the 1990s, risk-taking was elevated like never before. Entrepreneurship was the new business virtue. Public capital markets became sources of funding for start-ups, whether they were making profits or not. And stock options became part of the paycheck, not only for top executives but for many employees all the way down the line. For a while, I think we were all guilty of a bit of irrational exuberance. But wasn’t there something good about all that enthusiasm for innovation and change? Now that our luck has run out, in a sense, do you see the pendulum, the public sentiment, swinging back to what you called the zeal for control? Have we fallen out of love with fate and fortune? And have we lost something as a result?

Lears: Well, the metaphor about waking up from a drunken binge with a horrific hangover certainly comes to mind. And there’s a certain element of clarity that comes with sobriety, a certain capacity to see things more clearly the next morning than one was seeing them the night before. To a certain extent, it’s salutary that we don’t have quite the same rhetoric of risk floating around at the highest levels. One thing that was happening in the ’90s, it seems to me, is that the people who were celebrating risk the most loudly were those who were the most insulated from it. Two-thirds of the population, at least for much of the decade, experienced income stagnation, not rising incomes. It was only toward the very end of the decade that we saw any sort of general increase in incomes outside of a narrow slice of the population, the top quarter or third of the population. Most of the people, most workers in America, were experiencing job insecurity and risk all along. But there’s no doubt that the stock market collapse has reminded us of the dark side of chance and reasserted the desire for control. The problem is how to respond to this with appropriately balanced and measured public policies that don’t extinguish risk-taking. We’re talking, for example, about Securities and Exchange Commission regulations. I think most Americans, even those who were beneficiaries of the ’90s boom, would agree that it is appropriate to track down those people who are essentially the three-card monte men of the ’90s. They were basically playing with marked cards; they were playing rigged games. The Enron and WorldCom and Adelphia and other executives who have been exposed–and doubtless many others as well–they’ve been exposed for doing what 19th-century professional sharpers did on riverboats, which was to rig the game. They weren’t really gambling at all, but they were forcing other people to gamble in ways that the ordinary investor wasn’t even aware of.

CommonWealth: We all at least deserve to know the odds.

Lears: Precisely. We always hear about a level playing field, but we also need an unrigged casino. I mean, if we’re going to play in the casino, we need to be sure it’s not rigged in favor of the house. So this is a salutary return to some sobriety. But I don’t think the American public is ever going to fall out of love with fate and fortune because I think our everyday lives are always going to be chance-ridden. I don’t think there’s any way of avoiding that. I also think we have this powerful and in many ways benign entrepreneurial mythology in this country that does encourage people to start over and take chances. I applaud that. What I don’t like is to see it being manipulated for cynical purposes by people who claim to be entrepreneurs but who are really stacking the deck and are not taking chances, but are instead forcing other people to take chances that they’re not even fully cognizant of.

CommonWealth: I want to ask you about one other area of increasing uncertainty in American life. We’re sitting here in February in a state of “orange alert” for terrorist attack. President Bush is pressing the case for war against Iraq, and tensions with North Korea are mounting. So I have to ask you about how America is dealing with this new state of insecurity we seem to be in. Toward the end of your book, you quote the legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen, who says, “Contemporary Americans, in particular, are not well equipped to deal with arbitrary threats because, in so many realms of life, we refuse to accept the role of chance.” With the White House telling us to pack survival kits of bottled water and duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal up our windows, how are we Americans coping with the current uncertainty?

Lears: Well, speaking for my household, we’re pretty depressed. Generally speaking, not to belabor the obvious, it’s not only the collapse of the bull market but the terrorist attacks of September 11th that have reminded us of the dark side of chance as well–the cruelties of fate and how completely arbitrary they can be and how they can erupt unpredictably, literally out of a clear blue sky. So that catastrophe naturally has reasserted all of our desires for control and predictability in life. Once again, the problem is how to respond intelligently at the level of public policy, as well as our everyday life, to acknowledge the inevitability of chance and unpredictability and not to fall victim to the delusion that we can control all outcomes, whether it’s through duct tape or more sophisticated forms of technology. For a long time in this country, long before September 11th, there has been a kind of ironic consequence of growing medical and other forms of technological control over our lives. As we are doing better statistically, as we are safer from crime and living longer lives, we’re doing better but we’re feeling worse. People are more anxious, even though they’re more protected. Well, of course, since September 11th, the question of how protected we all are has once again been thrown into doubt, and we have once again turned to technological solutions to try to protect ourselves.

We need to be able to evaluate, critically and thoughtfully, what the government is proposing to us. That’s hard to do, because I think it’s in the interest of the Bush policy agenda that Americans stay in a state of more or less permanent terror, as a permanent war psychology descends across the land. That’s the Orwellian side of things. If we’re constantly anxious, constantly fearful about threats and unsure about where to even look for them, then we are naturally going to be more willing to surrender some of our civil liberties, maybe all of them, in exchange for homeland security. We may be willing to undertake or support foreign wars that are at best dubious solutions to the problem of protecting us from terrorist attacks and that may in fact generate higher possibility of terrorist attacks, as I think everyone, even the advocates of this war, admit. The idea of a quick and an easy war with Iraq is problematic enough, but even if the war itself were quick and easy, then we would face the long peace, the long occupation, the attempt to maintain order and try somehow to remake that part of the world in our image. That seems to me a very dangerous and delusional goal. Once again, I think it’s a question of trying to balance chance and control, to acknowledge the need for control but the impossibility of ever imposing it completely–the danger, in fact, of trying to do so.

Two books explore the achievement gap between white and minority students

Two books explore the achievement gap between white and minority students

Bridging the Achievement Gap
Edited by John E. Chubb and Tom Loveless
Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, 236 pages.

Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students
By Theresa Perry, Claude Steele, and Asa Hilliard III
Beacon Press, Boston, 176 pages.

There was something almost surreal about the official reaction (expressions of relief) to and the press coverage (proclamations of triumph) of the news that 90 percent of the graduating high school class of 2003 statewide had gotten over the MCAS bar and would be eligible to receive their diplomas on schedule. Of course, that 90 percent pass rate was a good deal higher than many gloom-and-doomers had predicted it would be, and the failure rate of 10 percent was apparently low enough to be politically tolerable. (I don’t know what makes it acceptable that one out of every 10 products of Massachusetts schools will not be able to graduate because they were unable to demonstrate competency at the 10th-grade level in just two subjects, English and math, by their senior year, but I’ll leave that for another time.)

