Winter 2000

Winter 2000

Taking back Braintree

BRAINTREE—It’s easy to get lost in the details of the 17-month political melodrama that rocked town hall here. There was, for instance, the town administrator secretly getting paid more than town meeting authorized; the misuse of town money, cars, and cellular phones; the threats and intimidation of municipal employees and residents by town officials; a grassroots campaign to recall two selectmen; the lawsuit; and the shredding of town documents. But, really, this tale is about a few citizens standing up and holding public officials accountable for their actions. And winning.

Sonya “Sunny” Shaw and Sandra Baler-Segal aren’t the most likely pair of rabble-rousers. Shaw is a tall, bespectacled brunette and Baler-Segal is petite with curly red hair. Both are educators; Shaw teaches remedial math and reading to elementary school children in Braintree, and Baler-Segal works in special education for the Boston public schools. Both are longtime town meeting members and past presidents of the Braintree chapter of the League of Women Voters—not a group known for its fiery activism. But both were plenty outraged when, in 1997, they found out about the sweetheart deal the town’s new executive secretary had cut with the Board of Selectmen.

In violation of town bylaws, his contract provided William Sweeney an annual salary of $91,692—$13,000 more than appropriated by town meeting and $21,000 above the $70,355 posted for the job. The agreement gave Sweeney five weeks paid vacation (two weeks more than standard) and three weeks paid sick leave. It allowed him to work any five out of seven days. The contract had been signed in a closed executive session without any public discussion.

Something was rotten in Braintree. The town was supposed to be governed by representative town meeting, a five-member Board of Selectmen, and an executive secretary appointed by the selectmen to carry out the will of the elected bodies. But it seemed that the governance structure had been turned upside down. The selectmen, says Shaw, “had overstepped their authority and their mandate and had an inappropriate relationship with their employee, Sweeney…He, in fact, was their boss. He controlled them.”

Shaw and Baler-Segal, among other hardy Braintree citizens, would not stand for it. The rebellion they led ultimately swept Sweeney and his selectmen cronies out of office and inspired a drive to restructure town government. Little did they know what a soap opera it would become along the way.

Braintree seems a big town for such two-bit shenanigans. At just under 35,000 residents, it’s the third most populous town on the South Shore, after Weymouth and Plymouth (not counting the cities of Quincy and Brockton). Located a dozen miles south of Boston, at the divide of Route 3 and I-93, Braintree is not only the birthplace of two presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and Declaration of Independence signer John Hancock but the home today of the enormous South Shore Plaza shopping mall.

But there was, in Braintree, a touch of Peyton Place, as well. And no one made more of it than Bill Sweeney. He had been the town’s assistant accountant for several years, managing to score both a town car and cell phone. A smooth operator, Sweeney developed cozy relationships with some members of the Board of Selectmen, in part by working on their election campaigns. Sweeney became inseparable from selectman Dorothy O’Flaherty Nedelman. Since both Nedelman and Sweeney were married, and not to each other, that set Braintree tongues wagging.

Sweeney’s courtship of the selectmen paid off in the summer of 1997, when the position of executive secretary was posted in town hall for just one day, and Sweeney alone was interviewed for the job.

Copies of Sweeney’s contract were eventually smuggled out of town hall, and his terms of employment became a hot topic at the autumn meetings of the League of Women Voters in Braintree. On December 4, the League wrote a letter to the Board of Selectmen questioning Sweeney’s contract—and made sure local newspapers got copies. That was the first salvo in what was to be a long, ugly battle.

“When the League first made their inquiries,” says Baler-Segal, the selectmen “really stonewalled us. When [their responses] finally arrived, they were non-answers.” In her mind, that behavior constituted “a major cover-up.”

Meanwhile, Braintree citizens got busy. Joining forces with League members, about two dozen residents, some of whom had never before been involved in politics, formed the Committee for Responsible Government.

The battle moved to town meeting, which, in May 1998, voted to cut off funding for Sweeney’s salary. Paycheck or not, Sweeney continued to go to his town hall office (or not) and tool around in a Crown Victoria that never did bear the required town seal. Meanwhile, the selectmen dug in their heels, admitting nothing improper in Sweeney’s contract, and decided to sue the town to get Sweeney his pay—a key error, says Shaw.

For many people in Braintree, the town suing itself was the last straw. The Committee for Responsible Government and other residents began a recall campaign to remove Nedelman and Carl Vitagliano, another selectman and Sweeney supporter, in an October 1998 election. That push failed because of a typographical error on the signature petitions. A second recall drive was dropped when it became clear that time was getting close to the next regular town election.

But the tide had clearly swung in favor of the grassroots insurgents. Early in 1999, Sweeney agreed to give up his post in exchange for a $200,000 buyout package. And in April, the two targeted selectmen were voted out of office. “In the long run,” says Baler-Segal, “this election truly vindicated our position in a way that a recall might’ve never done.” Nedelman and Vitagliano, she says, were “thoroughly and gloriously defeated.”

The next month, town meeting ordered the town moderator to set up a search committee of officials and citizens in order to find a new executive secretary. From a field of more than 30 candidates winnowed down to four by the search committee, the Board of Selectman chose Hector Rivera, then city manager in Falls Church, Virginia, outside Washington, DC. After just weeks on the job, Rivera earned high marks from Shaw: “He’s an extremely professional, knowledgeable man.” And town hall is a different place, Shaw says. “In the selectmen’s office, you can ask a question, ask for information, without hearing the words, ‘I have to speak to Mr. Sweeney,’” she notes. “You now have access to town government.”

The battle over Sweeney made some people think about a broader restructuring of town government. In October, a special town meeting considered a proposal, modeled on towns like Framingham and Danvers, to replace the executive secretary with a town manager. Appointed by a four-fifths vote of the selectmen, the manager would appoint the heads of town departments, such as finance or water and sewer. Currently, those departments are overseen by boards of unpaid elected officials, who appoint the managers beneath them.

The boards themselves have had their own share of trouble recently. A member of the health board resigned after being arrested for possession of heroin. And harassment allegations flew back and forth between another health board member, Patricia Toomey, and Thomas Gecewicz, the director of the health department, before the board voted Gecewicz out of office last fall. Critics such as Anthony Mollica, a 35-year town meeting member and former selectman who chaired the committee that developed the new town-governance proposal, say the boards have made the departments into little fiefdoms that are unaccountable to anyone. “Each one goes its own way,” says Mollica. “It’s not like a ship where you have one captain.”

But town meeting voted down the reorganization. Town meeting members were not prepared to make such a sweeping change. And Sweeney’s legacy still haunts some citizens. Some members of town meeting were apparently fearful of concentrating even more power in the hands of an appointed town manager. But both Baler-Segal and Shaw, who have a habit of finishing each other’s sentences, say some reorganization of town government is inevitable. They say it’s just going to have to happen “piecemeal.”

Over a pizza lunch on a Saturday last fall, Shaw mentions a quote from the late anthropologist Margaret Mead that Shaw used in one of the many letters she wrote to Braintree voters and newspapers during this long nightmare: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

That, says Shaw with satisfaction, is exactly what happened in Braintree.

Millicent Lawton, formerly a reporter for Education Week, is a freelance writer in Newton.

Immigration in Massachusetts

Massachusetts has become increasingly dependent on foreign immigration for its labor force. The Changing Workforce: Immigrants and the New Economy in Massachusetts, a report by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies for MassINC and Citizens Bank, found that immigrants make up 11.6 percent of the Massachusetts population and 13 percent of the state’s work force. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, immigrants to Massachusetts primarily came from Ireland, England, Germany, and Canada. As late as 1960, the foreign-born population remained 98 percent white. Now, the countries sending immigrants to Massachusetts changes from year to year. (The report treats Puerto Rican natives who move to the mainland as foreign immigrants, even though they are US citizens, because the Census Bureau does not count island residents as part of the US population.) In recent years, the influx of immigrants counteracted a high rate of out-migration of native-born to other states. Without these newcomers, the Massachusetts population would have declined, resulting in a severe labor shortage that could have hampered the state’s robust economic growth. Only the mid-Atlantic states of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are more dependent on foreign immigration for labor-force growth than New England.

 

NATIONAL ORIGIN OF IMMIGRANTS IN MASSACHUSETTS (top 10 countries)

Country Percentage of Total Foreign Born Population
Puerto Rico
14%
Portugal & Azores Islands
12%
Canada
5%
Cambodia
4%
Italy
4%
Ireland
4%
England
4%
China
3%
Haiti
3%
Vietnam*
2%
Brazil*
2%
*tied for 10th place

 

CHANGING COMPOSITION OF FOREIGN-BORN POPULATION IN MASSACHUSETTS

Country of origin for immigrants arriving before 1980 % of foreign born Country of origin for immigrants arriving 1980-1989 % of foreign born Country of origin for immigrants arriving since 1990 % of foreign born
Portugal & Azores 19% Puerto Rico 14% Puerto Rico 14%
Puerto Rico 14% Cambodia 10% Brazil 6%
Canada 8% Haiti 8% El Salvador 5%
Italy 5% Portugal & Azores 6% Russia 4%
Ireland 5% Vietnam 4% India 4%
England 5% Poland 4% China 4%
Germany 4% China 4% Dominican Rep. 3%
Greece 3% El Salvador 3% Ireland 3%
China 2% India 3% Vietnam 3%
Poland 1% Brazil 3% Jamaica 3%

Source: The Changing Workforce: Immigrants and the New Economy in Massachusetts

Politics: A Trivial Pursuit

By early December, most of us had read quite enough about the greatest entertainers of the 20th century, not to mention the most amazing athletes and most appalling crimes.

We’d like to point out that the art of politics has also changed a great deal in the past 100 years — in Massachusetts more than most places. We’ve gone from rock-ribbed Republican to diehard Democratic, from a Yankee political dynasty (the Lodges) to an Irish Catholic one (the Kennedys). At the beginning of the 20th century, when the state’s population was double that of California’s. Now the Bay State is one-fifth the size of California, but it’s still a national player, thanks to its deep pool of political talent and the deep pockets of its campaign contributors.

Here we offer a small taste of the events and personalities of Bay State politics in the 20th century in the form of a quiz. Don’t expect it to be easy; a century of hardball politics calls for tough questions.

1. What group earned the not-so-affectionate nickname the “Goo-Goos” and who gave it to them?

2. What got ROAR so hot under the collar, and what did its initials stand for?

3. Who advanced this theory, which some would argue has already come true: “The only people who will be able to get to Congress will be the half-witted sons of the rich. The bright sons of the rich are needed to run the businesses, and the poor cannot afford to run.”

4. What political figure told a gathering that “I know … I should kiss your ass, but I haven’t learned to do that with equanimity yet”?

5. Who was the most popular 20th-century governor in Massachusetts, at least according to election returns? How about the most popular US senator?

6. David I. Walsh got to the State House ahead of James Michael Curley, becoming the Bay State’s first Catholic governor in 1913. Not content with this achievement, two years later Walsh became the first Catholic governor in Massachusetts to get tossed out of office. What disagreement with the Church contributed to his defeat?

