Good school hunting

Elysium, the dystopian thriller starring Matt Damon that topped the weekend box office ratings, is just the sort of tale the Cambridge homeboy is drawn to. A futuristic sci-fi commentary on the vast income inequality that separates today’s haves and have-nots, it’s the kind of morality play that lets Damon shake his fist at injustice as the champion of the beleaguered masses who are left stranded on a decaying Earth while the super-rich escape to an exclusive space-station — the ultimate gated community.  

In real life, however, Damon’s right-on rhetoric seems to be colliding with his 1 percent lifestyle.

It started with an August 2 profile in The Guardian, in which Damon says he and wife agonized over the decision to send their kids to private school in Los Angeles. Damon said “ultimately we don’t have a choice.” It was a curious comment from a guy whose mother is a huge public-school advocate in Cambridge and who himself spoke at a Washington, DC, rally two years ago in support of public schools and in opposition to the reform regime pushing charter schools and greater school choice. Damon insisted he wasn’t trying to escape from public schools. Instead, he argued that the problem was that there were no public school options that would deliver the sort of “progressive” education he got.  “That kind of progressive education no longer exists in the public system. It’s unfair,” he told the Guardian.

The fireworks started when former Florida governor — and school choice champion — Jeb Bush zinged Damon on Twitter: “Choice ok for Damon, why not everyone else?”

Washington Post education columnist Valerie Strauss then took a whack at Bush. Who can blame Damon for not wanting to subject his kids to the sort of  “corporate-influenced school reform” that Bush championed in Florida and which Strauss says has now overrun the LA schools. What’s more, she said, who is Bush to criticize, since he also sent his to private schools.

The real issue, however, isn’t the school choice that Damon (or Bush) made for his kids. The problem is when those with the means to exercise school choice — whether by opting for an expensive private school or by moving to an expensive community with good public schools — want to limit the school choices available to those of more modest means.

As education policy guru Andrew Rotherham put it in his weekly column for Time: “I’m less interested in the choices someone makes for their own children – it’s naïve to think that any parent won’t seek to do what’s best – than what they do to ensure that all parents, especially poor parents, can make similar choices,” he wrote.

As for Damon’s comment that his family ultimately had no choice, Rotherham writes, “Even by Hollywood standards that’s a remarkable lack of self-awareness (in the same interview Damon also remarked that, ‘I don’t know any actor who grew up with any particular privilege’ so awareness may not be his thing).”

Rotherham calls b.s. on Damon’s claim that his decision was made because there are no good “progressive” schools in the swamp of Los Angeles’s wretched test-choked public school system. “Not true at all,” LA superintendent John Deasy tells Rotherham, and he offers to give Damon a bit of Hollywood star treatment by personally helping him find a match for his family from among the district’s portfolio of schools.

“In addition to the traditional and charter schools in the LA system, there are Mandarin immersion schools, magnets with different focuses, and even schools that focus on activism,” writes Rotherham. “If none of those schools turn out to work for the Damons, that’s still a powerful argument for the ideas he works against publicly: Letting parents and teachers come together to create new public schools that meet the diverse needs of students. That’s precisely the idea behind public charter schools, an idea derided at the rallies where Damon is celebrated.”

“Most fundamentally, for someone so self-avowedly progressive, Damon’s claim about the lack of progressive options was a head-scratcher,” adds Rotherham. “Los Angeles now has a number of charter schools that are propelling first-in-family students into and through college. Research shows that’s about the best thing we can do to increase social mobility and reduce structural inequality in this country. If that’s not progressive enough, then what is?”

                                                                                                                                                                   –MICHAEL JONAS

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

The Globe reports on what it says is the growing incivility of local government meetings in Massachusetts.

Waiting lists fo public moorings in some towns south of Boston are as long as 25 years or more, according to the Patriot Ledger. In our Summer 2011 issue, CommonWealth took a look at how businesses profit from public moorings while private boat owners languish on the lists. In Beverly, meanwhile, a lobsterman is battling eviction from his mooring because of late payment of his mooring fees, the Salem News reports.

