Jewish World Review July 19, 2004 / 1 Menachem-Av, 5764

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Lessons of a school budget crisis | As it happens, the tale that follows is unfolding in Saugus, Mass. But it could just as well be taking place in Anytown, USA.

When Saugus officials recently approved a school budget of $21.35 million — some $2.6 million less than the school committee had proposed, Superintendent Keith Manville was left with some tough choices to make.

He made them. And the Boston press, which doesn't often pay attention to suburban school budgets, sat up and took notice. "Saugus schools slash all sports, extra activities," read the headline in The Boston Globe. The Boston Herald announced: "Town silences band, nixes clubs, KOs athletics."

To balance his budget, Manville had decided to eliminate nearly every nonacademic program the Saugus schools offer. That will mean an end to 13 sports, from hockey — in which Saugus High is the reigning state champion — to football to golf. It will mean an end to cheerleading. An end to the student newspaper. An end to the Model UN, the marching and jazz bands, the student council.

It will mean, in short, an end to just about everything in the Saugus public schools that isn't related to classroom learning. "There will be no athletics, no band, no drama, no Moving On ceremony at the middle school," Manville said grimly. "It will be 8-to-2 and go home."

Not surprisingly, residents were appalled. Angry students and parents staged a protest in the town center, some of them chanting, "It's not funny — what happened to the money?" There were calls for more state aid and for dunning local businesses for larger donations. There was unhappy talk of sharply raising athletic fees from the current level of $200 per student per sport. There was grousing about the fact that an increase in property taxes approved by voters in the spring had raised only $1.1 million.

There were even voices urging a hike in the state income tax. "When voters will not maintain an adequate level of taxation," one daily paper scolded, "the quality of life in their community will diminish."

But would Saugus's — or any community's — quality of life really be diminished if its schools focused exclusively on academics? Or if students' extracurricular activities were organized privately, by those who were interested in them, instead of being treated as government matters to be funded through involuntary taxation? One news story quoted a Saugus High senior who plays on the soccer and lacrosse teams. "If there is nothing to do after school," he said, "I'll probably just go home and do homework." At the risk of uttering heresy, I can't help wondering: Would that be so terrible?

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I don't mean to diminish the value of athletics and other extracurricular activities. I know they can be great generators of school spirit and provide students with ways to develop their physical, creative, and intellectual interests. But too often they become all-consuming passions that distract from the academic mission that should be any school's highest priority.

Whatever the merits of team sports or cheerleading, they are not essential to a high school education. Math and English are. Yet how many American communities muster even a fraction of the fervor for math and English instruction that they lavish on their high school sports programs? While Saugus High boasts a championship hockey team, 47 percent of its 10-graders performed at the two lowest levels on last year's statewide English exam. On the math exam, it was 56 percent. But how often do parents and students ever take to the streets to protest academic weakness?

There are 3,200 kids in the Saugus public schools. Even under next year's reduced budget, the town will be spending $6,700 per student. That isn't the highest amount in America, and it isn't the lowest. But it ought to be enough to provide a solid education, though perhaps without frills like lacrosse and Model UN. If it isn't enough, maybe the fault lies not with stingy taxpayers or ungenerous town businesses, but with a dysfunctional model for schooling American children.

How much education might $6,700 buy, for example, if public schools didn't operate as virtual monopolies, all but immune to competition? Or if principals were free to hire, fire, and pay teachers on the basis of skill, not seniority? Or if the one-size-fits-all model were scrapped, and every public school turned into a charter school? Or if the funds that pay for education were funneled through parents instead of school committees?

The crisis in Saugus, which has echoes in communities nationwide, offers a chance to ask hard questions and consider some unconventional answers. One question to start with might be, What makes a great school great? The answer isn't money. It isn't golf lessons, either.

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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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