7. Many “townies” never forgave Harvard University for its role in what 1919 event?

8. In 1927, the president of Harvard University, A. Lawrence Lowell, once again got the Cambridge institution into hot water by serving on a committee whose decision was overturned 50 years later by Gov. Michael Dukakis. What was the committee’s ruling?

9. Frederick H. Gillett is probably the least-known member of a notable 20th-century foursome. Who was he? (Hint: His professional name was not “Zeppo.”)

10. Hard to believe now, but Massachusetts was once one of the most Republican states in the union. Who was the first Democratic presidential nominee to win a majority of the vote here?

11. Which presidential endorsement got James Michael Curley in such trouble with his fellow Democrats that he was forced to take on an assumed name?

12. What rock band recorded a tribute to James Michael Curley?

13. What office did the Republican party vacate — literally — in 1949?

14. Springfield native Lawrence F. O’Brien was a victim in what famous crime?

15. Elliot Richardson, the liberal Republican who held multiple cabinet posts in Washington, wasn’t so popular among his fellow GOP members in Massachusetts. He lost tough primary races here in 1962 and in 1984; who were the winners in each case?

16. What colorful Boston Democrat was bounced out of Congress by a challenger running as an independent?

17. The Massachusetts Legislature dabbled in foreign policy (not for the last time) when it passed the Shea Act in 1970. What did the Shea Act attempt to do?

18. Long before Pat Buchanan started running for president, what Bay Stater declared “We must be now and forever for Americanism and nationalism, and against internationalism”?

19. What “leadpipe guarantee” was broken in 1975?

20. The membership of what body plummeted by 33 percent in 1979?

21. Who was “named” — and not for an award — by state Senate President William M. Bulger in 1981?

22. Since Massachusetts began holding seriously contested presidential primaries in 1968, which “favorite son” has racked up the biggest win?

 

ANSWERS:

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Everything you always wanted to know about Bay State politics (but were afraid to ask)

1. In the early part of the century, the Good Government Association investigated reports of corruption among Boston politicians — most of them Irish Democrats. James Michael Curley coined the nickname.

2. ROAR, or Restore Our Alienated Rights, fought “forced” school busing in Boston during the 1970s.

3. Former US House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, who made the prophecy on the television program Nightline in 1989.

4. Boston University President John Silber made the statement to reporters during his 1990 campaign for governor.

5. Republican Gov. William Weld won 70.9 percent in his 1994 re-election bid, and Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy won 74.3 in his 1964 re-election bid.

6. Walsh favored giving women the right to vote.

7. The Boston Police Strike. Gov. Calvin Coolidge fired all the strikers; many of their replacements were Harvard students. The incident brought Coolidge national visibility, which led to his nomination as vice president in 1920.

8. The Lowell Committee, as it came to be known, upheld death sentences for Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who had been convicted of armed robbery and murder. Most observers concluded that the pair were innocent and were actually convicted on the basis of their radical political beliefs.

9. He was speaker of the US House of Representatives from 1919 to 1925, the first of four Bay Staters to occupy that office. The others were Republican Joseph R. Martin Jr. (1947-49 and 1953-55) and Democrats John W. McCormack (1962-71) and Tip O’Neill (1977-87).

10. New York Gov. Al Smith, who won 50.2 percent in 1928. Smith was also the first Catholic nominated for president by a major party.

11. He backed Franklin Delano Roosevelt over Al Smith for the Democratic nomination in 1932. Kept out of the state’s official delegation, Curley went to the convention as a representative of Puerto Rico and made a speech under the name of Jaime Miguel Curleo.

12. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones wrote and sang “The Rascal King.” It’s recorded on their 1998 CD Live at the Middle East.

13. The office of the Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Tip O’Neill became the first Democrat in state history to serve as Speaker. When he moved in to the wood-paneled office, however, he discovered that all of the furniture and files had been cleaned out.

14. O’Brien was chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1972, when men connected to the Nixon administration calling themselves “The Plumbers” broke into his office at the Watergate hotel and office complex. But rather than “plug leaks” they drained the life out of the Nixon presidency.

15. In 1962, Richardson lost the nomination for attorney general to Edward Brooke, who later became the first black US senator since Reconstruction. In 1984, he lost the nomination for US senator to businessman Ray Shamie.

16. Joe Moakley, now the dean of the state’s congressional delegation and a Democratic stalwart, ran as an independent to defeat one-term incumbent Democrat Louise Day Hicks in 1972. Moakley returned to the party fold as soon as the votes were counted. The next year, Hicks won a seat on the Boston City Council, where the anti-busing activist seemed happier anyway.

17. The Shea Act “exempted” Massachusetts residents from having to serve in Vietnam.

18. US Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, an opponent of American participation in the League of Nations, made the statement in a speech before the Republican National Convention in 1920.

19. Gubernatorial candidate Michael S. Dukakis’s 1974 campaign pledge not to seek additional state taxes.Facing a severe budget deficit, the newly elected governor proposed $687 million in tax hikes, of which the Legislature approved $364 million. George Bush went on to make the same unrealistic promise (“Read my lips ….”) when he ran against Dukakis for president in 1988. In 1990, Bush signed a deficit-reduction package that raised the top personal income tax rate from 28 percent to 31 percent.

20. The state House of Representatives, which was reduced from 240 to 160 members.

21. Alan D. Sisitsky, a liberal Democrat from Springfield, became the first state senator in history to be “named,” or removed from the chamber, for “unparliamentary behavior during debate.” The cited “behavior” was the latest in a long series of angry speeches accusing Bulger, a fellow Democrat, of heavy-handed and unfair practices in his rule over the Senate. Sisitsky was allowed to return only after publicly apologizing for his conduct. He did not run for re-election the next year, and was instead treated for what his brother called “physical and emotional fatigue.” 22. Though his national appeal proved limited, Paul Tsongas won 66.4 percent of the vote in the 1992 Democratic primary, beating the records of Ted Kennedy (65.1 percent in 1980), Michael Dukakis (58.6 percent in 1988), and Robert Kennedy (27.6 percent as a write-in candidate in 1968).

Robert David Sullivan is a freelance writer who lives in Somerville. His e-mail address is Robt555@aol.com.

Chemical Reaction

Machines stamp, whir, and grunt loudly in Plant B of the Acushnet Rubber Co. in New Bedford. The stench of rubber fills the vast space of the century-old factory, as workers churn out gaskets, wiper blades, and other rubber products used by auto makers and office-equipment manufacturers. High tech it isn’t.

But forward-thinking is still very much in evidence at Acushnet. Managers and workers are constantly on the lookout for ways to increase the plant’s efficiency, and one way is to use chemicals that are less costly and less toxic. Jack Bailey, the firm’s director of environmental affairs, points to a row of huge vats used to clean oil from metal rings before they are joined with rubber to make bearings for automobile steering columns. Acushnet once spent $20,000 a year on trichloroethylene, a toxic solvent commonly used as a degreaser, says Bailey. Three years ago the company switched to a cheaper, water-based cleaner that did the job just as well.

Less cost to the company—and to the environment. It’s a new way of thinking that says companies can be both lean and green.

Acushnet had already committed itself to environmentally conscious planning a decade ago when Massachusetts passed the Toxics Use Reduction Act. But Bailey credits the first-in-the-nation law with prodding Acushnet to go further. “It took us to the next level,” he says of the 1989 legislation, which makes companies report their use of toxic chemicals and draw up plans to use less of these hazardous agents.

Bailey isn’t the only one singing TURA’s praises. In October, the state program was named one of 10 winners of the Innovations in American Government Award, given annually by the Ford Foundation and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “The award points to the total success of this program,” says Robert Durand, the state’s secretary of environmental affairs.

State officials may be justified in crowing a bit. After all, the program was chosen from among 1,500 applicants nationwide. But they have a more practical reason for trumpeting the recognition TURA received: Massachusetts business groups—maintaining that the law has done little to reduce pollution and has become a bureaucratic noose on the neck of industry—want to get rid of it.

“After 10 years of paying millions of dollars of fees to support bureaucratic paperwork exercises like the TURA reporting, which doesn’t benefit the environment at all, it’s time for a change,” says Michael DeVito, director of the Massachusetts Chemical Technology Alliance, a trade organization representing chemical makers. DeVito and other industry representatives want to see TURA replaced with a voluntary program that offers tax credits to companies that reduce toxic chemical emissions.

These complaints could be dismissed as knee-jerk industry griping —state-imposed requirements are made to be complained about— except that, for all their boasting about TURA, government officials seem to be listening. A blue ribbon panel appointed by former environmental affairs secretary Trudy Coxe spent seven months hashing out ideas for revamping TURA. And Durand, the current environmental chief, has drafted a new bill to put those ideas into law.

The state’s apparent eagerness to recraft the toxics statute raises a curious question, one mentioned nowhere in the state’s lengthy application to the Kennedy School competition: If TURA is so great, what’s there to fix?

The greening of industry

In part, the state is simply reacting to the constant drumbeat of industry opposition, which has taken the form of various bills filed in the Legislature over the past several years to eliminate the main reporting requirements of the law. But even TURA’s proponents say the law could be improved.

“Almost everyone now believes changes would improve and make the program better,” says Ken Geiser, director of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute, a state-funded research and training program established by the TURA law. He adds, however, that “there are a lot of differences on what those changes should be.”

Indeed, the unfolding battle uncovers a new fault line in the evolving debate over environmental policy. As companies lay claim to a new corporate ethos of environmental awareness—and point to dramatic reductions in pollution as proof of its effect—they say it’s time for heavy-handed regulations to give way to a more cooperative approach to pollution prevention.

“Thirty years ago or 20 years ago, when everybody knew that perhaps government needed to give industry a boot, I was in college,” says Edward Jamro, the environmental protection manager at Solutia, in Springfield, the largest chemical manufacturer in the state. “People like me have been hired by companies, and most companies now have an environmental ethic.” Government’s role, says Jamro, should be to “encourage that and enhance it.”

The law encourages firms to reduce their use of toxics.

He gets no argument from Durand. There are “a lot of people who grew up in our generation who care about these issues,” says the state’s environmental affairs chief, who’s 46. “And the mindset at the CEO level, at the board level, is a lot different than it was 10, 15 years ago.” But Durand and other state officials say that doesn’t mean TURA should be tossed aside.

“There are companies that will respond to an incentive-based program and others that won’t,” says state Rep. Douglas Petersen (D-Marblehead), the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Natural Resources and Agriculture. “I don’t agree that if you show them the way they’ll all come running.”

By requiring companies to file public reports on their use of toxic chemicals, the TURA statute was designed to spur firms to seek out ways to reduce their use of toxics. And proponents of the law claim it has done just that.

“Shining the light on toxics use has created an incentive to reduce toxics,” says John DeVillars, who recently stepped down as New England regional administrator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s a way to inform communities about the environmental activities in their communities, and I think that knowledge and information often leads to polite, but firm, pressure, which then leads to more responsive environmental practices,” says DeVillars, who was state environmental affairs secretary under Gov. Michael Dukakis when TURA was enacted.

