To the editor
The annual tug-of-war for education funding overrides in Westport would be greatly entertaining if it weren’t so insipidly predictable, and if the stakes weren’t so high.
On one side, many want to increase investment in education, including families who move to town and are inexplicably surprised at the resistance to funding, or new parents who suddenly realize that good schools are important. On the other side is the anti-tax camp, often including seniors on “fixed incomes” (unaware that there is no such thing, as long as generous COLA increases continue). The usual, uninspired accusations go back and forth: school mismanagement is to blame for rising costs, those who don’t have children in school are self-interested and always vote “no,” and so forth.
When parents turn out to vote only when it benefits them, or when the elderly are summarily opposed to any and all tax increases, this creates a vividness bias which suggests that the conflict around overrides is a simple “payers” vs. “takers” squabble over subsidies.
In reality, a much greater issue is at stake. But Westport’s annual shortsighted “jiggling of the handle” on this issue is neither new, nor unique, nor even surprising. It plays out in other towns and cities across Massachusetts. Not all towns underfund their students. Wellfleet, a similar town, invests over twice as much per pupil as Westport does. Twice as much.
It is important to see that the chronic underfunding of education is the result of a larger structural problem. The root cause of the problem is that public education is funded by local property taxes, and that local elections are allowed to tinker with funding of a public good that is crucial to the country’s future economic wellbeing. That the underwriting of any child’s education is placed in the hands of local polls is patently absurd.
A better, alternate approach would be that primary and secondary education is federalized, funded through U.S. income taxes—with high nationwide standards for facilities, teacher quality and student performance alike—where it is kept out of reach of the wayward and shortsighted de facto management of local voters.
For whatever reason, the funding structure of the U.S. education system has remained local. Ironic that at the same time, what is federalized is a generous safety net for seniors, one that by any name other than “Social Security” would be clearly seen as an extortionate Ponzi scheme that allows the old to suckle out more than they paid in, at the expense of mortgaging the future of the young. What would become of this imbalance if students could vote and seniors could not?
The situation is sad, and the funding mechanism of public education in America deserves an extensive re-examination from a better perspective than a local ballot box. The reality that something as important as the provision of a quality education can be held hostage and denied to anyone by the whims and deficiencies of referendum in any backward hamlet is an outrage hidden in plain sight. Perhaps I should make explicit that this conclusion is predicated on the understanding that modern economies in civilized countries only remain wealthy and competitive on the foundation of an educated population. Apparently, in Westport, this is not obvious to all.
Dalton Jay Perras