Sunday, April 13, 2008

 

Whelan's Appeal and the Solution

Every once in a while, School Committee Chair David Whelan sends out a mass email essentially about how Swampscott is continually screwed by the State of Massachusetts in Chapter 70 funds compared to other cities and towns across the Commonwealth. We receive less money per children than towns that are comparable to us. Often, even wealthier communities than Swampscott do better in terms of Chapter 70 funding per child. Whelan almost always has a solid point, and the most recent email - "Another View of Chapter 70" is no different, but ultimately David's line of argument is doomed to failure.

Here's the gist of what he has to say:
How does Wellesley with almost three times the income per today’s Boston Globe get $105 more per child? How does Lynnfield get almost $600 [more] per child given their similar level of income per the referenced Globe article?
Of course, as I've said, at no point is David actually wrong. There probably aren't two people in Swampscott who don't get that. Unfortunately, though, while David is right on the merits, his argument fails to overcome two fundamental flaws. The first is that there just isn't enough cookies in the cookie jar to go around since Celluci drove through this state's last major tax cut. No matter how the cookies are divvied up, there are going to be some towns and some kids who get screwed over. Heck, even the towns that do 'well' in Whelan's analysis are facing tough economic times - despite the fact that they benefit from the overly-complicated and fundamentally flawed Chapter 70 formulas. The fact that every city and town across Massachusetts is facing similar problems with the current formula means that there isn't a huge incentive for rank and file state legislators to fix Swampscott's problems - because in order for Beacon Hill to fix our problems, it's going to have to fix the bigger ones first (lest other towns register similar complaints to our current ones).

The second flaw, the one that fatally wounds David's argument, is the fact that by comparing Swampscott to Lynnfield, Marblehead and others, he's actually pitting cities and towns against each other. For too long, that's how politics has worked on Beacon Hill - and as long as that's the way things work there, Swampscott is always going to be one of the big losers. Swampscott will just never have enough leverage to receive more than its fair share; it'll take another 3 years to receive just the 17.5% Chapter 70 funding (which is what David is asking for). David's arguments, while correct, end up in dividing his own natural base to be conquered - manipulated only by human nature. Bigger cities and towns, with more political clout than a freshman legislator, don't even have to work hard to protect the status quo, because natural allies like Swampscott, Marblehead and Lynnfield are already feuding.

A far more effective way of addressing the problems of state aid funding (or a lack thereof) is in underscoring its universal problems - which, if solved, would do even more to address the current nightmare than reforming Chapter 70's formula for every town. Each and every town across Massachusetts is facing difficult economic times - some far worse than Swampscott (and that's saying something). Ultimately, the real solutions to our economic problems are solutions that will positively effect each and every municipality across the Commonwealth - from Swampscott to Lynn to New Bedford to Pittsfield.

A Better Way

So, Ryan, if David's wrong - what should Swampscott be doing? Of course, that's the big question, isn't it? Well, Swampscott needs to work with municipalities that are facing similar problems - which is certainly something David is trying to do - but that alone isn't a winning coalition. Small, fairly-well-to-do towns that don't receive their fair share aren't going to overcome the stink at Beacon Hill. Does anyone honestly think there are state legislators who serve these towns that don't want to see Chapter 70 changed? Maybe some could do more, but if only towns like Swampscott represent the coalition for change on Chapter 70, we're tilting at wind mills.

Furthermore, since there just isn't enough money to go around, Swampscott's gains would be Lynn's detriment - and I don't think there's a whole ton of people in this town that think urban communities have too much money to fund their schools. Neither do towns that are similar to Swampscott, yet aren't screwed over by Chapter 70: they're facing difficult times too. It should be obvious that picking fights among communities facing similar problems, even if some are facing stiffer consequences, isn't a winning strategy for change. It would make more political sense to create larger coalitions and go after common solutions.

The biggest political winner, in my book, would be to create a .5%-1% income tax increase specifically geared toward funding schools across Massachusetts on a per-child basis. Every city and town would stand to benefit and it would be more than just a band-aid approach to a solution. It would also benefit towns like Swampscott most - it will act as a security net for when municipalities eventually get screwed over by arcane educational formulas, with little means for state recourse. At some point, most every city or town is going to get screwed over by difficult-to-understand and even-harder-to-change formulas, so every city and town stands to gain by a larger base funding mechanism.

If school committees across the Commonwealth came out in favor of such a measure, it would be a solution to the problem that everyday legislators could get behind. Ultimately, any state legislators fearing the T-Word could just blame it on Celluci, to boot, because he's the one who set Massachusetts up for failure by pushing through tax cuts that were too steep to meet core services. Restoring just some of them could fix the failed experiment while keeping the state fiscally grounded with a still-modest income tax rate compared to the other 49 states in the union. What other solution exists that won't set up scenarios where cities and towns become too busy fighting each other to work together, that actually addresses the revenue problem and does so in a way that would be quick to implement and wouldn't cost an arm and a leg? I'm all ears.

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Comments:
To the previous post: I agree 100%that an education sales tax increase of .5% to 1%, across the board, would be supported by all but the utmost far-flung voters. However, this tax and subsequent payemnts to cities and towns would need complete insolation fromt he the same legistlators that are needed to approve the increase.
 
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