Since TURA has been in effect, after adjusting for increases in industrial output, Massachusetts businesses have decreased their use of toxic chemicals by 24 percent, reduced the generation of hazardous byproducts by 41 percent, and cut the release of emissions by a whopping 80 percent. But industry officials point to similar reductions in emissions in surrounding states that don’t have such a law. They say the Massachusetts gains have been part of a nationwide trend toward improved environmental practices that has occurred independent of TURA.

“Our view of the raw data suggests that TURA’s had little or no impact on either the use of chemicals or release of emissions into the environment,” says Robert Ruddock, vice president for energy and environmental programs at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s main industry lobbying group.

TURA advocates readily acknowledge that emissions to the air, land, and water have also been reduced markedly in surrounding states. But they say the focus on such “end of the pipe” measurements misses the main point of the law, which is to reduce the use of toxics at the start of the production process and the levels of toxic byproduct that must be dis-posed of in waste sites afterward. Unless production practices are changed, they say, reducing smokestack emissions or toxic releases into the water may only shift the environmental burden to waste disposal.

There is no way to compare Massachusetts with neighboring states on chemical use, since none have TURA-like reporting requirements. However, the federal Toxics Release Inventory, which monitors emissions, also collects data on waste byproducts disposed of through hazardous waste treatment sites or other means. On this measure, Massachusetts industries do appear to be “greener” than those in neighboring Connecticut, for example—the New England state regarded as having the most comparable industrial base. From 1991 to 1997, annual toxic waste byproduct per facility in Connecticut ranged between 567,200 and 702,300 pounds, while the comparable figures in Massachusetts were 193,000 to 239,600 pounds per facility. “I think that’s where you’re seeing the effect of the toxics use reduction law,” says Dwight Peavey, coordinator of the Toxics Release Inventory for the EPA’s Region 1 office, which oversees the six New England states.

Command and control?

But does TURA demand too much of industry, and for no good reason? Although the statute outlined a statewide target of reducing toxic waste by 50 percent by 1997, there are no requirements that an individual company achieve any specific reduction. The idea was that firms would reduce toxics use and the generation of waste byproducts on their own, once they completed mandated annual reports on their chemical use and biannual plans to reduce their use of toxics. This absence of mandated reductions in chemical use, say TURA proponents, undercuts industry’s characterization of the law as onerous “command and control” regulation.

Indeed, when TURA was enacted in 1989, it appeared to enjoy broad support, even from industry. “Everybody ended up a winner on this one,” John Gould, the president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, proclaimed on the day the TURA bill was signed. But Gould and other industry leaders didn’t embrace the bill in a vacuum. Looming over AIM and other business groups was the threat of a statewide ballot question that would have imposed far more sweeping mandates on chemical use.

“Somebody can have a smile on their face as their arm’s being twisted behind their back,” says DeVito, of the chemical-makers trade organization.

After 10 years, AIM and some other business leaders aren’t smiling anymore. They say the mandate to file toxics use reduction plans every two years has become particularly burdensome to companies that have already been through the process. “After you’ve done it once, there is little value in the updates,” says AIM’s Ruddock. “You simply do it for the sake of doing it, because your deadline’s up and you have to.”

Companies must file TURA reports if they manufacture or process 25,000 pounds or more of a toxic substance annually or if they use 10,000 pounds or more of a toxic agent as part of their production process. In 1998, the last year for which complete figures are available, 520 Massachusetts firms filed TURA reports. To complete the forms, companies must wade through a 29-page, IRS-like set of instructions plus a pile of appendices. Meanwhile, the biannual plans for reducing chemical use must be approved by a certified toxics use reduction planner, who may be either an outside contractor hired by the firm or a company employee who has gone through the necessary certification training.

And then there are fees, which vary according to the number of toxic chemicals used and the size of a firm’s work force. TURA fees can reach $31,450 per year for each facility. Polaroid Corp., which has five separate facilities in Massachusetts, paid $85,250 in TURA fees in 1998, and the company estimates the actual cost to be roughly twice that amount, considering the personnel costs of reporting and planning.

State officials contend that companies make back the costs in efficiencies the TURA planning process uncovers. They point to an Abt Associates study that showed Massachusetts companies realizing a net savings of $14 million from 1990 to 1997 as a result of the TURA program. But that doesn’t mean a particular company such as Polaroid continues to reap production savings from plans they prepare every two years.

Industry critics want to scrap reporting requirements.

One aspect of the program praised by all sides is the Office of Technical Assistance. More than one-third of TURA’s $4.8 million annual budget supports the OTA staff, who provide free assistance to Massachusetts companies in finding ways to reduce costs by reducing use of toxic chemicals.

But how to fine-tune TURA is still a matter of controversy. The 12-member blue ribbon panel set up by the state environmental affairs office, which included state officials, business representatives, and environmental advocates, was unable to reach consensus. Ruddock, the AIM representative, and Stephen Greene, director of environmental affairs at Polaroid, submitted a minority report advancing the industry preference for an entirely voluntary pollution prevention program.

State officials, legislative leaders, and environmental advocates alike say they’re open to industry’s idea of incentives, such as tax credits, to reward companies that demonstrate continued progress in reducing toxics use. And they are willing to lighten the paperwork load for companies, including paring back planning requirements for companies that have already been through the process. But to do away altogether with the requirement of reporting chemical use and devising plans to reduce it, say state officials, would be throwing out the baby with the wastewater.

“We’ve made it very clear that the mandate on reporting is not going to be eliminated,” says Gina McCarthy, assistant secretary for pollution prevention, environmental business, and technology. “There are some things that aren’t up for grabs. That’s the underlying premise of the law, and that’s what’s worked.”

The draft bill prepared by Durand’s office retains TURA’s principal reporting requirements but also introduces some streamlining to cut back on unnecessary paperwork. An incentive-based system to reward substantial reductions in toxics use is also included. And responding to calls for a wider view of pollution prevention, the bill provides incentives for a broad range of corporate green schemes, such as reducing solid waste and cutting water and energy use.

“Here’s the goal: pollution prevention,” Durand says of the draft legislation. “We’re not going to micromanage you on how you get there. We just want you to get there.”

The draft legislation also extends TURA’s reach beyond the manufacturing world to include other major chemical users not covered by the current law, such as hospitals, universities, and government agencies, and the reporting threshold is lowered for the most hazardous chemicals, such as lead and mercury.

But industry officials set on scrapping TURA aren’t ready to throw in the towel yet. DeVito of the Massachusetts Chemical Technology Alliance—which opted not to even take part in the blue ribbon panel discussions—says his group is continuing to make the case against TURA.

Environmental advocates say the stakes may be particularly high for opponents of the state law because the EPA has been considering a proposal to impose TURA-like reporting requirements on companies nationwide. If industry can eliminate the mandated reporting provisions of the Massachusetts model, they say, it may help derail the federal effort. “They want to kill it in the cradle,” says James Gomes of the Environmental League of Massachusetts.

But the Legislature seems unlikely to go along with any such scheme. Petersen, the House natural resources committee chairman, says, “I think there is legislative support for a draw—give a little on this side, give a little on that side. There’s really no appetite that I perceive in the House to do away with TURA.”

A draw might be as good as it gets for TURA opponents. Environmental consciousness may have been the exclusive domain of rabble-rousing activists in the era of the first Earth Days, in the early 1970’s, but a generation later everyone from the suburban soccer mom to the city dweller is wary of what’s going on at the plant down the street. “I don’t think any legislator would relish going back to their constituents to explain why they voted to take away people’s right to know about cancer-causing chemicals,” says Gomes.

Still, doing away with wasteful paperwork and devising creative new approaches to pollution prevention seem fully in keeping with the Innovations in American Government Award state leaders are boasting about. Industry leaders can even take some credit for the current reevaluation of the law, and for forcing necessary changes. But with the barn door now open on public disclosure of industrial chemical use, it will be tough to find support for slamming it shut.

Michael Jonas is a free-lance writer and regular contributor to The Boston Globe.

Schools and unions

In Brockton, they helped establish a Horace Mann Charter School that serves high school dropouts; in this, the school’s second year, enrollment has doubled to 110 students. In Worcester, they collaborated with the school administration to establish grants to nurture up-and-running innovative educational programs of proven effectiveness. In Brookline, they monitored renovation of the high school, insisting on stringent health and safety measures to protect students, faculty and staff, who continued to use parts of the building during construction.

“They” are the teachers unions, and much of the work they do benefits not only union members, but also the students, schools, and communities they serve.

As president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, I am well aware of the positive impact our local associations are having across the state. As a classroom teacher with 27 years’ experience, I am upset by critics who misrepresent the record of the union that has represented me for my entire professional life. I am upset by Carol Gerwin’s CommonWealth article, “When Unions rule the Schools” [Spring 1999].

Gerwin quotes an unnamed superintendent who asserts that “unions are the greatest obstacle to education reform.” This assertion is correct if we are talking about “reform” that is imposed from above, without the active participation of teachers in the decision-making process. Teachers know what works and what does not work in the classroom. Teachers are the ones who must implement reforms in the classroom. Therefore, teachers — speaking and acting through their unions — will indeed oppose schemes that they know from real-life experience will not enhance the education of their students.

MTA has launched its “Ask a Teacher” Campaign to emphasize these facts and to promote an agenda of reforms we know will work: smaller class sizes; alternative programs for disruptive students; mentoring programs for beginning teachers; and financial incentives that will help recruit and retain new teachers (at present, 40 percent of new teachers nationwide leave the profession after five years — a situation that is clearly unacceptable).

Many reforms do require teachers to put in longer hours, and teachers do expect more pay for more work. This is only reasonable, but Gerwin quotes a management attorney who states derisively that teachers “want to be paid for every extra minute.” It is strange and a bit amusing that an attorney who bills by the hour doesn’t seem to understand that teachers want to be paid for their time just like other professionals. (However, the compensation we get is considerably less!)

It is not surprising that so many of the administrators Gerwin interviewed bemoan the power of unions. As she herself points out, “Before collective bargaining, many teachers had to put up with superintendents and principals playing favorites, evaluating their work unfairly, and making important decisions unilaterally.” Teachers were “subject to the whims and fancies” of whoever came along, one superintendent admitted.

Does anyone seriously doubt that such abuses would proliferate without the protections afforded by unions and collective bargaining agreements? As it is, such abuses are not now that uncommon:

* In one central Massachusetts city, a teacher was involuntarily transferred and a job offer was rescinded after the teacher publicly criticized her school system’s inclusion efforts.

* A community college teacher was fired because, as one administrator explained to her, she “complained so much” about the school’s faulty heating system.

* The administration of an urban elementary school in eastern Massachusetts refused to recognize that a teacher’s illnesses were related to the fact that her classroom was in an old chemistry laboratory that had been inadequately renovated.

