Politics and the Public Schools

“ POLITICS ” in the administration of city affairs has come to mean that our public business is managed by certain individuals, not in the interest of the public, but in the interest of the managing individuals. A large number of those active in the control of public affairs acquire wealth, not by way of compensation for public duty efficiently done, but by various forms of breach of public trust. No one questions that politics in municipal administration is expensive, — that it costs the taxpayer a great deal of money. Most thoughtful persons are of opinion that it also costs much in loss of moral and civic tone. The average taxpayer, who is more practical than ideal, reasons that it is cheaper to pay tribute to the politicians than to maintain the constant warfare necessary for freedom from them. Millions for tribute ; little for defense ! To say that “ it is cheaper ” means to-day that it prevails. How large the tribute paid to politicians no one can tell exactly. A man who has had long experience in practical politics in Boston and in the Massachusetts legislature states as his opinion, based on careful computation, that one third of the tax levy in Boston is a contribution, in the form of either waste, inefficiency, or corruption, to the politician ; that the public gets value for about two thirds of its money spent.

But this theory of cheapness, if on any plane of ethics or of civics it is defensible as to the other functions of our municipal government, utterly fails when applied to the public school administration. We may endure politics (as we misname waste and corruption in municipal affairs) in our city halls, and say broadly that we can measure the evil in dollars. Not so as to the administration of the public schools. Corruption there means not only waste: it means poison; it means that the very sources of our citizenship are rendered putrid. We may pay for good streets, lights, sewers, water, and police service, and get bad streets, lights, sewers, water, and police service, because of inefficient or corrupt administration ; and yet the body social and politic may remain fairly wholesome and thriving. We may not permit either inefficiency or corruption to taint the administration of our public schools without finding that the whole theory of free public school education, as one of the main reliances of “ government of the people, by the people, for the people,” has utterly failed.

In spite of the infinite cant and humbug in which most writing about education and our public schools abounds, it is an unquestionable fact that the function undertaken to be performed by these schools is the most important of all the activities of our municipal government. This is true even from the point of expenditure. In Boston, for the year ending January 31, 1900, out of payments from regular department appropriations of $12,919,483.23, the School Committee had $2,813,455.22, while the Street Department, the next most expensive, had $2,117,146, and the Police Department, the third in order, had $1,640,510.83. No argument is necessary to show that it is more important to have good teachers than it is to have good street builders or good policemen. But it does need to be pointed out that if our public schools fail to furnish an education fully as good as can be obtained in private schools, intelligent, conscientious, and well-to-do parents will withdraw their children ; that only the children of the poorer and less intelligent will remain ; that the public schools will thus speedily acquire a social stigma ; that in this event these schools will cease to perform one of their most important functions, namely, the democratization of our heterogeneous population. Their proper function is not merely that of furnishing intellectual and moral training, but of assimilating our whole people to an American type, and of checking the tendency toward a social stratification that will prevent the common sympathy and understanding necessary for the coöperative effort of a democracy.

If, as has been so often said, free public schools lie at the very basis of enduring democratic institutions, it is not enough merely to furnish these schools ; the attendance must also be general, especially the attendance of the children of the better classes, — of those who have some legitimate claim to social standing. Today, it is not the private school based on religious or sectarian preferences that is encroaching upon the field of the public schools ; it is the private school based on social preferences, or, what is still worse, on intelligent objection to the methods and manners of the public schools. The public schools can never do their proper and essential work in a democratic society, if the public school teachers, as a class, fail to command intellectual and social respect. Their social status is nearly as important as their educational efficiency. It is obvious that if public school teachers are, or are supposed to be, the creatures and appointees of politicians of the class who have been so prominent in the administration of our larger cities ; if intelligent and conscientious parents become imbued with the idea that the teachers in these schools are there, not because of their intellectual merit and moral character, but because of willingness to assist in the political advancement of the class who have constituted so large a part of our boards of aldermen and common councils, an exodus is certain to follow; the schools will cease to be really public schools. It is not enough that the schools should remain fairly good, and the great majority of the teachers conscientious and reasonably efficient; the very appearance of evil must be avoided. The public school system, like Cæsar’s wife, must be above suspicion.