But this score of 90–an A-minus on any teacher’s grading curve–averaged out disturbing, but all too familiar, discrepancies in performance between white and minority students. Whereas pass rates approached (and in a few cases reached) 100 percent in comfortable, lily-white suburban schools, 25 percent of African-American seniors and 30 percent of Hispanic 12th-graders statewide still had not met the MCAS standard; failure rates in some urban high schools exceeded 40 percent. After 10 years of education reform aimed at inequities in resources and standards, there remains in Massachusetts a yawning achievement gap even at the level of minimum competency.

Still, the pressures of education reform, here and around the country, have also placed the achievement gap under the academic and policy spotlight like never before. Two new books, in particular, have gone beyond documenting the achievement gap and taken on the challenge of solving it.

In its very title, the collection of scholarly essays published by the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy reflects this shift in attitude, from armchair to take-charge, on the part of education scholars and reformers. Bridging the Achievement Gap is a conscious follow-up to the landmark 1998 Brookings collection The Black-White Test Score Gap, edited by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, and takes as its goal moving the achievement-gap discussion from analysis to action.

A conclusion of the earlier volume was that “far more is known about the nature of the achievement gap–its causes and its consequences–than about how to fix it,” write editors John E. Chubb, a founding partner of Edison Schools and a Brookings fellow, and Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center at Brookings, in their introduction. “The situation, however, may finally be changing…. Around the country a number of specific efforts are showing that the achievement gap can be bridged.” Bridging the Achievement Gap reports on these efforts, which Chubb and Loveless characterize as “disparate in approach and involving relatively few students,” but still “potentially replicable” and offering “lessons that might be learned and applied widely.”

The resulting collection is less a blueprint for overcoming educational disparities than a smorgasbord of options for bridging the achievement gap. Smaller classes, vouchers, high-stakes testing, particular school models, and federal action to reduce funding disparities are all endorsed, at least in part, as weapons in the war against educational inequality. Unfortunately, such policy ecumenism provides little guidance for decision makers in city, state, and federal governments who are now faced with tough choices about where to put resources that have turned suddenly scarce.

The 10 papers in this collection are also not light reading. Even by Brookings standards, the papers are dense, academic in tone and structure, and weighed down with methodological mechanics. Those readers whose eyes glaze over at the mention of standard deviation, least squares regression, or probit and logit models will have a hard time slogging through some of the chapters. It’s particularly unfortunate that the most data-heavy papers cover such vital topics as class-size reduction, tracking, and vouchers. It would be more helpful to the public debate if editors Chubb and Loveless presented the work of these authors in a more accessible, but still rigorous, format for lay readers–including officeholders whose exposure to such research usually comes preprocessed in a self-serving manner by advocates and opponents of various measures.

Besides looking at a scattershot of educational interventions, the chapters also vary in form, scope, and provenance. In contrast to the heavily quantitative nature of most of the essays, the chapter by Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom (the latter a member of the Massachusetts state Board of Education, as well as a fellow of the Manhattan Institute) on “Schools That Work” draws sweeping conclusions from two schools and a single classroom. The schools are KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) academies in Houston and the South Bronx, middle schools–both are now charter schools, though the New York academy began as a district school–founded in part on principles developed in the Thernstroms’ chosen classroom, teacher Rafe Esquith’s fifth-grade class at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles. The Thernstroms argue that inner-city kids respond to the no-nonsense and no-frills creed shared by Esquith and KIPP: civility (“ŒBest behavior’ takes practice”), hard work (KIPP academies extend the school day to 5 p.m. and hold class Saturday mornings and three weeks in the summer; Esquith’s students also stay well past the school’s 2:48 p.m. dismissal, on a voluntary basis), and high standards (“No excuses” is one bulletin-board slogan shared by the three). The chapter could also serve as a powerful, if impressionistic, brief in support of a KIPP Academy in Boston, for which a charter-school application is pending.

Similarly, the chapter entitled “High Achievement in Mathematics,” by David Klein, a mathematics professor and consultant for the Los Angeles County education office, offers just a handful of examples to make a case for what it takes not only to teach math well but run an effective school. Klein lauds three high-performing elementary schools in the Los Angeles area, crediting their success to principals who hold high expectations for students and teachers alike and resist educational doctrines that Klein sees as neglecting core skills. In the latter, Klein lumps bilingual education, the whole-language approach to reading, and the “new new math,” which he criticizes for slighting computation. Thus Klein’s essay is more a salvo in the classroom culture wars–simmering across the country but always raging out of control in California–than a dispassionate analysis of mathematics education.

One intriguing thread: concentrating efforts and expenditures where the gap is greatest.

A particularly strange choice for this volume is an essay on the Success for All model of reading and whole-school reform. Now in use at 1,600 schools in 48 states, Success for All is a natural subject for examination, and the essay’s claim that the highly scripted program is having “a widespread and disproportionate impact on African American and Latino students” is buttressed with data from numerous evaluations. But the chapter is written by the program’s architects, Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert E. Slavin and Nancy A. Madden, president of the Success for All Foundation. Surely Brookings could have found a scholar more disinterested than the founders to review the studies and render an unbiased judgment on whether success is truly being had by all.

One intriguing thread runs through several of Bridging the Gap‘s strongest chapters: concentrating efforts–and expenditures–where the achievement gap is greatest. Reviewing data from Project STAR, Tennessee’s statewide experiment in class size, Alan B. Krueger of Princeton University and Diane M. Whitmore of University of California­ Berkeley conclude that minority students (and white students who attend predominantly minority schools) gain the most from having smaller classes in the early grades, suggesting that “class-size reductions will have the biggest bang for the buck” in predominantly minority schools. Similarly, Alex Molnar and his University of Wisconsin colleagues report that when class sizes were reduced to 15 students in high-poverty schools–made possible by Wisconsin’s Student Achievement Guarantee in Education, or SAGE, program, which funnels an extra $2,000 per student to these schools to shrink classes–lower-achieving black students gained more from the increased teacher attention than higher-achieving white students in the same classrooms, thereby shrinking the achievement gap.