Happily, MTA was able to intervene successfully on behalf of the teachers cited above. But MTA’s actions range beyond the protection of teacher rights. In November, MTA and its members from across the state successfully lobbied the Legislature to restore $94 million cut from the education budget by Governor Cellucci — a cut which would have severely hampered education reform efforts. A continuing and fully funded education reform effort remains a top MTA priority. Working with our 87,000 members statewide, MTA will continue to oppose any measure that would damage the education we provide to our students. Likewise, we will join with any group or organization working to strengthen the public schools.

Gerwin discusses the success of collaborative bargaining in such communities as Springfield, Brookline, and Belmont, and notes that “ten MTA staff members are qualified to train school and union negotiating teams in the collaborative process, and some serve as facilitators at the bargaining table.” The truth is that, since its founding in 1845, MTA has always preferred collaboration to confrontation. The bottom line is a system of quality public education, nurturing to students, rewarding to teachers, and absolutely essential to the future of our Commonwealth.

Stephen E. Gorrie is president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

A new team

With this issue, we are pleased to announce several changes in the staffing of CommonWealth.

First and foremost, we welcome Robert Keough as editor. A distinguished journalist and researcher, Bob Keough has covered the people and politics of Massachusetts for nearly 20 years. Bob got his start in journalism as editor of Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston’s largest neighborhood, and went on to become editor of State House Watch, a publication covering Massachusetts government. Bob was also state government reporter for the Boston Business Journal and founding news editor of the Worcester Phoenix. Bob’s local and national credits include The Boston Globe Magazine, Education Week, Teacher Magazine, and Inc. He has been a contributing writer for CommonWealth since 1998 and is the author of Prisons and Sentencing in Massachusetts, a 1999 MassINC investigative report. We are extremely pleased that such an eminent, experienced professional has taken the helm of CommonWealth.

As of next issue, he will be joined by Millicent Lawton, who becomes an associate editor of CommonWealth. Before moving to Massachusetts in 1998, Millicent spent eight years on the staff of Education Week as a reporter and assistant editor. She has also reported for States News Service and the Gannett newspapers. Her other credits include The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard Education Letter, Scientific American Explorations, and, of course, CommonWealth.

Let us also offer a belated welcome to Heather Kramer, who took over last issue as art director of CommonWealth, replacing our founding art director, Meg Birnbaum, who has moved on to The American Prospect. Before striking out on her own as a graphic designer, Heather was assistant art director at New Age Journal.

And, lastly, we welcome back from leave associate editor Carol Gerwin and congratulate her and her husband, Michael Goldberg, on the arrival of their spectacular son, Max.

While the names on the masthead may change, CommonWealth‘s mission remains constant: to offer a compelling and insightful look into politics, ideas, and civic life in Massachusetts — and to be a fun read along the way. With a new team of talented professionals, we look forward to continuing to meet that challenge in the months and years ahead.

Alan Wolfe on politics and the public mood

The hoopla over the millennium has come and—thankfully—gone. But as the odometer of our times has turned over to zero-zero, there is no denying that we have begun a new age: a new year, a new decade, a new century. The question is, what kind of age is it? The Vietnam War in the ’60s, Watergate in the ’70s, the Reagan Revolution in the ’80s—these were pivotal events that lived on as shorthand for the period in which they occurred. But what made them age-defining is not so much the magnitude of the events but their significance in the collective consciousness of the public. In Watergate, a two-bit burglary brought down a president and gave rise to a cynicism about politics that has yet to dissipate. But the 1990s equivalent—the Starr investigation of President Clinton—turned a full-scale Senate impeachment trial into an anti-climax, dooming not a president but the type of congressional inquisition that Watergate introduced.

What events may come to define the first decade of the new millennium we can’t even imagine. But the public mood that will give these events their meaning is all around us, even if it is as ineffable as a wisp of smoke, harder to capture now than ever. In the Commonwealth as in the country there is quiescence where there is often controversy. It’s not that there are no issues, no problems, no challenges, just that no one is getting excited about them. The simplest explanation is prosperity. The longest peacetime expansion in American history has taken the edge off people’s anxieties and therefore their demands. But if there is no public clamoring, how are we—and our political officials—to know what the public wants?

If anyone knows, it’s Alan Wolfe. Sociologist by trade, social critic by mission, public intellectual by acclamation, Wolfe has made a career out of exploring the dilemmas of our time and, most importantly, how we think about them. In nearly a dozen books and scores of book reviews and essays in magazines like The New Republic, for which he is a contributing editor, Wolfe has weighed in on social controversies ranging from race to immigration, from school vouchers to income inequality. But it was in his 1998 book One Nation, After All that Wolfe shed new light on that bellwether of American politics and public morality, the suburban middle class. And he did so by going beyond public-opinion surveys, which force respondents into snap judgments and sharp positions, to engage 200 Americans from all over the country in extended conversation, offering them the chance to give full voice to the subtlety, ambiguity, and equivocation in their views. What he discovered in middle-class America was a world of small virtues, quiet faith, and grave reluctance to pass judgment on the way others choose to navigate the roiling waters of a changing world.

Wolfe is by no means done illuminating mainstream attitudes toward modern life. Recently migrating from Boston University to Boston College, where he is professor of political science, he has founded the Center for Religion and American Public Life. And he’s at work on a new book, one that very much picks up where One Nation, After All left off.

“The subject is moral freedom,” says Wolfe. “But it really began as a book about virtue and vice. I was interested in finding out how Americans think about the William Bennett [former education secretary and author of The Book of Virtues] kind of argument that we have lost our sense of virtue. And as I talked to more and more people around the country, it became clear that the real issue on their mind was: How do you live? How do you try to lead a good life? And do you answer that question by turning to what we could call institutions of moral authority—churches, parents, schools, and so on—or, since this is a very individualistic culture, do you look inside yourself? I found a surprising number of people who say they’d like to rely on institutions of moral authority but they really don’t trust them that much anymore. Therefore, they are looking to themselves. So I am writing about that and whether this portends disaster. I don’t think it does.”

What follows is a transcript of our conversation about politics and the American public mood today, edited for length.

CommonWealth: The question before us today, as we start out the year 2000, is: what is the public mood and, perhaps in part, how do we know what it is? Politicians mostly rely on polling and fairly short, politically-minded surveys. What do they learn about the public that way? And what is it you think they miss?

Wolfe: Well, I guess I should first say I am not sure what we talk about when we talk about the public. I think there is more than one public. You mentioned the presidential election. Here we are, there is no incumbent, it’s an open slate and what is happening? Well, George W. Bush is talking about “compassionate conservatism.” And he is talking about, of all things, the fact that the congressional Republicans are out of touch with the sense of fairness that Americans strongly believe in. And here are Bill Bradley and Al Gore talking in language that is not at all dissimilar. So, the presidential candidates—let’s assume it is going to be Bush versus Gore but even if it is Bush versus Bradley—are both moving towards the center and sounding more and more like each other. Meanwhile in Congress, the Republicans take an unprecedented step of rejecting a [nuclear test ban] treaty that was negotiated by the president of the United States. They seem to be far more into partisan wrangling—both parties in Congress—far more into deep ideological division. So, how do you explain that presidential politics is about consensus and congressional politics is about division? Well, it is two different publics. There is the public that is concerned about the presidency that is not an active public but when called upon will express its views. That is the presidential public, so to speak. The congressional public is composed of activists who are much more intense in their political views and are much more ideologically extreme. So, I think the single biggest change in the American public mood is the dividing of America into these two publics which creates tremendous ideological polarization on the one hand and more moves toward consensus on the other.

“The old economic issues, which polls were pretty good at, aren’t on people’s minds. Issues that involve how we live, polls aren’t very good at.”

Now polls and so on are a little hard to fit into that picture in some ways. The congressional candidates really don’t care about polls. They care much more about pleasing the few, the small percentage of voters in their districts that are going to come out and provide the energy and so on. National polls about where Americans might be on a particular issue are totally irrelevant to them because they are not elected nationally. They are elected in the districts. For national politicians, the polls are enormously important. But one of the things I have been emphasizing is that the polls miss a lot of things, especially when it comes to the moral issues or the cultural issues. Since this is the year 2000 and we are all talking about change, I think one of the big changes in American politics is that the old economic issues, where the polls were pretty good at picking things up, aren’t the big issues in people’s minds. Issues that involve how we live, the polls just aren’t very good at that. They don’t tell us about things like gays in the military, which of course was something that Clinton stumbled badly on and that Bill Bradley will be facing because he has made a very strong appeal to gay voters. We just don’t know how those things are going to play out.

CommonWealth: When you began the project that led to your book, you went out to explore those issues that aren’t picked up very well. There was, in the mid-’90s, a lot of talk about culture wars. There was a sense of the middle class being angry and judgmental. What did you find about the way middle-class people really think about these divisive social issues?

Wolfe: Well, certainly I thought, like almost everybody else, that people would be angry. The New York Times had just run a whole series on downsizing, about the angry middle class. I didn’t find that very much. The divisiveness I didn’t find very much. Americans hate the idea of being divisive. They want to be nice. They want people to like them. They want to like each other. I’m always struck by the fact that you have books like Deborah Tannen’s The Argument Culture, where she says we argue too much. Well, that’s true in Washington. But out there in the country, people don’t like to argue at all. If someone raises a point in disagreement everyone wants to agree with him. So, the idea of a culture war really struck me as bizarre by the time I got done…. Then you had the Clinton impeachment, in which people like Henry Hyde and others were absolutely convinced that they were not only going to get Clinton but just ride in and become a majority party on the grounds that Americans would be so angry about any evidence of marital infidelity that the old-fashioned morality would just rise up. And they got it completely wrong. It’s just one of those odd ways religion plays itself out in American society. It’s been pointed out by sociologists that, even though we’re a very religious country, Americans don’t know all that much about religion. They don’t actually know the Bible. But one story in the Bible that everyone knows, one passage everyone will cite, is, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” So, when they talk in this [non-judgmental] way, they are actually citing the Christian tradition to do so. It’s not the way a Ralph Reed or other conservative Christians would talk, but it’s the way Americans talk.

CommonWealth: Still, you did find the issues that seem to be captured in the idea of culture wars playing out within individual people rather than between groups. People are struggling with changes in family structure and family life. They are struggling with increasing insecurity in the economy, even in a time of general prosperity. But the image of warring camps, of people choosing sides between Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown, wasn’t the right way to capture those struggles. What is the right way to sort out, from a political standpoint, what it means that Americans are grappling with moral dilemmas?

Wolfe: One of the things I found that is both a nice thing but also a very disturbing thing is that Americans don’t like it when things are politicized at all. They like religion but they hate politics, so they don’t want to see those two blended. So, the paradox is that the minute you come to people and try to turn anything they are saying into a kind of political platform, they are going to turn off. I don’t know how to break through that. I was struck by, when the shootings occurred [at Columbine High School] in Littleton, Colorado, how every ideological interest group in the United States immediately wanted to jump in and say, this proves X, Y, or Z. This proves that we need gun control. This proves that we need prayer in the schools. This proves that we’ve got to have censorship of the Internet. I mean, you name it. And that is exactly what most people didn’t think. They didn’t think it proved anything. They just thought that it proved there were a couple of really crazy kids out there. I’m not sure who’s right. I think Littleton does raise issues that we need to talk about. But Americans don’t like being sermonized at and being lectured over it. Now, that’s not the way I feel. I’m an intensely political person. To me it’s somewhat mysterious, it’s terra incognita, when I hear people talk like that. But that is the way they talk.