To make the public school the best in the land is by no means impossible. The increasing cost of educational plants has put it beyond the means of most teachers to equip and to maintain a satisfactory private school. A generation ago, a few good teachers, equipped with a few rooms, blackboards, and a hundred or two books, could maintain a private school, and obtain patronage at good tuition rates. Not so now. Probably there is not to-day a private unendowed school in Boston that has an educational plant (including under that term buildings in good locations, with modern sanitary arrangements, laboratories, gymnasiums, and other physical equipments) worthy of comparison with the plant of several of our high schools. It is this inability of the private school to compete in the matter of merely physical equipment that has contributed to keep the public school attendance as general as it has been.

The administration of the public schools may be divided, roughly but conveniently, into two parts, — one almost purely business, the other almost purely educational. The former includes the purchase of land and the building and repair of schoolhouses, — the main part of the physical plant; the latter includes the selection of a superintendent and other school officers, the appointment of teachers, the laying out of a course of study, the appointment of janitors and truant officers, and the selection and purchase of textbooks and other school supplies. At first blush, the purchase of textbooks and supplies might be thought to fall more properly into the business division ; but on reflection, it will appear that these bear so intimate a relation to the educational department that their selection and purchase cannot be left to any other body than the one having direct control of the work carried on in the schoolrooms. Of course, all of this business, physical and educational, ought to be done honestly, efficiently, and respectably. But half a loaf is better than no bread. The educational part must be done honestly, efficiently, and respectably (and respectability is at least as important as honesty and efficiency), else the public school administration is a failure.

There has been much discussion as to the best form of organization for school administration. Our old New England model was that of an elected committee of considerable size. The present drift of argument seems to be in favor of a small board appointed by the mayor. It is not at all clear that any improvement can be expected from such a change. When mayors select cigar dealers, milkmen, and professional politicians as the head officials of the most important departments, at salaries higher than those paid any educational officer, — offices created and paid on the theory that large salaries should attract skilled and experienced men, — it is hard to believe that a school commission, with good salaries attached, would not likewise be the spoils of the chief city politician. There is nothing in the recent history of Boston municipal politics, under mayors vested with almost autocratic powers, to lead one to believe that public spirit and efficiency receive greater attention from the executive than from the populace.

But where women have suffrage at school committee elections, and at those only, it may as well be assumed that school boards will continue to be elected by popular vote. The legislature will not take away this limited women’s suffrage by abolishing its subject matter. An appointed commission, in the absence of a great public scandal and consequent upheaval, is politically impossible. Nor is it at all certain that, in a large city, a small board, say of seven or nine, is better than one of considerable size, say of twenty to forty. If small boards are more efficient, they are more efficient for evil as well as for good. Seven men around one table can put up more jobs upon the community than twenty-four in a debating chamber. Government by discussion is not always efficient or speedy, but it is safer than government by star chambers. A small board of aldermen is found, in practical experience, to resolve itself by majority vote into a secret body, — the Committee on Public Improvements,” or what not, — and the job-opposing minority is thus shorn of a large part of the power it has in public debate. If it must be assumed that bad men — men serving private, and not public interests — will in some number be in these public boards, publicity of procedure, debate, is the sharpest weapon of the faithful public servant, the greatest safeguard of the common interest. It is not worth while to sacrifice practical safety to theoretical efficiency.

Assuming, then, that we are to have a popularly elected board of considerable size, let us examine the forces that determine its selection and direct its operation, and also the scope of the powers with which it should be vested. In the first place, it may be noted that politics in school management is, generally speaking, not partisan, but personal, sectarian, or purely mercenary. Although the party managers frequently make party nominations for the school boards, it is rare to find a school board in which there is responsible party management, and in which issues are made up and fought on party lines. In most cities there has been little scrambling among professional politicians for school board nominations. Generally, if no politicians want nominations, party managers are inclined to give them to persons whose names and character may add respectability to their ticket; suggestions as to candidates from public-spirited citizens, whether organized or not, are then given consideration. Thus it has happened in many cases that fairly good school boards have been secured through no other than party nominations. It has also happened that other suggestions from parties having a private interest to subserve have been received and accorded great weight. It is more than suspected that schoolbook publishing houses have frequently, in return for contributions to campaign funds, been accorded great influence in the selection of candidates. This is a political factor in the creation of school boards which cannot be overlooked. It is not pleasant to find on school boards certain members who may always be relied upon to vote and to work for any measure in the interests of special schoolbook publishing houses. According to rumor, this political influence of the publishing house has been more active in the West than in New England. That it has been to some degree operative in New England there is no doubt. It is probably not true, at least in New England, that any publishing houses corruptly purchase the votes of members of school boards, except in very rare instances ; but it is true that many school boards have members who are practically owned by certain publishing houses. This overlordship is sometimes invited by members elected as freemen ; as, for instance, by soliciting from a publishing house the employment of a large number of the political strikers of a politically ambitious member. It goes without saying that men and women who will put themselves into such a position toward a schoolbook publishing house are unfit for public trust. There is no remedy for this evil except the selection of persons of finer moral sensibility, who have an eye for the public interest only.