Finally, Ann Flanagan and David Grissmer of the RAND Corp. reveal that, nationally, the racial achievement gap is compounded by a locational one. That is, white suburban students in the Northeast and Midwest have the highest test scores in the country (rural whites in these regions come in next), but black students in these regions have among the lowest. As a result, the greatest black-white test-score gaps are found in Connecticut and Minnesota, while the gap is smallest in West Virginia and Kentucky, states where white students perform poorly by national standards and blacks do only modestly worse. Of 28 states participating in the full battery of national NAEP tests (though only up to 1996, before the state’s education-reform efforts could be expected to have borne fruit), Massachusetts is fifth highest in white scores and third highest in black scores, but the discrepancy between these scores puts the Bay State in the middle–13th in overall–in achievement gap, with only marginally greater academic parity than Alabama, Missouri, and Arkansas. Thus Flanagan and Grissmer suggest that federal education policies (and spending) ought to be concentrated in urban areas across the country, in addition to chronically underfunded and underperforming areas in the South and West.

Thus, in different ways, the Tennessee, Wisconsin, and RAND chapters suggest that the way to tackle the achievement gap is by giving disadvantaged minority children in urban areas a quality of education not only equal to but well beyond what is needed to educate middle-class white students in the suburbs to high levels. It’s a suggestion that’s probably too costly to contemplate in the current fiscal circumstances, but may one day be impossible to ignore.

Another collection of essays takes a different tack on the achievement gap. In Young, Gifted, and Black, three African-American education scholars tackle the conundrum from the point of view of understanding and promoting black achievement. Their stated goal for African-American students isn’t parity, but excellence.

This volume includes a short but illuminating essay by Stanford psychologist Claude Steele that carries forward his “stereotype threat” studies of the hazards that trip up high-achieving black students, which gained fame in the first Brookings collection and in a 1999 article in The Atlantic. Steele’s research is motivated by concern that “virtually all aspects of underperformance–lower standardized test scores, lower college grades, lower graduation rates–persist among students from the African-American middle class.” Here, he reiterates his findings that, among black undergraduates at elite universities, subtle messages that raise or ease unconscious fears that they are about to confirm society’s assumptions of black inferiority can affect performance on tests in dramatic ways.

What Steele adds in this essay is insight into the role of trust, or “identity safety,” as an antidote to stereotype threat. In a fascinating experiment involving a paper editing session, Steele found that top-performing black students reacted with insecurity and discouragement to a harsh critique of their work, even when preceded by a “cushioning statement” of praise, whereas white students took the criticism at face value, going back to their rewrite assignment with enthusiasm. Steele found that nagging fears that their work was getting trashed because they were black could be overcome by a simple message: “Tell students that you are using high standards (this signals that the criticism reflects standards rather than race), and that your reading of their essays leads you to believe that they can meet those standards (this signals that you do not view them stereotypically).” As Steele notes, “This shouldn’t be faked.” But neither should it be assumed that students of all races and ethnicities have faith in the standards they are being held to and in the good will of those who hold them to these standards. “High standards…should be an inherent part of teaching, and critical feedback should be given in the belief that the recipient can reach those standards,” writes Steele. “These things go without saying for many students. But they have to be made explicit for students under stereotype threat.”

Asa Hilliard III, a professor of education at Georgia State University, also contributes a rousing essay that declares the way to close the achievement gap is “no mystery.” The solution, he says simply, is “excellent teaching.” Rather than seek out elaborate economic, social, cultural, or psychological reasons for black underperformance, he says it would be better to study at the knee of the “gap closers,” educators who prove on a day-to-day basis that it’s possible to achieve the highest level of academic success with the most disadvantaged students. Hilliard provides examples of these gap-closing teachers and their methods, and he insists that their successes are not limited to those with superhuman talents.

“Ordinary teachers and ordinary principals with extraordinary commitment and energies can transform ordinary schools, and even failing schools, into islands of hope in a sea of despair,” Hilliard declares. Unfortunately, he is less clear about how to make every teacher and principal a gap-closer.

But it is a three-part essay by Wheelock College education professor Theresa Perry, entitled “Up From the Parched Earth: Toward a Theory of African-American Achievement,” that dominates the collection. For Perry, the first mystery to be solved is why, historically, blacks have been so committed to academic advancement when education carried with it no guarantee of reward; it could even, under slavery, be cause for punishment. She suggests that, from slavery through the Civil Rights era, the African-American community nurtured a philosophy of education that was not just utilitarian in nature, but inspirational: “You pursued learning because this is how you asserted yourself as a free person, how you claimed your humanity. You pursued learning so you could work for the racial uplift, for the liberation of your people. You pursued education so you could prepare yourself to lead your people.”

Through a series of “narratives” culled from the lives of African-American achievers through history –some famous, some obscure–Perry demonstrates how this philosophy became a defining feature of black culture, a part of the “social group identity” of African-Americans, through the end of legal segregation. It is in the post-Civil Rights era that perpetuating this pro-achievement mindset, which she calls “freedom for literacy, literacy for freedom,” becomes problematic.

Today, there is “the illusion of openness and opportunity,” she says, but black youth still are “battered at every turn by the ideology of African-American inferiority.” What’s worse, she says, is the elixir that inspired African-Americans to academic success has been diluted in the well of desegregated society, left to institutions that, in the guise of equal treatment for all, do little to promote achievement for black students. “Schools…are not intentionally organized to forge identities of African-American students as achievers…. [They] make few attempts to systematically organize occasions to create desire, to inspire hope, to develop and sustain effort optimism, or to intentionally…socialize students to the behaviors that are necessary for them to be achievers.”

The everyone-can-succeed ethos can account for black success.

So what kinds of schools would ensure African-American achievement? Her conclusions are surprisingly in sync with the likes of Klein and the Thernstroms, in the Brookings volume. “African-American students will achieve in school environments that have a leveling culture, a culture of achievement that extends to all members,…where the expectation that everyone achieve is explicit and is regularly communicated in public and group settings.” Though culturally sensitive classrooms do the job best, producing “exceptional academic results,” she says the everyone-can -succeed-and-will ethos is the main requirement, accounting for black success in such non-Afrocentric settings as Catholic schools and Department of Defense schools.

And in what kinds of schools are black students doomed? Perry’s answer may make so-called progressive educators squirm with discomfort. “African-American students will have difficulty achieving in school communities, irrespective of class background and prior level of academic preparation, that are individualistic, committed to giving their students lots of degrees of freedom, and highly stratified and competitive and that make few attempts to build and ritualize a common, strong culture of achievement that extends to all students.” And in case anyone should miss her point, Perry drives it home: “Schools in this category include many of the highly ranked systems in small towns, progressive college towns, and suburban communities.”

It is a provocative–and tantalizing–ending to a long, at times ponderous, philosophical discourse. If only Perry had spent a bit less time “theorizing” African-American achievement and a bit more time exploring the implications of her theories for making schools more successful for their African-American and other minority students. Only by conquering the achievement gap will schools, and policy makers, be able to turn their attention, as Perry and her co-authors would like them to do, to excellence.