CommonWealth: The other thing that the culture wars did for us in the media and for political people in general is that it gave us some sort of guideposts for figuring out what is going on out there. What is there that passes for conventional wisdom now? We don’t have the culture wars. We don’t have the angry middle class. The “soccer mom” seems to have come and gone as the key to electoral success. Is there a conventional wisdom informing the politics of this election year?

Wolfe: I think there will be. I don’t have any inroads to the George W. Bush camp at all. I don’t even know people that know him. But “compassionate conservatism” is a brilliant idea. It’s exactly where I think Americans are at. They are pretty conservative but they are very, very compassionate. If you can [espouse] that and be credible, I think it is a terrifically effective strategy. The problem is, of course, that [Bush] will have all these crazy Republicans in his own party that he won’t able to control, who are anything but compassionate and, I should say, anything but conservative. We are talking about very radical people in the congressional wing of the Republican party. So, I think the discovery of compassion may be the next issue, depending on how it plays out.

“‘Compassionate conservatism’ is a brilliant idea. It’s exactly where I think Americans are at.”

Even though the pundits all say that campaign finance reform or issues of CEO salaries and the influence of money in politics are dead issues, that no one’s interested, I don’t sense that. I sense that this is something that people are really concerned about. All my interviews point this out. But I can’t persuade politicians of this. There was a dinner at the Kennedy Library [last fall] … and I found myself sitting next to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, lieutenant governor of Maryland. She asked me your question, What’s the next big issue? I said I just sense this enormous anger about the role that money is playing in politics. And she said, “Well, I speak three times a day, every day, all over my state, and no one has ever brought it up.” I’m not sure. It may be that people will not voice this. But in my interviews it comes up over and over and over again, the cynicism. It may never surface [as a dominant issue] but I do sense that it is lingering out there. Most Americans understand the way votes are bought now, through campaigns and the financing of campaigns. Both Democrats and Republicans do it. And it makes them so cynical that they don’t even want to express that it bothers them, so deep is the cynicism. I think it’s also related to the fact that this economic boom hasn’t redistributed income in any really significant way. Again, I don’t think it is a Republican or a Democratic thing. I just think there is a sense out there in the country, that, okay, we have done welfare reform and that was a good thing to do. Now, on the other hand, we shouldn’t allow the kind of tremendous income gap that has emerged in this country. It is just not fair.

CommonWealth: I’d like to separate out those two issues about money. One of the issues is money in politics. I wonder how much of the public concern about that is cause and how much of it is effect—that is, people understanding that money influences politics in a way that does not reflect their interests but the interests of somebody else with more money and more power as a result. But how much of that comes from a more general sense that government doesn’t really serve their interests and campaign contributions become the explanation they grab on to? Is it a sufficient explanation—sufficient to the extent that people would be willing to act on it and actually vote for candidates who will really make a change in campaign financing laws?

Wolfe: It is just a paradoxical issue. I just don’t know how to say it otherwise. If people care about it, they care about it to the extent that they become totally cynical about it and then the cynicism puts them in the position where they don’t even want to acknowledge that they care about it. While that is an incredible paradox, cutting through it essentially defines what political leadership is about. Political leadership is about articulating in a way that is effective what is on people’s minds but they don’t even want to acknowledge. So when politicians say to me, “Suppose you are right, how do you reach them?” I can only respond, “Well, that’s your job.” That is what political leaders have to do. If I knew how to do it I would be a political leader but I don’t.

CommonWealth: The other issue about money is money in society. Ours is a money-driven society—those who don’t have it would certainly like to have it—but there is also the sense, coming back to the moral structure that people live by, that there is such a thing as too much money. You argued, in an op-ed article in The New York Times in September, that there is a general resentment of what people see as ill-gotten gains, whether those gains are ill-gotten by welfare recipients who are in some sense seen as undeserving or by stock-option billionaires whose financial windfalls seem out of all proportion to what they deserve. And that moral judgment, you say, could have political resonance.

Wolfe: Yes, well, I have now done 400 interviews—200 for One Nation, After All and 200 for my next book. These interviews have been done all over the country. Everyone in Massachusetts, of course, knows the story of Aaron Feuerstein [of Malden Mills] and the way he kept his workers [on the payroll] after the mill burned down. I can also tell you that that story is known everywhere in every corner of this country. I can’t believe how many people bring it up. Now, they don’t remember his name. They will say things like, “There was that guy…,” over and over and over again. Also, there was a case of a downsizing at AT&T when the CEO then immediately exercised stock options that made him $14 million richer. People know the exact amount. These things stick in people’s minds. Most of the time, when you ask people for anecdotes about a moral issue, they respond by talking about Dennis Rodman or Madonna or something like that. But on this issue, they know these things. It is amazing how deep this goes.

CommonWealth: At the same time, you note the absence of any sort of class resentment around the issue of downsizing. In general, you found that people who had even gone through that experience themselves and lost their jobs seem to not only be willing to bear that burden without complaint, but even believe there’s a certain virtue in it. American society and the American economy are better off that we weather these sorts of storms. There’s a certain pioneering character to surviving economic change that they don’t remember in their own 1950s-era parents, who expected to get the gold watch from a company they worked for all their life. So, there is an interesting split between the idea that people are not unwilling to make a sacrifice—or to be sacrificed, for that matter—in the interest of progress and of future economic gain but that doesn’t mean they can’t be mad as hell at people who seem to get more than their fair share.

Wolfe: It’s not even a split really. I think it is perfectly consistent. They are saying, I understand that I have to sacrifice, so why can’t the guy [at the top] sacrifice his stock options? It is the idea of unearned income that really bothers them. I recognize that corporations and their boards of directors need to recruit the best talent and to do that they often offer them these stock option plans. But boy, it sticks in people’s craws that companies that don’t make money and the executive that hasn’t earned it can still exercise the options and collect. That’s what really bothers people. And so the feeling [of most people] is, all right, this is capitalism. We like capitalism. Capitalism means that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. But here are these people who never lose. And that is what gets them angry.

CommonWealth: Are there other issues that are kind of sleepers in that way, problems that pundits and politicians assume don’t resonate but that, from your interviews and conversations, you think may strike a deeper chord than perhaps the political world is prepared for?

Wolfe: Well, there was another one, but it is now resonating, and that is education. If you had asked me this four years ago I would have said I think that education is going to become a big issue. That’s because there are a lot of kids out there and parents really get very involved. So, I am one who believes that the deterioration of the public schools, which is significant, is a huge issue. It has led to the interest in vouchers, which is unstoppable. I think it could have been stopped if the schools had reformed themselves, but they never did. So there was a kind of inevitability around this. I think we will find ourselves with a good old-fashioned American compromise, in which vouchers will in fact stimulate the public schools to do better and they will do better. We will both have vouchers and, if the courts eventually rule on the constitutional issues involving their use in religious schools, we will find that they won’t in fact lead to the complete deterioration of the public schools. On the contrary, they will force the public schools to improve themselves. In the meantime though, it puts politicians in a very interesting position, especially Democrats who have strong loyalties to educators, who are very cautious on this issue to say the least. I recently was invited by a very, very prominent state in the United States, the state of Florida, where the governor, whose name is [Jeb] Bush, has introduced school vouchers. I was invited by the school of education at the University of Florida in Gainesville to give a talk there. And I said to myself before I left, I bet I am going to go down into the heart of schoolteacher country and I am going to find a surprising amount of support for vouchers. And I did, I did. Obviously, I found people who just were hostile, but among people who teach the teachers, there is a recognition that something has got to change.

CommonWealth: I wonder, though, whether the voucher issue, if it is going to proceed, isn’t going to have to move, as so many things in American politics do, from the level of ideology to the level of pragmatism. I sense there is a growing interest in vouchers as yet another way of getting at the issue of failing schools, particularly in urban areas. I see it having less appeal as a substitute for supporting locally-based public schools in the suburbs.

Wolfe: No, I think you’re right. To me it is completely linked to this economic justice question. If poor people in America had the kind of choices that middle class people in America have for schools, we wouldn’t have vouchers as an issue. It is because they don’t that we do. I think it is only in the context of talking about vouchers restricted to inner-city environments that anything makes sense here. Look, there’s just no doubt that if you are middle class in this area and you can choose where you want to live and you are going to move to Newton or Brookline or Wayland or Wellesley or whatever because of the schools, then that is something that parents will die for, will fight for. Now, how can you say that because you are a middle-class professional you have that right and then deny it to an inner-city African-American mother? To me, the fact that the left does not recognize that this is an issue of social justice is a serious issue. It will have to be posed as an issue of social justice, I think, to succeed.

“If poor people had the choices that middle-class people have for schools, we wouldn’t have vouchers as an issue.”

CommonWealth: One thing struck me in reading your book. You have some wonderful characterizations of the kinds of moral stances that middle-class people take, things like quiet faith and small virtues. There is a modesty that infuses even people’s strongest desires to be able to distinguish between right and wrong and act on that difference. I wonder how that translates into an agenda for politics, though, and for government. Are we doomed to the sort of small-bore ideas that characterized the 1996 election—the school uniforms and other things that don’t cost any money, the symbolic stances? Is that all the American people can take?

Wolfe: Well, he’s not one of the most admirable people in the world, but Dick Morris probably got it right when he advised Bill Clinton to focus on the school uniforms and things like that. I think that’s the way successful politicians are going to be talking. I think that the American people aren’t going to be receptive to the big ideas. At the same time, it is the big ideas that define where we are in this society. I think there is a general recognition that one big idea, pure, laissez-faire market capitalism is not an appropriate idea—even Reagan didn’t really pursue that. I think the one person who genuinely pursued that agenda was Margaret Thatcher and that led to a kind of reaction against it, when people saw what it really meant. So, that is one big idea. The other big idea is some kind of government regulation of the economy, some form of New Deal politics, or in Europe what they call social democracy, and that is thoroughly discredited. The third way, as [Britain’s] Tony Blair and [Germany’s] Gerhard Schroeder and others call it, is crying out for ideas but no one has them. So, it is going to be small-bore politics in the election. But I hope that the intellectuals, the policy people, are thinking pretty hard about what the big ideas might be, because eventually they will have to be tested out in the marketplace of politics.

CommonWealth: In the Democratic rethinking of liberalism there has been a call for new ideas but very few produced. You can trace it back to Walter Mondale calling Gary Hart’s bluff with, “Where’s the beef?” It’s easy to want to break out of the constraints of old ways of thinking but that doesn’t actually happen very often, does it?

