Earning the Grade

By David Trumbull

August 2001

"Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." These words, carved in the attic story of the central building of my college campus, are drawn from The Northwest Ordinance, the original, 1787 law governing the territory of the United States northwest of the Ohio River. These territories--now States of the Union--were largely settled by New Englanders--such as the Trumbulls who left Connecticut to farm in the territory that later became the State of Michigan. Those early settlers brought with them New England notions, including the common, or public school.

The common school, funded by the public and open to all regardless of ability to pay, was begun with the noblest of intention. The current state of this institution confirms Thomas Cranmer's observation, "There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted." Open to all swiftly transformed into required of all. And without regard to need has morphed into without regard to ability.

Just how un-free have the free public schools become? Well, in Cambridge, where I live and write, some families sought a limited role in deciding which of the city's public schools their children attend. Surely, that makes more sense than strict mandatory assignment of pupils by the School Department bureaucracy. Remember, we are talking about choice within the public system, not the shifting of kids out to private schools. Cambridge City Councillor (and former School Committeewoman) Henrietta Davis was swift and harsh in her condemnation of this scheme which, she wrote, "threatened to add choice to the assignment process for the high school for next school year." --Henrietta Davis, Spring 2001 "News-in-a-Letter" (emphasis added).

Still the Common School, one must admit, is a great equalizer. Indeed, I used to laugh when the guy on the radio praised his hometown where "all the children are above average." Now, I understand that he was articulating the official policy of the Cambridge School Department, which states its, "mission to . . . successfully educate all of its students at high levels."--City of Cambridge Annual Report 1999-2000, page 55. So exactly which axiom of mathematics must be violated for that mission statement to make sense?

We ought not be surprised that mathematical logic (and--in the case of the School Committee member whose campaign literature confused the indicative and subjunctive mood--English grammar) stump our School Department employees. Rather pity them. They are--many of them--themselves the products of the public schools.

And what is the product of the Cambridge public schools. Well, MCAS results range from critically low--at the Cambridge (Sy)Rindge and Latin School and at the Robert Kennedy School--, to moderate--at the Agassiz School, the Cambridgeport School, and the Graham and Parks School. The remaining 23 Cambridge public schools scored low or very low. That is what we get for our $15,000 per pupil spending and our low ten-to-one pupil to teacher ratio.

The cosmic wheel of justice turns. And justice sometimes has a sense of humor. Cambridge's Deputy Superintendent of Schools resigned in disgrace December 1999 after it was revealed that he had two school department employees write a paper for his daughter, a college freshman. This spring he was also slapped with a $2,000 fine by the State Ethics Commission--the largest fine ever levied by that body. Adding insult to injury, the paper got a grade of D+. Maybe he should ask for his money back!

[David Trumbull is Chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee.]