April 26, 2021, Submitted by Tim Miller-Dempsey, Candidate for Hingham School Committee
I am extremely proud to have been a public school teacher for the past 23 years. I live and teach a stone’s throw from the “City on a Hill'' where public education first started in America, and believe that public schools are among the most fundamental institutions of a vital public democracy. The scale and scope of what they can accomplish is astonishing. Public schools are where people both learn and practice democracy. They are social service institutions, serving as the primary screening tool for a wide berth of needs that kids potentially have. They are the engines of equity and progress in society. They are the therapists and counselors who protect our kids’ social and emotional growth. They are the assimilators for immigrating families. They are increasingly in charge of the values that we espouse. They are the social safety net that needs to meet every child in our community where they are, without exception. They are the last stop for many families who do not have the resources to shop around for an education. Oh, and I forgot... they also educate a neurologically diverse group of young learners and prepare them for adulthood. Given everything that public schools are responsible for, it is understandable that they are the “canary in a coalmine” for judging the health of a municipality. A town with a robust public school system is seen as a vibrant, healthy community, and a desirable place to live. Inversely, a town with a lackluster, diminishing public school system is seen as a town in decline, where the best days are behind them. Let me assure you, Hingham is NOT a town in decline, and our treatment of the public schools should reflect this. Now is NOT the time to give up on our public schools.
Believing in Hingham Public Schools might seem like a tough sell for some after a year of quarantine, remote learning, and Zoom fatigue. Many of Hingham’s families fled the public schools this year to roll the dice on private and parochial schools, learning pods with privately funded teaching staff, and even homeschooling. They gambled that these private options would pay off with more in-person learning and social support during this chaotic year, and for the most part, their gamble paid off. While far from perfect, these private alternatives were able to give families something that more closely resembled a “normal” educational experience without the vast Covid spread and frequent shutdowns that many public school advocates anticipated. Hingham Public Schools, on the other hand, were on a hybrid schedule for most of the year with most students spending two half-days in school every week, a total of in-person time that didn’t impress when compared to the more aggressive fully in-person schedules that many private and parochial schools were offering. All parents must make decisions based on what they feel is best for their children. By choosing to educate their kids elsewhere, these parents are merely responding to a school system that was unable to provide the resources and programming their children needed. Hingham schools couldn’t operate fully in person earlier during the Covid pandemic because they lacked the staffing and resources (especially space) that we needed to keep kids safe.
While it is an appropriate time for some soul searching about why Hingham wasn’t able to offer the same experience as some privately funded alternatives, it is also a time to acknowledge the fundamental difference in the size and scope of what public schools accomplish. The most fundamental difference between private and public education is that public schools must adapt and be dynamic in a way that private schools simply aren't expected to. Unlike private schools that can build a school community and accept students based on the community that they carefully built, public schools respond to serve the needs of any students who wish to attend, even as these needs are constantly changing and evolving. As Hingham’s student population changes, our public schools need to change. For example, as special education eligibility has risen by over 25% in Hingham during the past year, we need to adjust and have staffing, academic programming, and budgeting that reflects this change. Focusing on the bottom line will never be successful when the bottom line is a moving target based on the fluctuating needs of our students.
Hingham has historically been successful in serving the vast array of student needs. Over the years, we have developed a strong reputation of “doing more with less.” Hingham has kept our taxes artificially low and only approved of barely more than “level service” increases year after year. Doing more with less can suffice in good times when there aren’t any unforeseen problems, but in 2020, our chickens came home to roost, and we saw how little “doing more with less” gets our kids. Parents did not abandon our public schools for private options. Rather, they appropriately responded to the town giving up on its commitment to public education in exchange for low taxes. I completely understand people not wanting to pay taxes if they feel the money is being wastefully spent. That the town culture is frugal and that citizens want the best value for their tax money is an admirable quality. But this approach is fundamentally misguided when our bottom line is so much lower than other towns. We have a single tax rate for both residential and commercial taxes that is the lowest on the South Shore. As a result, we have the lowest spending per student on the South Shore. To continue to argue that we cannot do more, while maintaining this tax rate is exactly what I mean by “giving up.” We have seen the effects of this on our schools throughout the past year as we lacked the room to house students, and even issues like how to have lunch became nearly insurmountable problems. This wasn’t a lack of will by the administration or school committee, or an inability to work with the teachers’ union. It was an effect of years and years of underfunding Hingham schools.