Wolfe: No, it doesn’t. But on the conservative end of the spectrum ideas are “in” because the conservative ideas that have been going for the last 20 or 30 years have reached a dead end and are in many ways contradictory. How can you be a libertarian and say you should get government off the backs of industry and not recognize that you will then have a flourishing pornography industry, a flourishing gambling industry, and so on? The gambling industry is huge, and of course it finances candidates. Now a lot of really conservative people are deeply appalled—[They say] this is not what conservatism is. At the same time, these gambling resorts are so very popular. People are going to them. So, how is that going to play out? Imagine being in some meeting of a conservative think tank and you have the libertarians coming in and they are saying freedom, freedom, freedom and then you have the Christian conservatives and the—

CommonWealth: And the moral-virtue camp.

Wolfe: That’s right. So that’s one. They are going to have to work out that big idea.

CommonWealth: How do you see [the issue of gambling] playing out? It is obviously a contradictory position for conservatives but where do you think the middle class, the middle-of-the-road person, stands on gambling? People go down to Foxwoods; they like playing the lottery. At the same time, I think there is a sense that it is a robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul kind of business.

Wolfe: Yes, well, the same issues also influence the left. The left believes that you should regulate the economy, but abortion and gay bathhouses, those are services. Those are commercial services on the market. Try to regulate them and before you know it some gay activist will be saying, “No, you can’t touch that.” So, you get the same contradiction on the left. But on the gambling thing specifically I think you have hit it exactly right. It is both morally unpopular but economically attractive. It raises to me a fascinating question which is a question at the heart of all theological and all political thought. That is, how do we know what people really want? I am very reluctant to say this, but there are issues where people will do something but also want to see it prohibited so they won’t do it.

Now, we say to that, you can never tell Americans that they can’t do what they want. In fact, we can. This country has stopped smoking in public places. No one could have predicted that. You can’t legislate morality, right? Well, you can. We legislated morality quite well. It is astonishing how we legislated morality. In Europe, where you have the welfare states, and the welfare states tell you everything you have to do, but you can’t regulate smoking there. People smoke like crazy. Same with seat belts. Everyone said, Americans will never take [mandatory use of] seat belts. Even Gov. Weld used to think that it was a libertarian issue. Well, you see enough teenagers die without seat belts and before you know it people are putting on their seat belts. So, gambling might be just one of those things where people are going to yell and scream, “We want to gamble,” but if you take it away from them and say you absolutely can’t do this except in Nevada or whatever, they’ll say, “Well, maybe that’s not so bad.” I don’t know.

CommonWealth: Let’s see if we can switch away from national politics and the big picture and get a little closer to home. What happens in state and local government touches people much more directly than what goes on in Washington. We are a couple of years away from a gubernatorial election, yet the political reading of the public mood and public expectations very much informs what happens in government. How do you see the middle-class mood playing itself out in Massachusetts politics?

Wolfe: When I was doing One Nation, After All, I would get this question from reporters, “What politician in America comes closest to where people are at?” And I would say, Bill Weld does, that his combination of libertarian on social issues and conservative [on economic issues] was really where people were at. He also had links with that tradition, like the Bush family, of that old-fashioned, New England, aristocratic Republicanism that I think has been one of our most successful political traditions, that [Theodore] Roosevelt kind of tradition. So when he was governor my sense is that—his skills as a politician are another matter—he did capture where people are at. And to the degree that [Gov.] Cellucci inherits that, even though he comes from a different ethnic background obviously, he prevents the kind of polarization that you get in the country. It’s just, when you break it down by region, you don’t find liberal Republicans in Arizona—although John McCain is in that tradition and he is from Arizona. So, I think the Republicans [here] have come up with two governors that have kind of understood that. As long as they do, it creates a very, very difficult situation for Democrats because they don’t know where to maneuver. Democrats are, of course, most happy when they can run against the most conservative Republicans. Massachusetts doesn’t offer them that opportunity.

CommonWealth: Is there a Democratic governor elsewhere that fills the same sort of bill? Is there a Democratic politician that “gets it” in the same way?

Wolfe: Well, there are plenty of Republican governors who seem to get it. Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and George Pataki in New York are all sort of in that tradition. The interesting thing is that in past years governors like them would have been natural presidential candidates. But the fact that there are two Bush sons that are governors kind of forecloses that [possibility] for the moment. Among Democrats, people tell me that the new governor of California has been pretty effective, Gray Davis. He could emerge as a fairly popular governor in a state that used to be conceded, in gubernatorial elections, to Republicans like Ronald Reagan and [Pete] Wilson. So, he is one possibility. A lot of people are talking about the governor of Washington state [Democrat Gary Locke]. He’s a Boston University [Law School] graduate and spoke recently at a BU commencement, but I don’t know [much about him].

CommonWealth: One issue that we haven’t touched on is race and opportunity. In Massachusetts we haven’t had the kind of mandated retreat from affirmative action policies that they had in California, with Proposition 209, and elsewhere. But school desegregation policies have been under consistent legal attack here, to the point where Boston has virtually given up the struggle for race-based student assignment. Are we getting to a point that there is no way to ration opportunity in a way that compensates for past and present barriers that doesn’t offend middle-class notions of individual merit?

Wolfe: Well, those are tough questions, and Boston and Massachusetts in general are tough places to talk about these things, given the history of opposition to busing and so on. I think it is kind of remarkable the way the busing controversy petered out in the state, given the passions that it inflamed. One of the things I implicitly argue in the book and I have argued explicitly in magazine articles is, the more we talk about race in America, the more divided we become. But the more we don’t talk about it, bit allow it to happen, so to speak, the more united we become. What that means is the kind of things that have happened to some degree in this state, that when some of the white parents in Boston just simply learned that there were African-American parents that were just as concerned about their kids’ education as they were, and so on, it had a tremendous effect on reducing some of the inflammatory tensions around the busing issue. And when they also learned that a lot of the African-American parents weren’t at all interested in busing but simply in good education for their kids, it had a big impact.

“The more we talk about race in America, the more divided we become.”

Similarly, I think it has had a huge impact that the city of Boston, which is so attractive to middle-class professionals, is attracting a black middle class, though slowly for sure. But considering just a few years ago there were incidents like Dee Brown being stopped by the police on the streets of Wellesley–that could never happen in Wellesley now. I used to live in Wellesley and you would never say Wellesley was integrated, but there are a lot more African-American families there now. And you just couldn’t imagine the same kind of thing happening. So, those are very slow forms of progress, but they are forms of progress. The fact that Boston still has a reputation among African-Americans as a racist city–well, I’ve heard that. There will always be African-Americans who perceive that and won’t want to live here.

You never know whether to be an optimist or pessimist with respect to race. You see the rise of the black middle class and you say that is tremendously optimistic. And then you go to Fenway Park and you see everyone in the stands is white. And then you realize that a lot of the papers have been writing that baseball is becoming a white sport. And you say, Oh, my God, even in sports, where you thought there was a tremendous amount of racial integration, it is actually segregated there. There are white sports and black sports. Even within a sport like football there are white positions and black positions and you just wonder.

Dishing the dirt

Not quite a year ago, Eric Fehrnstrom wrote a remarkable mea culpa for Boston magazine. Entitled “The Other Side of the Hill,” the essay traced Fehrnstrom’s journey from political reporter to political actor. His move from State House bureau chief for the Boston Herald to spokesman (and assistant state treasurer) for Joe Malone was not all that unusual. But the way he described it, the transition “from bomb thrower to bomb catcher” took more of an attitude adjustment than I, for one, ever imagined.

As a reporter, Fehrnstrom’s assessment of elected officials was simple, if simplistic: “In my book, they were all pretty much rogues, and we never cut them any slack. Every misstep and misstatement found its way into the paper.” Fehrnstrom recounted, however guiltily, his own successes in “gotcha” journalism, starting with his 1989 stakeout of Evelyn Murphy, then lieutenant governor and gubernatorial candidate, on vacation in Florida while Rome–or at least Beacon Hill–burned in fiscal inferno. It was the kind of tabloid triumph that earned Fehrnstrom the highest of newsroom compliments: “Nice hit.”

Once on the inside of state government, needless to say, Fehrnstrom saw things differently. “I learned, for instance, that the people who work in government are, in fact, people,” he wrote of his epiphany. “Their intentions are generally good, and they wrestle long and hard with serious issues and questions that most people ignore. And I learned that governments–the institutions and the people who run them–rarely get credit for the things they do right.”

That last comment has the ring of a press agent finding out how difficult it is to get his guy good ink. But the rest of Fehrnstrom’s revelation is remarkable for how obvious it is, at least to anyone who doesn’t limit his view of government to stupidity and corruption (to be exposed) and who sees politicians as something other than targets (to be hit). His confession, however heartfelt, seems less about the adversarial nature of the reporter-politico relationship than about a lack of imagination. And not just Fehrnstrom’s: I have no doubt that his lock-and-load attitude is widespread in the profession. But it leaves me wondering: What level of cynicism, if not contempt, does it take for someone to cover state government so closely for so long–and so well, I should add–and never develop any degree of empathy for the people who labor at it and struggle with its challenges?

I was telling the story of Fehrnstrom’s confession to a colleague recently, and he had quite a different reaction. He noted the thievery that was apparently taking place at the Treasury as Fehrnstrom was learning to love state government, and said, “We could have used a little more gotcha.”

Therein lies the challenge for us at CommonWealth magazine, and for me, in particular, as I take the helm for this, my first issue. The magazine is beginning its fifth year of reporting on politics and civic life in Massachusetts with a skeptical but sympathetic eye. We try not to be gullible, but we do extend to political actors of all stripes–Republicans and Democrats, elected officials, party activists, interest-group advocates–a presumption of good faith, even if that presumption is, as the lawyers say, rebuttable. That’s not because we think the combatants on the public battlefield are pure of heart, but because what’s at stake in government action–or inaction–on issues of vital importance is bigger than who’s goring whose ox.

Don’t get me wrong: CommonWealth likes a good scandal as much as anybody. Pettiness and intrigue make for good reading, and exposing these vices to light can be cathartic. But if we find Beacon Hill’s frequent revivals of School for Scandal more disheartening than thrilling, it’s because we see the unseemly side of political life threatening to devalue the very effort of addressing the issues of the day through the political process. Scandal often inspires reform, but it always reinforces cynicism.

For this, we can hardly blame reporters’ appetite for dirt. After all, nothing perpetuates “gotcha” journalism like an endless stream of scalawags who deserve to be gotten. But there is a danger in treating corruption and incompetence as chronic conditions of government. Boston Globe business columnist Steve Bailey reacted to the unfolding Treasury scandal by saying it was only a matter of time before some evidence of past wrongdoing turned up “because more than anything we have a lot of new fixers”–Treasurer Shannon O’Brien and Attorney General Tom Reilly, by name–“standing around in need of something to fix.” Bailey came close to arguing that this is exactly what we have elections for. “In a real sense, this is how the system should work. A place like the treasurer’s office is a backwater where big dollars are at stake and influence can be exercised, but is rarely seen. It is a place that should turn over often, not just from candidate to candidate but from Democrat to Republican.”