Rewriting the history of public higher education

Rewriting the history of public higher education

For sheer political drama, it would be hard to top the current face-off between Gov. Mitt Romney and former Senate president William Bulger over the University of Massachusetts president’s office. It features, in one version of the dramatis personae, a self-styled Republican reformer with no allegiance to the bureaucratic status quo out to streamline the state’s public university system by ousting a legendary politician from his end-of-career sinecure. Or, in an alternative casting, it pits a privileged venture capitalist-turned-politician bent on reducing public higher education to job training against the son of an impoverished South Boston family using his hard-won political and academic prominence to preserve educational opportunities for the less privileged.

For Romney, eliminating the University of Massachusetts president’s office is part of a sweeping reorganization of the state’s higher education system, which is, in turn, one component of the most comprehensive restructuring of state government proposed since Gov. Frank Sargent’s shakeup in 1971–though even Sargent did not intrude on the sacred groves of academe. In his State of the State address on February 25, Romney proclaimed his higher-education restructuring proposal a singular assault on politics as usual. “This is my opportunity to be bold,” Romney declared.

The combatants may be new but the clash is old.

Bold Romney’s plan is. But it’s not as novel as he suggests. Rather, his is the latest salvo in a long battle over public higher education in Massachusetts. The current standoff echoes past conflicts over consolidation versus decentralization, institutional independence versus executive authority, and fiscal autonomy versus financial accountability. The combatants may be new but the clash is age old. And the ramifications of this skirmish, however it is resolved, will be felt long after Romney and Bulger have retired from the field of battle.

Romney’s blueprint for change

The Romney plan was crafted by his educational adviser and cabinet designee, Peter Nessen, and the governor’s former colleagues at Bain & Co., a management consulting firm. Neither Nessen, who was secretary of administration and finance under Gov. William Weld and a former dean for resources at Harvard Medical School, nor the team from Bain consulted any officials of the public higher-education system. But in the context of a major state fiscal crisis, they concluded that a major transformation of the system is required. “This is a billion-dollar system out of control,” Nessen told The Boston Globe. “Anyone who can come up with a better idea, I’ll listen.”

The idea Romney and Nessen have proposed would cut $150 million from public higher education, at the same time increasing student tuition 5 to 28 percent. In the past, tuition money has gone into the state’s general fund, from which it was redistributed to the institutions through the budget process, but under the Romney plan these funds would stay on campus, with tuition hikes totaling $94 million offset by $44 million in additional financial aid. In addition, the administration’s plan projects savings of $100 million by administrative reorganization.

Romney calls for grouping the 29 public university campuses and colleges into seven regions. The region would act as a single unit, delivering academic services from community-college job training to UMass post-graduate degrees. Each region would have an unpaid “coordinating council” made up of local business leaders, campus trustees, and others from nearby communities, and each campus would have its own board of trustees, which would work with the councils. The entire system would be overseen by a revamped state Board of Higher Education and accountable to a new Executive Office of Education.

BOSTON HERALD LIBRARY
Former University of California
president David Saxon pushed
a UC structure for UMass.

Beyond that, there are five specific features to the plan. First, the UMass-Amherst campus would be set apart from the other UMass campuses and expanded in size and scope into a world-class research university. Second, the UMass campuses in Boston, Dartmouth, and Lowell would be incorporated into three of the seven regional alignments that also include state and community colleges. Third, the UMass board of trustees and the president’s office would be eliminated, their functions of oversight and leadership transferred to the individual campuses. Fourth, six state and community colleges would be merged into three blended institutions: Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts melding with Berkshire Community College; Greenfield and Holyoke community colleges combining into one; and Fitchburg State College meshing with Mount Wachusett Community College. Fifth, three specialized institutions–the medical school in Worcester, Massachusetts College of Art, and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy–would be privatized over a period of four years, continuing to occupy state buildings but gradually losing their state subsidies.

In Romney’s attempt to bring the public higher education system to heel, there’s nothing new. At the level of central governance, the state has passed through the successive stages of a Board of Higher Education (1965-81), a Board of Regents (1981-91), a Higher Education Coordinating Council (1991-96), and back again full cycle to a Board of Higher Education (1996), over 40 years. At every point, these name changes were meant to signify increasing authority of a central governing board over local trustees, but very little change ever actually took place.

The result is a system of public higher education today that is highly fragmented and (some would say) unwieldy, comprising five UMass campuses, nine state colleges, and 15 community colleges. These 29 schools, which are spread across the Commonwealth, deliver academic services to more than 250,000 students from the state’s 351 cities and towns and from out of state.

It is also a system with a long and contentious history. Shortly after Congress passed the Morrill Act of 1862, a small agricultural school was started at Amherst. Overshadowed and hemmed in by older and more illustrious private colleges, this land-grant institution did not prosper and grow in size and stature comparable to its Midwestern and Western counterparts. “Mass Aggie,” as it was commonly known, did not become a state college until 1931, and did not achieve university status until 1947, when its enrollment reached slightly more than 3,000 students. With the return of military veterans from World War II, who were eager to obtain a college education with their GI benefits, UMass-Amherst grew right through the 1950s and 1960s, reaching a combined graduate and undergraduate enrollment of 23,000. In these years, 70 new dormitory and classroom buildings were constructed on the Amherst campus.

In 1965, UMass opened a non-residential branch campus in downtown Boston and bestowed upon it a distinctive urban mission. A state medical school was created in Worcester in 1968. In 1970, the UMass trustees restructured the state university into a system of three co-equal campuses. The university system was further enlarged in September 1991, from three campuses to five, by incorporating two previously separate public universities in Dartmouth and Lowell.

The state colleges evolved from the “teaching academies” Horace Mann established before the Civil War. Over the years, these so-called “normal” schools trained teachers for grammar and secondary education. In 1959, the state Department of Education recommended that teachers colleges offer more comprehensive education. A year later, they were reorganized into the state college system.

In the late 1950s, Gov. Foster Furcolo established a rudimentary community college system, with modest funding from the Legislature. First to open was Berkshire Community College, in downtown Pittsfield, in 1960. Subsequently, 14 other community colleges appeared on the scene, scattered across the state.