I know I am focused on the private/public nature of how schools operate, because this represents the main choice Hingham parents had this year. Nationally this dichotomy has played out with a large movement to “privatize” public education with vouchers, charters schools, and public funding for religious schools. This “privatization” has left public schools in many areas depleted of both students and resources, while not producing better outcomes for the families and children who left them. Taking public goods, like education, and privatizing them is not new or surprising. But Hingham is a town that believes in the public good. We have public electricity and public water. We know that our public services are a major facet of Hingham’s strength as a community. So why have we historically maintained tax rates that undermine our core strength?
In Hingham, the privatization of education looks different than it does in the national debate. Privatization isn’t about charter schools and vouchers. We have long understood that private schools are a vital part of Hingham’s educational landscape. Privatization in Hingham is about how many of the core academic operations of the schools are already outsourced to the private generosity of Hingham residents. When I first moved to Hingham, one of the first communications I received was from the East School Parent Teacher Organization, which recommended that we donate $130.00 per child. This was a shocking request to me. I dug in deeper about what all this money was used for, and I found that much of what the PTO does goes well beyond the social activities and staff appreciation, but core academic programming that would normally be under the school operating budget (In Somerville, where I teach, the suggested donation to the PTO is $5.00 and Newsela, field trips, and Computer Science are written into the school budget). Additionally, the Hingham Educational Foundation (HEF) regularly supplies academic programming, such as the computer science curriculum for the district. This doesn’t even mention the degree that many parents supplement their child’s education with tutoring, learning centers, and academic camps. Hingham is an extraordinarily generous town, and this private generosity is literally keeping the public schools afloat. Let me be clear, the PTOs, the Hingham Education Foundation, and the many other private organizations that give to our schools are the heroes. They have kept our heads above water for many underfunded years. But the pandemic has exposed real needs that all of Hingham’s private generosity couldn’t solve. If we truly believe in public education, we have to do better.
And it really comes down to the public. In Hingham, our children’s dreams and ambitions are big, and our public schools should rise to meet them. To believe in public schools is to believe that with the public support, amazing things are possible. Hingham is blessed with amazing elected officials from all political affiliations who are united in their desire to strengthen the public schools. School committee has done everything in their power by proposing the generous budget they submitted for next year. The Advisory Committee and the Board of Selectmen have done everything in their power with their approval of the proposed budget and the implied support for an override next year. Our elected officials have clearly demonstrated that they have not given up on Hingham’s schools. The rest is up to us, the public. Public schools can only function if they are supported by the public, and every citizen in Hingham bears this responsibility collectively. Together, we need to pass the recovery budget that begins to address the needs that were laid bare by the pandemic. Together, we will additionally need to pass an override next year, after we work hard to make the case for it to residents who aren’t yet sold on the idea (And they have a year to convince us that an override is unnecessary, because that is how democracy works).
Why do we need this change in our town’s finances? We need enough staff to teach our kids. We need adequate buildings so we won’t have to bus the Foster School to another location when their furnace breaks down. We need to rebuild the music and arts program that has been decimated by the pandemic. We need to expand language-based programming for our dyslexic students so they will no longer have to be schooled out of district at our expense. In fact, we should be building programming for students that will make Hingham a desirable location for out-of-district kids. Rather than shipping our most vulnerable students out because we cannot meet their needs, we should be accepting kids (and their tuition dollars) from other communities to enrich our town. We should involve our students in the community through programs like Generation Citizen (also generously funded by HEF) rather than pit taxpayers against students in order to rationalize our misguided frugality. As a town and as a school district, we need to dream big, and make these dreams happen. Just as we were in 1635 when Boston’s first public school opened, we should strive to be a City on a Hill where we show what amazing things a vibrant public school system can accomplish when it is resourced appropriately. Now is the time to pass the recovery budget at Town Meeting on May 8, and to fight for an override over the course of the coming year to rebuild a public school system that should serve as an example to follow for other communities. Each and every citizen in Hingham has a responsibility to our children. Now is absolutely not the time for our community to give up on Hingham Public Schools.