True enough, but it hardly explains why government agencies must be Augean stables, still filthy no matter how many times they’re cleaned out. The real scandal at the Treasury was not that somebody would try to loot the public cash drawer, but that they should find it easy to do so. Why should a government office whose sole function is to handle money be so lacking in rudimentary financial controls? Failure to answer that question is what made Joe Malone’s expressions of personal pain ring so hollow. Calling the alleged embezzlement by his former deputies “the ultimate betrayal,” Malone seemed to suggest that personal loyalty–rather than well-established procedures, effective supervision, and regular audits–should be the guarantor of lawful conduct.

Even worse, in some ways, was the Charlestown Navy Yard cut-rate condo scandal–a story broken by the crown princes of gotcha, the Globe “Spotlight” team. What was shocking in the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s approval of the below-market-rate resale of a condo to the agency’s own $90,000-a-year chief of staff was how many BRA officials signed off without even noticing that the deal made a mockery of the agency’s goal in building the housing in the first place. Just a decade after redeveloping the navy yard in part to create housing units that would remain affordable in perpetuity, the BRA apparently no longer cared about whether those homes remained in the hands of low-to-moderate-income families. Instead, the BRA allowed a flourishing black market in discount housing–developed at public expense–available to those in the know, rather than those in need. And all this took place in a Boston City Hall that has been obsessed with the cause of affordable housing through two administrations over the better part of 20 years.

Now, that’s good cause for gotcha, and good reason for a sense of self-righteousness to swell in the breasts of reporters who see public officials as prey to be hunted. But such investigative triumphs complicate the question that, in all its ambiguity, guides CommonWealth: How can political journalism be a vehicle for invigorating, rather than denigrating, civic life? Certainly no good would come from sweeping such foolishness and venality under the rug. It would only allow these political malignancies to spread. But every time a political figure lives up to our worst expectations, the cause of democratic government dies just a little.

We at CommonWealth will not renounce the use of gotcha; that would amount to unilateral disarmament. But mostly we will continue to make trouble in another way, by raising real questions about the purposes and practices of government. We do so not out of contempt for those elected or appointed to do the public’s business, but out of respect for the task they’re charged with. To us, holding public officials accountable means not just scrutinizing expense accounts but probing the ideas, plans, and actions of officials and institutions. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

Counterpoints

MCAS: Almost overnight it has become a household term in Massachusetts. Yet the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System remains misunderstood by many students, teachers, and parents. What, is the MCAS meant to do? What part should it play in the reform of public education in Massachusetts?

To begin with, the MCAS tests must be aligned with the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks on academic core subjects. The frameworks identify the essential knowledge and skills that every student in Massachusetts should acquire, and they define standards of achievement for various grade levels. As such, they form the base of a common body of learning in public schools across the state. But they are not a substitute for local curricula. Local schools and districts have authority and responsibility to design their programs of study; and it remains their prerogative to determine which framework topics should be studied in particular depth, and to include additional topics not covered in the frameworks.

Just as the frameworks are no substitute for local curricula, so the MCAS tests are no substitute for local assessments of student learning. Teachers can and must continue to give their own quizzes and tests, and to assign compositions, research projects, class demonstrations and performances that advance student learning and enable effective assessment. The school report card, with its grades and comments, should continue to be the summary statement of these assessments by teachers. The MCAS should not alter this.

The MCAS should ensure that the curriculum frameworks are implemented through local curricula and classroom instruction. In a good school, then, MCAS results should not lag behind report card grades. Students who are receiving As, or Bs, or Cs (or Ds or Fs) in a particular subject should score similarly on the MCAS exams–for the grades and the MCAS scores represent similar standards of achievement on content aligned with the frameworks. Lagging MCAS scores, in contrast, would suggest the frameworks have not been effectively implemented, or that local standards have been set too low. And in the very best schools, MCAS scores may even be higher than grades, because the MCAS standards may be lower than the school’s standards of achievement and grading.

Higher standards and stronger curricula will be of no avail, however, unless teachers are able to put them into practice. The frameworks and the MCAS exams are designed to guide and support the work of teachers, but they cannot take the place of that work. It is vital, then, that every child be taught by teachers who know their subjects and the best practices for teaching them.

We cannot expect every teacher to be outstanding, of course, any more than every lawyer or doctor or college professor. But every teacher must be fully competent–and the dismal results on the Massachusetts Educator Certification Tests give us reason to suspect not all are. Every teacher candidate taking that test had completed or nearly completed a teacher preparation program, and so in prior years would have routinely received initial certification, but over half of them, in the first administration of the MECT, failed either the test of literacy or of subject-matter knowledge, or both. The failure rate has diminished somewhat in subsequent administrations but remains shockingly high. The work of the Joint Commission on Educator Preparation should give rise to higher standards governing the education and certification of teachers, and, one would hope, suggest alternatives for qualifying teachers that will end the monopoly presently held by schools of education.

The curriculum frameworks, the MCAS exams, and the policies still in formation to elevate the quality of teachers–these are the three pillars of school reform in Massachusetts. Together they provide the necessary means for improving public education throughout the state. But the hard work of raising student achievement can only be done locally: in the individual school district, school, and classroom. Formal education succeeds or fails in the day-to-day interaction of teachers and students. Every reform at the state level should contribute to the effectiveness of that interaction.

What does all this imply, then, about the graduation requirement, beginning with the class of 2003, mandated by the Massachusetts Education Reform Act? The requirement to pass the 10th-grade MCAS exams is inextricably linked to the other elements of school reform, and so must be implemented in conjunction with them. We must make the curriculum framework for each subject stable (while still leaving room for continuing, small refinements); try out and refine the corresponding MCAS exam; and raise the quality of instruction over time. Accordingly, the state Board of Education is phasing in the requirement that high school graduates pass the 10th-grade MCAS exams, beginning with English and Mathematics. The passing grade is to be gradually raised, and the number of subjects tested gradually increased, until we can finally say with confidence: A diploma from any high school in Massachusetts is a true indication of academic achievement in every core subject.

We must be wary, though, of any measure, however well-intentioned, that falls short of that goal. One such measure, of which Rennie and Reville approve, is the Board of Education’s initial setting of the passing grade for the 10th-grade tests at the lowest point above “Failing.” Thus, the Commonwealth is prepared to grant a high-school diploma to students whose performance, as certified by their MCAS scores, “Needs Improvement.” This is giving up the battle for high standards before it is joined. If 10th-grade students are given a pass and a high-school diploma on the basis of a standard which the Department of Education defines as a high “F,” they will have no incentive for making that improvement in the 11th and 12th grades. We must resist this and any other temptation to fudge the meaning of a passing grade in order to give fraudulent diplomas to ill-prepared students.

While it may be permissible in the first few years to make only certain subjects, such as English and Mathematics, the focus of high-stakes testing, we must not ultimately settle for a system in which a student can fail one MCAS exam yet still receive a diploma, as Rennie and Reville propose. Just as any reputable college requires every graduate to satisfy all of its requirements–which often include the Natural Sciences, the Social Sciences, the Humanities, Mathematics, and English composition–so, too, should we require high school graduates to pass each MCAS exam. No diploma should be granted for “Failure” in any core subject.

For all too long we have lowered standards to match poor performance. Our task now is to raise performance and achievement to match high standards.

Edwin Delattre is dean of the School of Education at Boston University and a member of the state Board of Education. BU Chancellor John Silber is former chairman of the state Board of Education.

Graduation standards must apply to all

by William H. Guenther
Winter 2000

T he Education Reform Act of 1993 is working. We are raising standards in Massachusetts public schools to make our children the best prepared in the nation. Schools across Massachusetts–and in other states where standards and serious accountability measures have been introduced–are focused on student achievement with unprecedented intensity. Political leaders and schools are taking new, difficult, and sometimes expensive steps. Why now?

In the past, for too many kids and for their parents, the game we played was “Let’s Pretend.” All of us were part of this corrupt bargain. Not just schools, but parents, political leaders, and the larger community were part of the deal. If you showed up at school–and sometimes even if you didn’t–we gave you a high school diploma. But we wouldn’t guarantee its value.

We couldn’t tell you the truth in high school: that you might not have the skills for a good job. Instead, we left it to Massachusetts companies like Bell Atlantic or Gorton’s, or American Saw & Manufacturing, or the Armed Services, to give you the bad news. In many cases, 50 percent of you who applied for these jobs out of high school failed the companies’ standard elementary-school-level Math and English entry tests. If you went on to higher education, we left it to colleges to tell you, through their freshman placement tests, that you might be starting out behind, that the Bs and Cs you earned in high school didn’t mean you had the skills to get into higher-level college courses.

The fact is, we had state tests in Massachusetts for 10 years prior to the MCAS tests. They were rigorous and produced the same disappointing results we have seen on the MCAS tests. Did anyone pay attention? It seems not. There were no significant mandatory summer-school programs and no widespread weekend and after-school tutoring sessions in 1990. Schools across the state did not upgrade their curricula to respond to the continuing pleas from colleges for better prepared freshman.

Why are we taking actions across the state today that weren’t taken a decade ago? What has drawn the attention not only of schools, but of parents, who need to play a critical role in raising student performance?

The answer is clear: We now have academic standards reflected in tests that will count–for school districts and for students. Schools will continue to have their own additional graduation requirements, not least for work in the 11th and 12th grades. But we have set one minimum standard for all students in Massachusetts, no matter where they live, who they are, or what their family situation is.

After the first MCAS tests were introduced in 1998, change in schools accelerated. Some schools panicked and tried short-term test preparation as a substitute for the tougher process of improving instruction. But like the Advanced Placement tests or the New York State Regents exams, the MCAS tests require students to think and write out their answers. They don’t lend themselves to coaching; they demand good teaching and hard work.

So, with a test worth teaching to, and substantial consensus around the English and Math curriculum, we are faced with the most controversial step in the process: high stakes for students. There are legitimate worries–about higher drop-out rates, and about the kids who stay in school but fail the 10th grade tests repeatedly. Shouldn’t we keep part of the old bargain alive, just in case?

Jack Rennie and Paul Reville, without whom Massachusetts would not have made a commitment to real reform in 1993, have once again pushed us to focus on the critical issues at hand. They have made a series of reasonable suggestions. I part company with them on only one, but that one is central to maintaining the equity and leverage that statewide standards and high stakes have produced.

They suggest that, in anticipation of high failure rates when high stakes are first applied, school districts should be temporarily allowed to award local diplomas to students who have failed the 10th grade English or Math exit exams three times. The superintendents of the two largest urban school districts in Massachusetts, Tom Payzant in Boston and Peter Negroni in Springfield, disagree. They understand that if we open this door to nowhere, we are simply perpetuating the old corrupt bargain for more years and more kids–and we risk never being able to close that door in the future.

How have we helped the students without skills in English and Math by giving them a second-class local diploma that implies they have basic skills in these subjects when they don’t? This makes explicit the double standard we have implicitly accepted in the past, and eliminates much of the pressure to solve the real problem at hand: helping every child develop the skills they need to succeed in today’s world.

Local diplomas have been the coin of the realm. They have been devalued. We must exchange the old currency for a new one and give it the credibility it deserves.