Reversing course

The five-campus University of Massachusetts, the state colleges, and the community colleges are what they are today as a result of a series of decisions, and occasional struggles, over organization, money, and control. At UMass, the trend, with some ups and downs, has been toward consolidation of a single university system. In 1969, the trustees commissioned Joseph Marcus, associate dean of engineering, to study patterns of organization among the nation’s multi-campus universities. Marcus found that, whatever their initial mode of organization, such universities tended to evolve toward a common model–a strong president, under a single board, supervising the work of relatively autonomous campuses. This pattern generally superseded the main-campus/branch-campus model because it gave each unit the opportunity to flourish. It was this arrangement that the university adopted the next year, elevating the Boston and Worcester medical-school branches into full-fledged UMass campuses. In 1981, the Board of Regents further bolstered UMass-Boston by merging Boston State College into it. The merger was psychologically damaging to faculty morale and also seemed to realize few economies at the time, but resulted in a more robust and cost-effective UMass campus in the long run.

But the biggest move toward UMass unification came later in the decade. In 1988, the trustees of UMass, in conjunction with its 125th anniversary, appointed a special blue-ribbon commission on the future of the university. David Saxon, former president of the University of California and chairman of the MIT Corporation, headed this 19-member panel. The Saxon Commission called for bringing Southeastern Massachusetts University, in Dartmouth, and the University of Lowell into the UMass system under a new board of trustees with representatives from each of the campuses. Growing competition between the campuses for limited state funds provided additional rationale for a unitary system. (Given Saxon’s background, it is hardly surprising that the UMass system he envisioned, and which has largely come about, is based on the California model. Similarities between the two systems are striking, except that California has 10 campuses and its president is paid an annual salary of $316,000–$7,000 more than Bulger is paid.)

As UMass has grown into an integrated multi-campus system, the university’s center of political gravity has also moved to the top. The president’s office moved from Amherst to Boston in 1970 to make the president more of a player on Beacon Hill, the source of the university’s financial support. More than anything else, the appointment of Bulger as president, in 1995, was recognition that, after a series of lackluster academics at the helm, what the university needed was more of an institutional leader–someone with clout in the political and business worlds –than an academic one.

The Romney plan would take apart the consolidated UMass system, making it a decentralized network of campuses that are only loosely related. The Amherst flagship would be spun off on its own and substantially enlarged. This growth is expected to add some 15,000 students to its current enrollment of 24,000, along with additional faculty, new dorms, and classrooms. In Romney’s view, UMass-Amherst could become a magnet for federal research dollars, as well as out-of-state students paying full tuition, just as they do at Michigan, Virginia, and other high profile schools. Keeping the tuition it collects would give the institution an additional long-term incentive to enhance its national stature.

What would happen to the Boston, Lowell, and Dartmouth campuses is less clear. If UMass now follows the California model, Romney’s plan would make Massachusetts more like New Jersey. Rutgers, in New Brunswick, is the main state university, with lesser satellite campuses in Newark and Camden. This scheme would revert to the main-campus/branch-campus pattern that existed prior to 1970, raising questions about how much of a downgrade would be in store for the three satellites. Incorporating them into regional systems, along with nearby state and community colleges, also suggests more of an orientation toward local job opportunities. In this, Romney wants to give business leaders a hand in shaping campus curricula, an idea that has become popular in Arizona and Kentucky. But critics charge that this would be treating the campuses like worker-training centers rather than academic institutions.

If the Romney approach to UMass is decentralization, his scheme for state and community colleges moves in the opposite direction, tempering the current local control with regional organization and making institutions more accountable to central state authority under a stronger Board of Higher Education. He takes the consolidation approach–the reverse of what’s proposed for UMass–furthest in the proposed mergers.

But the Romney plan reserves the most extreme form of decentralization–privatization–for certain specialty colleges, namely the medical school at Worcester, Mass. College of Art in Boston, and Mass. Maritime Academy, in Buzzards Bay. These would become “state-assisted schools,” in Romney’s parlance, though the goal seems to be reducing state assistance to a minimum. The idea seems to be that these professionally oriented institutions ought to be able to support themselves largely on their own. That prospect disturbs the current leaders of these institutions. Rear Admiral Maurice Bresnahan, head of Mass. Maritime, worries that, with the loss of $10 million in state funding, tuition at the school would skyrocket from $3,700 to $15,000 a year, making his school unaffordable for students and an unreliable partner for the US Navy, which provides ships on loan.

Curtailing autonomy

The Romney plan also tries to roll back history on command and control. In 1962, state Sen. Maurice Donahue of Holyoke, then majority leader but soon to become Senate president, led the fight for fiscal autonomy for the state university. Donohue’s legislation allowed the trustees and campus administrators to make independent financial decisions without having to get permission from the state bureaucracy. In 1964, state Sen. Kevin Harrington of Salem, who later succeeded Donahue as Senate president, sponsored similar legislation for the state colleges. No longer did expenditures of appropriated funds and transfers among accounts require the prior approval of the comptroller. Nor did new positions–faculty and staff–have to be specifically authorized by the Legislature.

Governors have been challenging this campus privilege ever since, none more than Gov. Michael Dukakis. In the mid-1970s, Dukakis tried to oust UMass President Robert C. Wood, an aggressive and outspoken leader, first from his high-cost headquarters at One Washington Mall and finally out of his post altogether. (Wood resigned in 1977, just before the governor gained majority control of the board of trustees.) Because of a fiscal crisis not unlike the current one, Dukakis also tried to impose a moratorium on new construction at UMass-Boston, but the courts ruled in favor of the university, upholding its fiscal sovereignty.

BOSTON HERALD LIBRARY
Former UMass president Robert Wood:
a Dukakis target in the 1970’s.

Now, Gov. Romney and his aides are taking another run at it. On March 5, they held up a $371 million bond package for construction projects on four UMass campuses, claiming that university officials did not provide adequate explanation of the projects. The Romney administration has also taken aim at what they call “fee abuse” in the setting of student charges by institutional boards of trustees, looking to shift this power to the state Board of Higher Education.

But fiscal affairs are not the only matters on which higher-education institutions have fought for independence–and governors pushed for greater control. Stories abound of governors trying to claim greater jurisdiction over higher education. Perhaps there is no better illustration of this phenomenon than Dukakis’s firing of James Collins as chancellor of the Board of Regents in 1986. Offended by a search process that seemed politically wired for the former state representative from Amherst, Dukakis demoted the board chairman and packed the board with three new members, who voted to remove Collins from office and replace him with Franklyn Jenifer, a professional educator from New Jersey.