Lawrence gets $1.4 million in HUD funds for repairs to public housing units. North Andover and Methuen receive lesser amounts, the Eagle-Tribune reports. Boston receives $18 million as part of the $50 million award, the Associated Press reports (via Lowell Sun). Haverhill and Methuen, meanwhile, share a $140,000 grant from Attorney General Martha Coakley to combat neglected and abandoned buildings.

Danvers officials are raising concerns about a restaurant owner’s plan to sell his liquor license to a national chain without ever having used it himself, the Salem News reports.

A large water main breaks in Boston’s South End, NECN reports.

Amherst works on a medical marijuana dispensary bylaw.

CASINOS

Residents of Bangor, Maine, say a casino run by Penn National Gaming has helped fuel economic growth, not the problems many feared, the Lowell Sun reports. But the Episcopal bishop for Western Massachusetts says gambling is a tax on the needy, the Telegram & Gazette reports.

The Brockton Enterprise runs a two-part series on what local officials, schools, and residents are doing to prepare for what appears is the inevitability of casinos and a potential slots parlor in the region. Voters in Raynham decide Tuesday on a slots parlor for the former dog track.

Andover officials are scrambling to learn more about the proposed Tewksbury slots parlor, worried about its impact on their community, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

Gary Piontkowski used to be the savior of harness racing in Massachusetts; now he’s the goat that sunk the Plainridge Racecourse.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

Paul Krugman wonders how the national GOP brain trust went from idolizing Milton Friedman to shelving him in favor of obscure Austrians and fictional Ayn Rand characters. The Atlantic wonders whether the Republican hard line on Medicare is costing the party critical support among seniors.

Keller@Large asks President Obama for a little help on the state’s economy while the vacationing commander in chief is in the area.

ELECTIONS

Labor is going all-out for Marty Walsh in the Boston mayor’s race, reports the Globe.

A Globe editorial argues that state Sen. Dan Wolf’s ownership stake in Cape Air shouldn’t prevent him for running for governor (or holding his legislative seat), as the State Ethics Commission has ruled.

Yet another post-mortem on Mitt Romney’s caught-on-tape comment about the 47 percent and what he really did or didn’t mean. Meanwhile, some of the conservative GOP contenders for 2016 at an annual conference in Iowa over the weekend say the fault for the party’s White House loss last year lay squarely at the feet of the candidate, not the ideology.

Opponents of a controversial gas-burning power plant in Brockton have turned up the heat on mayoral candidate William Carpenter, who supports the facility as a way to ease property tax burdens..

Anthony Weiner dares the New York electorate to defy every newspaper editorial board ever.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

In what industry are wages rising robustly?  Baby sitting, reports the Globe.

EDUCATION

Massachusetts has adopted one of the most aggressive performance-based funding systems for public higher education, with a sizeable chunk of the state’s assistance to public community colleges now based on the school’s success in graduating students. CommonWealth spotlighted the troubles with low graduation rates at the state community colleges back in 2007.

HEALTH CARE

Canton could become the first community in the country to ban the sale of electronic cigarettes when the Board of Health meets tonight on that proposal as well as one to raise the age to purchase tobacco to 21.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

For states where coal is used to generate electricity, all-electric cars are not the best environmental option, the Seattle Times reports.

An anaerobic digester called Big Bertha in Rutland transforms food waste into energy, WBUR reports.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

US Attorney General Eric Holder seeks to avert mandatory-minimum sentences for some low-level drug offenders, the Washington Post reports.

The MetroWest Daily News calls for more transparency from law enforcement officials  in the search for answers to the marathon bombing.

MEDIA

Did Politico kill the Washington Post?

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

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Dan Kennedy weighs on what he sees as the impending demise of AOL’s hyperlocal news sites, Patch, as well as what everyone’s talking about, the startling move by caustic AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, who fired the company’s creative director in the midst of a conference call with 1,000 employees.