Rennie and Reville are right to argue that we should think today about the students who may fail tomorrow. The first goal is to help all students graduate on schedule. Schools are taking important, but not yet sufficient, steps to offer programs for students at risk; the state Legislature has for the second year appropriated $20 million for this purpose.

However, the state and school districts together need to make a clear commitment to students who may not graduate on schedule. We need far more information on what works for these young adults. And we need to launch new initiatives with partners outside the schools, such as the community colleges. This is an issue that confronts suburban schools as well as urban schools. These students are not one group; different needs will demand different remedies.

The MCAS test scores released in December were disappointing, but there is visible evidence of change in schools across the state. Standards and tests with consequences will improve schools and make students better prepared. They cannot do so without setting one minimum graduation standard that will keep the pressure on everyone–schools, students, parents, and the larger community–to invest in solutions. We can’t pretend any longer that the problem doesn’t exist.

William H. Guenther is president of Mass Insight Education, an independent nonprofit corporation that works with schools and communities to raise student achievement.

Delays won’t solve problems of the test

by Karen Hartke and Monty Neill
Winter 2000

FairTest shares the educational goal of Jack Rennie and Paul Reville: the realization of “the dream of a school system which would deliver quality education to each and every child.” We, too, recognize that large numbers of students are likely to fail the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System graduation test and be unfairly denied important life opportunities, precisely because many children lack access to high-quality education. Massive test failure will tend to exacerbate public frustration with an educational system which failed to live up to its own standards before placing the “full weight of accountability” upon students.

However, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education’s solution to this impending crisis–to create a process for the “transition to high stakes”–will not lead to the goal they want-delivery of “quality education to each and every child.” Rennie and Reville merely propose to adjust the timing and sequencing of standards and high stakes tests.

These changes fail to address the real problems. Reliance on MCAS will undermine, not strengthen, efforts to provide authentic reform in education, particularly for low-income students, students of color, recent immigrants, and students with disabilities. Rather than raise achievement for all students, this narrow approach to accountability will increase the gap in opportunity and performance between groups of students, while also resulting in higher grade-retention and dropout rates. Further, the MBAE’s proposal for a multi-tiered diploma will only ratify the very inequities that have led Rennie and Reville to propose their temporary changes to the graduation tests.

In many schools, test-driven “reform” will increasingly damage the quality of teaching and learning; in others it will stifle attempts at true reform. These problems stem from the inadequacy of the test and from using a single instrument to make high-stakes decisions. The MCAS tests may be difficult, but they are not intellectually rigorous. They neither measure nor embody a rich, engaging curriculum. Reliance on the test to make important decisions or to use it to control curriculum and instruction will force schools to teach to an impoverished vision of education.

The primary purpose of a state accountability system should be to assist schools to improve the quality of learning for all students, to hold schools responsible for desired results, and to assist in determining whether students have mastery of an essential set of knowledge, skills, and habits of mind. The MCAS is being misused for high-stakes decisions. No one test should act as a sole determinant for deciding whether a student graduates from high school. The Education Reform Act specifically called for the state to create a multi-layered assessment system that includes local as well as state assessments.

To address the problems caused by MCAS and to promote genuine accountability, FairTest has worked with the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education to outline an alternative program. This accountability plan preserves a focus on high standards for all students and public accountability for all schools, while also promoting genuine reform in teaching and learning in all schools and classrooms.

1) Local assessments governed by broad state competencies. CARE supports an assessment system in which schools, rather than the state, determine graduation requirements. Each school in the Commonwealth would develop its own accountability and assessment plan. It would outline how students will demonstrate that they have mastered the Common Core of Learning, as well as specify the curriculum, instructional approaches, and authentic assessment measures the school will use. Each school would submit its accountability plan to a regional board, established by the state Department of Education, for review and approval.

2) School quality reviews. All schools would be reviewed for quality on a three-to-five-year cycle. A key goal of the reviews is to ensure that the school provides equitable resources and high-quality learning opportunities to its students and is working to improve the achievement of all students. A school selected for review would engage in a self-study, leading to the creation of a school portfolio. A team of practitioners from other districts would then spend three or four days collecting evidence to determine whether the school is making progress toward meeting its benchmarks. The review team would provide the school with oral and written feedback, including recommendations. A school failing to reach its goals would be placed on a one-year follow-up review cycle, with further intervention required if the school still did not make progress.

3) Limited standardized testing focused solely on literacy and numeracy. A limited amount of standardized testing could provide an additional source of information. Such tests should not have high stakes attached to them, should be brief, and should assess only literacy and numeracy.

4) Required annual school reports. The state should develop a list of indicators that every school and district must annually report to its respective community, including outcomes of students by race, gender, low-income status, special needs, and limited English proficiency. These reports would be based on information derived from the local assessment process, school quality reviews, and limited standardized testing described above.

While preserving a focus on high standards for all students and public accountability for all schools, this system of genuine accountability also encourages and promotes local innovation, creativity, freedom, and democracy. Such a multi-layered assessment actually promotes greater public accountability than the single paper-and-pencil MCAS, as it builds in multiple means of evaluating a school’s performance. The MBAE proposal, by contrast, reinforces the dangerous mistakes of the test-driven approach to reform.

Karen Hartke is assessment reform advocate and Monty Neill is executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) in Cambridge.

Argument

With our 1991 publication Every Child a Winner!, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) presented the Commonwealth with a challenge to elevate standards of academic achievement for all students. Our members, concerned about the poor preparation of graduates from the state’s public schools, proposed a set of dramatic reforms that ultimately became the foundation of the historic Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. Since the passage of the act, our role has been to monitor the implementation of reform in the interest of realizing our original dream of a school system which would deliver quality education to each and every child.

The standards-driven system that we advocated is now on its way to becoming a reality. As the state begins the implementation of the accountability phase of reform, we must issue a caution: Before implementing the “high stakes” dimension of the student assessment system–that is, before withholding any student’s diploma on the basis of an inability to pass the series of tests which make up part of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS)–we must make sure that we have provided all students with a reasonable opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills embodied in the new, high standards.

The architecture of reform, especially the curriculum frameworks and the corresponding MCAS tests, have been slower in development than the framers of the Education Reform Act anticipated. It therefore stands to reason that the timelines for student achievement of learning goals must be modified accordingly. Some curriculum frameworks are still in development, while others, previously approved by the state Board of Education, are undergoing significant revision. In some subjects, achievement targets are not yet set and teachers have not been able to decide on (or may have to change) instructional and curricular strategies. We contend that a framework should be stable in form and content for at least three to four years prior to the use of MCAS assessment with high-stakes consequences in that subject.

We believe that there is a fundamental issue of fairness involved in giving students and teachers adequate time to master the new multi-year learning standards. Adults, not children, should be the first ones to be held accountable under the new system. Policy leaders must complete and stabilize the reform architecture (i.e., finish the frameworks and demonstrate the validity and reliability of the MCAS tests), then educators and schools should be held accountable for providing students with adequate learning opportunities under the new expectations. Finally, students should then be held accountable for utilizing those opportunities to achieve higher performance. If we fail to perform these tasks in the proper sequence, not only will we be treating students unfairly, but we will precipitate a political crisis in education reform, since the public will not tolerate a process that is seen to punish large numbers of students unfairly.

Adults, not children, should be the first ones held accountable.

We cannot bring down the full weight of accountability on the children before we adults have done our job. If we proceed unfairly, we will seriously jeopardize the massive investment the Commonwealth has made in improving public education.

As the original advocates of this reform and the high standards, we have no interest in seeing the standards diluted or in ducking meaningful consequences concerning student achievement. However, we must insist that the high-stakes elements of accountability are introduced fairly and thoughtfully. Because of the delays in developing the reform architecture and the massive jump in achievement standards the Massachusetts reform demands, we have concluded that a transition period may be necessary to provide a fair and orderly move to high stakes.

The transition we envision would include:

1) Phased-in tests.The first high stakes class is the Class of 2003, now in Grade 9 and due to take the high stakes tests for the first time in about a year and a half. They will have two more opportunities to take the tests before graduating, if they do not meet passing criteria on the first try. MBAE concluded in early summer of 1999 that English Language Arts and Mathematics are the only two subject areas which have achieved sufficient stability to subject to high stakes. The Board of Education has agreed with us, setting English and Math as the only high-stakes portion of the MCAS test for the first year that has consequences for students.

With these two subjects considered the minimum acceptable, we expect that the tests for Science and Tech-nology/Engineering, History and Social Sciences, and foreign language–the other MCAS core subjects–will follow as soon as possible. During this transition, the numbers of tests will increase as they reach satisfactory maturity within the system. For each cohort, the subject matter tests carrying high-stakes consequences (i.e., passing them is a graduation requirement) must be designated well in advance of their entry into high school, so that students and their schools will know what they are being held accountable for. Ideally, if the History/Social Science framework were finalized during the current school year, students now in 7th grade would be the first to be given the MCAS history test as high stakes, in the spring of 2003, with two more chances to pass the test before their scheduled graduation in 2005.

Once all five core subjects have been defined and stable for at least four years, the transition period would be considered over and high stakes would be attached to all MCAS tests.

2) Multiple-level diplomas. We recommend several levels of state-sanctioned diplomas, such as “highest honors,” “high honors,” “honors,” and “basic.” The “basic” level would define the minimum for obtaining a Massachusetts diploma. This standard should include passing scores in English and Mathematics and, as additional tests are phased in, a failing grade in no more than one other high-stakes MCAS test. Higher-level diplomas provide a means by which students can gain state recognition for achievement above the basic level and qualify for rewards such as scholarships, Certificates of Mastery, college admission, and other kudos. These will serve as incentives for excellent performance in Grades 11 and 12, after students meet the graduation requirements.

In the first few years of high-stakes testing, it is expected that some schools and districts may have significant numbers of students who fail even these basic criteria. In these cases, we would advocate that, during the transition period only, they be allowed to graduate with a local diploma, as long as they meet local graduation criteria. This provision, though distasteful, is suggested only to prevent the chaotic situation of larger numbers of students getting turned back into Grade 12 than the school system can handle due to shortages of classrooms, teachers, and funding.

3) Escalating passing grades. The Board of Education has set the “cut score,” which defines the “passing grade” for high stakes as just above the “Failing” category. This standard is an appropriate beginning benchmark; setting it higher would only exacerbate the problem of students failing to meet graduation criteria in the early years of high-stakes testing. However, as the system matures, and experience with the MCAS tests grows, the Board of Education should gradually move the standard to a higher cut score, thereby raising the overall graduation standards. Once the transition period is over and the system has reached a stable, mature state, no more escalation would be needed or desirable.

Setting the passing grade higher would only cause more students to fail.

The transition mechanism we suggest is one approach to the gradual introduction of high stakes in education reform. The Board of Education has adopted some of our ideas and is exploring other potential strategies for doing the same thing. We applaud their timely action in making key decisions concerning graduation requirements, including the definition of “passing,” and how to handle the high-stakes challenge.

>John C. Rennie is chairman and S. Paul Reville executive vice chairman of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.