At the height of this donnybrook, Dukakis declared, “We aren’t California, we’re not Texas, and we’re not Michigan. We’re a different state. We do happen to have some of the finest [private] institutions in the world. And I don’t think it makes sense for us to try to duplicate that.” Words like these remind campus leaders why they need some independence from elected officials, most of whom never sat in a state college or university classroom.

Through his proposed reorganization of public higher education, Romney is trying to reverse historical course on consolidation, fiscal autonomy, and institutional independence. Whether that represents a bold, new vision or the undoing of higher education for those who cannot afford a pricey private education remains to be seen–as does whether he has any chance to pull it off.

The real question ought to be how to depoliticize the management of higher education and provide leadership that is knowledgeable about academic quality and devoted to its advocacy. For all its flaws, this public enterprise involves a substantial investment vital to the prosperity and quality of life in the state. As two of my former colleagues and I have argued elsewhere, “The enterprise has come too far, struggled against too many odds, provided too many vital public services, engaged too many bright and creative minds, and shaped decisively the futures of too many students to hunker down now in a siege mentality. Neither can it be content with doing more of the same, in a business-as-usual style while the economic life and the social structure of Massachusetts are significantly changing.”

Richard A. Hogarty is emeritus professor of political science at UMass-Boston, and co-author of Turnabout Time: Public Higher Education in the Commonwealth.

Everyone wants to write the definitive definition of the American Dream

Everyone wants to write the definitive definition of the American Dream

In the beginning, there was land ownership. American colonists understood the concept, American Indians didn’t, and the result was a nation that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Now we have air rights, a concept that allows property owners to profit from the nothingness above them. Speculators buy the empty space above buildings, parking lots, and highways in the hopes of filling it with concrete and glass. In many American cities, it’s even possible to buy the air rights over one property and transfer the weightless real estate somewhere else, allowing for taller and taller skyscrapers without violating height restrictions.

We try to capture the dream just as surely as we’ve split the atom.

If we can buy and sell the air around us, there’s no reason to accept the idea that a dream must be ethereal, floating beyond our grasp. Certainly not the American Dream, which is about the tangible: homeownership, college diplomas, ample paychecks, and any number of material possessions that help us along in that “pursuit of happiness” guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence. Even the loftier goals of the American Dream–equality for all citizens, opportunity for all immigrants–are measured by these tangibles. We try to capture the dream just as surely as we’ve split the atom.

It wasn’t so long ago that the American Dream was considered something of an oxymoron. The phrase dates back to James Truslow Adams’s The Epic of America, written in 1931. Adams uses the term he coined more than 30 times in his one-volume survey of US history, capturing it as “that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.” Adams’s publishers talked him out of using the term as the title of his book, fearing that it would turn off the famously pragmatic citizens of the United States, yet the phrase caught on almost immediately. So says pop-culture historian Jim Cullen (Born in the U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition), in his new book, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation (Oxford University). Cullen set out to write a general history of “American patriotism” but the book evolved into an inquiry on the American Dream. His publishers may have had nothing to do with the change, but it’s unlikely they tried to talk him out of it.

Indeed, the American Dream seems as marketable today as it turned out to be 70 years ago. Cullen’s search of a library catalog produced more than 700 books with American Dream in their titles. Amazon.com currently sells dozens of them, most published within the past decade, but the online bookstore’s collection does little to clarify the concept. It’s hard to imagine Living at Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream on the same bookshelf asMadonna As Postmodern Myth: How One Star’s Self-Construction Rewrites Sex, Gender, Hollywood and the American Dream. A few authors take the phrase at face value (A Daily Dose of the American Dream: Stories of Success, Triumph, and Inspiration), but most are ironic (Crooked Ladder: Gangsters, Ethnicity, and the American Dream), alarmist (Declining Fortunes: The Withering of the American Dream), or downright paranoid (Who Stole the American Dream: The Book Your Boss Doesn’t Want You to Read). Though nearly all of the books associate the American Dream with some kind of financial success, the meaning of the phrase seems to stretch a little further every time it pops up in Publishers Weekly.

ELIZABETH ROCK

Still, the American Dream hasn’t been so overexposed as to lose its currency. In January, US Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut used the phrase four times in his brief announcement that he would be running for president. The American Dream is also a key phrase in the mission statement of MassINC, publisher of this magazine, defined there as “equality of opportunity, personal responsibility,” and a means of expanding a “dynamic middle class.” As in the Lieberman and MassINC definitions, a strong work ethic remains part of most people’s idea of the Dream (see the book No Free Lunch: One Man’s Journey from Welfare to the American Dream), but Cullen explores the growing faith in short cuts to happiness, from lottery wins to overnight celebrity. If the get-rich-quick approach ever becomes the primary definition of the term (see Cashing in on the American Dream: How to Retire at 35), some of the strongest proponents of the American Dream may want to find another horse to ride.

Cullen is an admirer of the American Dream, and throughout his book he emphasizes its nobler aspects–hope rather than fear, a spirit of generosity rather than a ruthless individualism. In his chapter on upward mobility, for example, he portrays Benjamin Franklin as “the patron saint of doing well by doing good,” a man whose appetite for personal wealth was inseparable from his enthusiasm for philanthropic projects (including the founding of the first fire department, lending library, and public hospital in Philadelphia). If Cullen’s efforts to keep the American Dream on a higher plane seem strained at times, they prove that the idea is still a fragile one. For the American Dream to work, it can’t soar so high as to be unattainable, but it also can’t scrape the ground paved by isolationists and extreme libertarians. Most important, it can’t be static. In contrast to the Bible or the Constitution, there are no arguments about fundamental truths or original intent associated with the American Dream. It has changed with each generation–largely for the better–and even now there are Americans of diametrically opposed views trying to claim the phrase.

As we go through the first decade of the 21st century, the American Dream may be even more resilient than we imagine. Indeed, Cullen asserts that the Dream existed almost 300 years before it entered the American vocabulary. This may seem like a neat trick, but Cullen makes his case by breaking down the American Dream into constituent parts–such concepts as the Dream of Upward Mobility and the Dream of Equality–suggesting the pieces existed before the whole. He also gives himself wriggle room by stressing the elasticity of the term. (“Ambiguity is the very source of its mythic power,” he writes.) Thus the American Dream becomes an amalgam of lesser dreams.

