The Spirit Of Concord

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The town of Concord, Mass., 16 miles west of Boston, is commonly viewed as a prosperous, privileged New England suburb, far from the economic suffering and racial turmoil of our troubled inner cities. That is certainly how the town appears in the 1993 court case that overturned Massachusetts' system of financing public schools. In the documentation of educational inequities that was submitted to the state's highest court, Concord, along with Brookline and Wellesley, constitutes the model of a fortunate community, blessed with splendid facilities, rich curricula, excellent teachers, and an ample budget to fund them all. Set against Concord's example, the circumstances of students in hard-pressed cities like Brockton and Lowell looked so "bleak" to the justices of the Supreme Judicial Court that they ruled the current provisions for public education unconstitutional. The high court found commonwealth officials to be derelict in their duty to assure an adequate education in every public school.

Massachusetts is just one of the 14 states in the nation whose public school systems have been declared illegal by the courts. In July, New Jersey renewed its membership in this elect but growing club. In August, Arizona signed up. Similar cases are now pending in 10 other states.

Given the prominent place of the town of Concord in the Massachusetts court ruling, it may come as something of a surprise to learn that this historic community, where Emerson and Thoreau lived and wrote, once championed the cause of equal educational opportunity for all. Back in the mid-19th century, the townspeople launched a campaign for public education that propelled them into the front ranks of the state, the place they still occupy today. That movement involved issues at the heart of current educational debates. At the very moment that Concord was reforming the curriculum, raising standards for teachers, and increasing spending for schools, it wrestled with a familiar problem: the existence of significant economic disparities among the several districts of the town. The answer it devised expressed a civic consciousness Americans would do well to reclaim.

Buried within the archives of Concord is the 160-year-old record of a popular commitment to educational opportunity. Back in 1831, the town named a committee to review its system of funding local schools. As today, Massachusetts towns relied upon property taxes to support schools, as well as roads, poor relief, and other services. The dilemma was how to divide up the "school money," as the budget was called, among the districts, which varied in wealth, population, and size. Should districts receive what they contributed in local taxes, or should the town adjust for the social differences among them? Left to their own resources, farming areas could seldom afford to keep schools open throughout the year or to pay good salaries for teachers; by contrast, the central village, where the professionals and tradesmen were based, could easily provide its children with educational advantages. That economic reality ruled the policy of Concord down to 1831: Each district got back exactly what it put in, no more, no less.

But in 1831, this formula stirred unease, even among substantial gentlemen in the village. The review committee noted that it "operates unequally, by giving some districts more and others less, privileges in the publick money. Some receive but about half as many weeks schooling as others." That result challenged the very purpose of public education. "The intention of the Legislature in requiring towns to raise money for the support of free schools," the committee observed, "undoubtedly was, that the children of all classes, rich and poor, should partake as equally as possible in the privileges they afford." In this spirit, the committee considered alternative schemes of distribution. It toyed with allocating money according to the number of children in a district or the actual attendance at its schools. But no single criterion fit the bill. In the end, the committee urged flexibility, so as to insure "as nearly as possible, equal privileges to all." The recommendation was promptly approved by the town meeting.

Concord's repudiation of wealth as the basis for school funding was no fluke. The 1831 vote did not go unchallenged; in succeeding decades, there were recurrent bids to reverse the policy and favor one section over another. Nonetheless, the townspeople reaffirmed their commitment to equal educational opportunity in language that became more fervent over the years. By 1848, the chairman of a committee charged with building a new schoolhouse looked forward to "the day when the child of the poorest parents in this town shall be offered at the public expense in our public schools as thorough an education as money can purchase at the best private seminaries."

This extraordinary faith in public education was not unique to Concord. The issue of school funding was a lively one in the 1830's and 1840's, and it prompted Horace Mann, the dynamic secretary of the state board of education, to take a survey of the methods by which the 300-odd towns in Massachusetts gave out money to local schools. The results, presented in his 1845 annual report to the state legislature, were a portrait in diversity. Wealth, measured either by taxes or by assessed property, represented one method; population, usually the number of children, ages 4 to 16, in a district, another; location, a third. Some towns gave all districts, whatever their size, an equal share of the budget; in other places, a district's allocation depended on the proportion of school-age children within its borders. Many communities incorporated taxes along with population in their formulas. Surprisingly, only a minority of towns, roughly one in four, relied exclusively upon wealth. In contrast to today, the citizens of mid-19th-century Massachusetts recognized that funding schools according to property taxes would produce "savage inequalities."

Indeed, a few towns purposely aimed to achieve educational opportunity through their budgets. Andover's school committee told Mann that its "object is, that the means of education should be enjoyed equally by all the districts." New Braintree, in Worcester County, declined to follow any fixed rule, but apportioned the money "so as to give each scholar an equal opportunity for education." The same was true in Leominster, where a committee reviewed the circumstances of the districts each year and tried "to give equal privileges to all scholars, as far as practicable." These communities were the most emphatic in making equality their goal, but they reflected a broad-minded spirit running through the state as a whole.

What accounts for the willingness of these 19th-century New Englanders to adopt so expansive a vision of public education? Their commitment was the product not of social radicalism but of a deep-seated tradition of corporate responsibility. Horace Mann, a Whig lawyer who had a strong respect for property and status, expressed this outlook forcefully in his 1845 report. Reviewing the results of his survey, Mann dismissed the idea that "the mere circumstance of local residence" or "any chance or accident whatever" should determine a child's access to education. In his view, the interests of the community were paramount. "Children are not educated for themselves alone, nor for their parents alone; but also for the State, for the country and the world. No greater calamity can befall us than that our children should grow up without that knowledge and cultivation which shall prepare them to become good fathers, mothers, neighbors, citizens, men."

Horace Mann expressed the faith that inspired the merchants, manufacturers, and farmers of towns like Concord to promote equality of opportunity through the schools. Nineteenth-century Yankees are noted for their conservatism, but that did not stop them from taking steps to compensate for inequalities of wealth in their provisions for schools. They knew with Mann that in the moral realm, there could be no "stranger spectacle" than "to see one district in a town with almost a redundancy of educational means--a fine schoolhouse, competent teachers, libraries, apparatus, etc., while another district in the same town, in point of educational resources is kept on the list of paupers and beggars."

It is this heritage of civic consciousness, embodied in the state constitution of 1780, to which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court pointed in its 1993 decision on school finance. That ruling was based on a thoughtful reading of Massachusetts history, and it is confirmed by the new evidence from Concord and other towns in the 1830's and 1840's. Far from being a symbol of privilege, Concord stands for a belief in educational opportunity and a commitment to the common good that are sorely needed today. The issue of inequities in school funding is not a product of late-20th-century political correctness. It is deeply rooted in our past--and so are measures to address it.

Vol. 14, Issue 05, Pages 36, 44

Published in Print: October 5, 1994, as The Spirit Of Concord
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