One drawback of such a conception is that critics will complain when Cullen’s expansive definition doesn’t extend to their own ideas of what makes America great. Indeed, Weekly Standard senior editor David Brooks, reviewing the book for The Wall Street Journal (which once advertised itself as “the daily diary of the American Dream”), protests that Cullen has “almost nothing to say about modern business,” and ignores evangelicalism and Pentacostalism, which he calls “arguably the most influential creed of the 20th century.” (The latter complaint seems to have become an all-purpose one for Brooks. A few weeks after the book review appeared, The Atlantic published an essay by Brooks titled “Kicking the Secularist Habit,” in which he complained that few journalists know the definition of Pentacostalism.)

Cullen’s book–short but not always concise, with plenty of apt anecdotes but also a few puzzling tangents–is strongest when he sticks to the theme of upward mobility, which almost everyone agrees is at the core of the American Dream. He argues that Americans were greatly responsible for changing the definition of daily labor, from something to be endured as a prerequisite for a blessed afterlife to a means of making things more comfortable here on earth: “Hard work was no longer a (hopefully useful) distraction from the dictates of fate but rather an instrument of fate itself, a tool for self-actualization.” And in his exploration of American politics, Cullen notes that it’s become almost mandatory for our leaders to project an image of working their way up the ladder, or at least overcoming adversity. President Andrew Jackson, for example, though he was “the product of an elite bloodline,” went out of his way to hide any signs of a refined upbringing. “Modest beginnings were no longer a somewhat embarrassing obstacle to be overcome but rather the indispensable bedrock of distinction,” Cullen writes of what has become known as the Age of Jackson. Recent supplicants to this bedrock include Richard Nixon, the son of a failed grocer; Bill Clinton, the product of a household torn apart by alcoholism; and George W. Bush, who, despite his privileges of birth, overcame the effects of being young and irresponsible when he was young and irresponsible.

But there’s a more specific definition that overshadows all others, and it’s right there in the cover illustration for The American Dream: a dad in 1950s-style business attire being greeted by his wife and son outside a single-family home with an expansive front lawn. No front porch, no sidewalk, and no other house is visible in the drawing. If a home in the suburbs seems an intrinsic part of the American Dream, the suburb itself–neighborhood, community, fellow American Dreamers–does not.

Indeed, there has long been an element of privatism, even separatism, lurking in the American Dream. The house on Cullen’s cover sits behind a white picket fence, itself a piece of suburban iconography. But it is also, perhaps, a forerunner of the exclusive communities studied by sociologist Setha Low in Behind the Gates: Security and the New American Dream (Routledge). The dream of the Plymouth colonists was to seek improvement by escaping the creeping secularism of England and founding a society “of, by, and for the Puritans,” in which the government shielded its citizens from the sight of backsliders and nonbelievers. The same spirit can be detected in the gated communities of Low’s book, with all their regulations to protect residents from offensive aesthetics. Is there a connection between the freedom not to hear blasphemous language and the freedom not to look out one’s window to see a house painted in neon pink?

A year after The Epic of America was published, Greta Garbo starred in Grand Hotel and uttered her most famous movie line: “I want to be alone.” In many ways, the actress was the embodiment of the American Dream. She was an immigrant who gained wealth and celebrity by presenting a glimpse of the good life to American audiences during the worst years of the Great Depression. On a personal level, she used her financial resources to seal herself off from the rest of the world, living in her own gated community (not in a tract house but in a well-protected New York apartment) for most of her life.

Cullen and other high-minded American Dreamers might see the Garbo example as a perversion of the American Dream, but the concept’s inventor might not agree. James Truslow Adams became a bitter opponent of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies (which introduced the concept of a safety net for those without hope of realizing a better, richer, and happier life), calling them a “betrayal” of the American tradition of personal autonomy. By that time, however, Adams had already lost his role as sole interpreter of the American Dream.

Still, the quest for personal satisfaction that is at the core of the American Dream forms a shaky foundation for community, which involves shared values and mutual obligations. Cullen recognizes this tension early on, noting that “the American Dream still straddles–perhaps it’s more accurate to say it blurs–the tension between one and many.”

So far, the “one” has never fully taken possession of the dream. In Behind the Gates, several homeowners express disappointment in the lack of community spirit around them, despite their conscious decision to move into walled-off enclaves. (After showing her home to Low, one woman returns a blown-away trash can lid to the house next door, lamenting, “See, here I am doing a good deed for my neighbor. Not that they will ever know.”) Looking at the past, Cullen points to the Salem witch trials as “a grotesque effort to recapture a sense of lost cohesion,” or a backlash to the geographic dispersal of the original Puritans (a foreshadowing of the flight to suburbia?).

Whatever our longing for community (MassINC, drawing on local tradition, sounds this note in its commitment to “a strong commonwealth,” and echoes it in the name of this magazine), it’s the emphasis on autonomy–spirits freed from the weight of class, caste, and custom–that makes the American Dream principally an individualistic one. If it’s a little tough to swallow the conformist Puritans as exemplars of freedom, Cullen appropriately pinpoints the Declaration of Independence and its guarantee of the “pursuit of happiness” as the charter of the American Dream. This is the uniquely American aspect of the Dream, Cullen argues; individuals in other societies have made decisions large and small “on the basis of the greater glory of God, the security of their nation, or obligations to their ancestors.” The idea that happiness should override such considerations remains anathema to much of the world, particularly since, as Cullen admits, it can so easily slide into mindless materialism: “[W]e Americans often act as if we believe there really isn’t anything money can’t buy.”

Even the Dream of Equality, which Cullen considers a component of the American Dream, has been more about opportunity than parity. Cullen credits Abraham Lincoln with articulating why slavery was incompatible with the promise of upward mobility, concentrating wealth as it did in the hands of slave owners and forcing white workers to compete against unpaid labor. In an Independence Day speech shortly after the Civil War began, Lincoln argued that the core objective of the United States must be “to elevate the condition of men…to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”

But Lincoln’s martyrdom wasn’t enough to secure the dream of equality, and Cullen notes that the growth of industrial capitalism and its “survival of the fittest” ethos only lengthened the odds against it. It would take the Great Depression to convince political leaders that extreme economic inequality, and its accompanying feelings of despair and resentment, was a threat to the pursuit of happiness for all, even those in the upper classes. As Cullen puts it, “hopeless people have fewer compunctions about destroying fine things they don’t believe they can ever have.” (At that time, the idea of putting gates and guardhouses between middle-class citizens and hopeless people hadn’t yet caught on.)

After that realization, the concept of “separate but equal,” which had codified racial segregation for decades after the Civil War, was on thin ice. Adding another figure to his American Dream pantheon, Cullen calls Martin Luther King Jr., born into a socially prominent family, “an unlikely hero–and an even more unlikely prophet of the dream of equality.” In his early major speeches, King repeatedly used the term American Dream, at one point defining it as “a dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men no longer argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character” (emphasis added by Cullen). Though the rhetoric is soaring, King’s was one of the most refined definitions of the American Dream since the term was coined 30 years before, if not a redefinition. Certainly Adams’s original formulation (“a better, richer, and happier life for all”) does not imply any sense of equality; it merely says that all people should be able to improve the circumstances they were born into, whatever they were.

King’s co-opting of the term American Dream for the cause of equality has ramifications that continue to this day, especially when it comes to that specific dream of a house in the suburbs. Cullen confesses that his family moved out of an apartment in Queens not out of desire to own a home but to escape the desegregation of New York City’s public schools. “I feel shame about my essentially segregationist beginnings,” he writes.

He also ties the dream of homeownership to the rise of the automobile, which allowed middle-class Americans to flee the urban centers where they’d grown up. Many of the gated-community residents in Low’s book are voluntary exiles from the city, and their attempts to re-create the American Dream on a few guarded acres may reflect the belief that the dream has been extinguished elsewhere.

Furthermore, the mobility provided by the automobile leads to Cullen’s final variant of the American Dream, which he calls “The Dream of the Good Life.” The West is the proving ground for this concept, which wipes away the last vestiges of Puritanism and “focuses on getting something for nothing.” Cullen’s examples of this strike-it-rich culture include the California Gold Rush, the “Great American Playground” known as Las Vegas, and the economics of Hollywood, where one hit movie can make its star set for life. There’s a dose of sourness in Cullen’s judgment on this new take on the American Dream. While the dreams of Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln were based on character, the Dream of the Good Life–personified, for Cullen, by the 1920s movie-star couple Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, with their Beverly Hills mansion–is based on mere personality: “They were celebrities, people whose fame rested not on talent …but on simply being famous.”

Cullen has mixed feelings about suburbanization, but others celebrate it as the essence of the American Dream. Take “Preserving the American Dream of Mobility and Ownership,” a national conference held in Washington in February. The conference was billed as the kick-off of a national movement against high-density zoning and other “smart growth” policies the conveners see as thwarting the spread of a suburban lifestyle they see Americans striving for.

Smart growth advocates aren’t conceding any American Dream ground to the sprawl-mongers. In Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck’s 2000 book Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point Press), a manifesto of New Urbanist principles, the authors claim that, for the car-dependent suburbanites they interviewed, “the American Dream just doesn’t seem to be coming true anymore.” In Behind the Gates, Low argues that sealed-off communities “are transforming the American dream of owning a suburban home in a close-knit community…into a vision that includes gates, walls, and guards.”

Neither of these books makes one forget that Americans have been putting distance between themselves and their fellow citizens, when conditions permit, ever since the nation was founded, but each makes a case for putting the American Dream on a more communitarian track. Low paraphrases sociologist Richard Sennett as lamenting “the loss of a public realm where strangers come into contact and observe an accepted code of tolerance for difference and eccentricity,” a loss that’s exacerbated by the “Not in My Backyard” philosophy that drives local politics. She also points out that gated communities are particularly popular among higher-income immigrants from Latin America, who are accustomed to housing segregated by income. Low’s warnings of “an increasingly bifurcated class system” imply that the American Dream, if it doesn’t evolve to take into account 21st-century realities, could turn this country into a banana republic.

Oddly enough, Cullen devotes little space to the subject of immigration, covering the “Dream of the Immigrant” in just a six-page coda to his book. But what one could call the “Dream of a New Start in a New Land” has been an intrinsic part of the American Dream since the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower.

New complications in the immigration dream are explored in William A.V. Clark’s Immigrants and the American Dream (Guilford), a statistics-driven study of economic conditions among the more than 20 million legal and undocumented immigrants who have arrived in the US over the past three decades. Clark, a professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles, points to a “bifurcation” among more recent immigrants, who are both “slightly less likely to have a high school education and slightly more likely to have a college degree” than were immigrants who arrived before 1990. Most recent immigrants, however, are in the less-educated category, and, unlike new arrivals in the early 20th century, they’re entering a society in which almost all native-born citizens have a high school education.

Clark notes that many sociologists are skeptical that the newest immigrants will ever “catch up” to the American Dream, but he leans toward a more optimistic view. “Taking jobs at the bottom” has always been part of the immigrant experience, he writes. “The United States, historically and in the present, has always been a place of opportunity.”

Homeownership is chief among these opportunities, and immigrants have pursued this piece of the American Dream with great passion. Clark notes that 48 percent of the foreign-born heads of families own their homes, not too far below the 66 percent among the native born. According to the Web site Data Quick Real Estate News, Garcia and Nguyen are now tied as the most common surname of California homebuyers (when Clark did his research last year, Smith still ranked second to Garcia). Clark calls this great news for civic life: “[I]t is ownership which increases the affiliations that unify people at local scales.”

Clark also sees the suburbanization of immigrants as a hopeful sign, both economically and socially. “Latino immigrants in Southern California first rent in the urban core, and then after one or two decades they disperse to the suburbs, where they buy homes and ‘assimilate’ into those suburban communities,” he writes approvingly. Clark even puts a positive spin on low voting rates among subsequent generations of immigrant-Americans: “The later generations are perhaps behaving more like the native born, who are less likely to participate than are new immigrants.”

Like practically everyone who writes about the American Dream, Clark believes it is still evolving, even taking on a Latin American cast. The “Americano Dream,” as he calls it, has “a slight and important addition–hard work, individual reliance and parental guidance and ethnic identity.” This is a provocative definition, given that many people associate the American Dream with the next generation transcending their immigrant origins. “At the core of many American Dreams,” writes Cullen in his book, “is an insistence that history doesn’t matter, that the future matters far more than the past.”

This “don’t look back” philosophy is usually meant as a positive American trait, but Cullen has bittersweet feelings about it. Near the end of this book, he nominates F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as “the quintessential expression of the American Dream.” In that novel, the redeeming characteristic of shady businessman Jay Gatsby is his “extraordinary gift for hope,” even if his hope–to recapture a long-lost love–is futile and unrealistic. Cullen argues that what makes the United States special is that it is “a place where one can, for better or worse, pursue distant goals.” Conservatives like David Brooks may object to the word “distant,” with its implication that upward mobility is out of reach for many of our citizens. But the American Dream wouldn’t have much meaning if it were easy to fulfill.