It is but fair to say that the great majority of men in the schoolbook publishing business prefer boards made up of honest and straightforward persons, having no personal or political interest to subserve ; that, as a rule, they are the victims of corrupt motives and schemes of school board members, and not the conscious corrupting agency. But it is also true that there are exceptions to this rule, and that competition is so fierce that corrupt methods on the part of one publishing house lead to retaliation in kind. When the merits of a competitive controversy between two or more publishing houses are pretty evenly balanced, a single member of a school board, who is “ on the make,” may engender a strife which is far - reaching in actual or rumored corruption.

Although the selection of textbooks has long been the source of much unseemly wrangling in school boards, which has tended to some degree to discredit and undignify school administration in the eyes of the public, yet it is difficult to see how this function can be placed anywhere else than in the school board. It cannot safely be given into the hands of superintendents and boards of school supervisors ; for most of the men occupying these positions are, by virtue of being themselves authors of school textbooks, absolutely disqualified from dealing fairly and impersonally with this question. It is not in human nature for a superintendent, supervisor, or teacher, whose brain has begotten a book on a given subject, and whose pocket is in anticipation of fullness from royalties on the sale of it, not to believe that his book is the best obtainable on that subject. He must accord a like merit to the works of his brethren on the same board, — provided, of course, they have chosen other subjects, and do not compete with the product of his brain. The result would be that, if left to the boards of supervisors, the textbooks of our large cities would be mainly the products of home industry, and real merit would be hard to discover, and harder to reward ; that practical politics as active and pernicious as ever obtained in elected school boards would obtain in the boards of supervisors. Besides, the affiliation of these educational officers with the publishers of their own textbooks makes them totally unfit to deal with the comparative merits of the other publications of the various competing houses. Undignified if not corrupt log-rolling, charges of unfairness having more or less basis, loss of standing in the eyes of the community and of the teaching force, would inevitably result from vesting the selection of textbooks in the hands of a board of supervisors, many or all of whom were themselves authors. Politics would simply be transferred from the school committee to the board of supervisors, and would work more scandal and discredit there than in the committee itself. It thus appears that “ expert selection” of school textbooks is something almost if not quite impossible of attainment, and that we must rely upon a sifting process under the control of such intelligence as we may obtain in a school board. This constitutes an additional reason why it is exceedingly important to obtain on such boards persons of impartial judicial qualities, high intelligence, and liberal education. Such persons will seek and obtain the advice of teachers whose vision has not been astigmatized by authorship, and will thus approximate to a fair selection of good textbooks.

Another political factor which makes against the selection and untrammeled action of persons of the highest character and intelligence as members of school boards is race and sectarian prejudice. This is a force of varying intensity, but it is nearly always present in our New England cities. Its most virulent form is found in the antipathy between the Irish Catholic and the antipodal British American, or “A. P. A.” It is nonsense for any one to assert that the great body of our Irish Catholic citizens are not thorough believers in and supporters of our public school system, or that the “ Pope of Rome and his minions ” are in a conspiracy to destroy it. The parochial school is not gaining ground as against the public school. But it is undeniable that this same class will almost always be found working and voting for a person of their own race and sect for any position desired, whether he is fit for that position or not. Often, in school matters, Irish Catholics are found working and voting for persons and measures that they are privately known heartily to disapprove, simply because they dare not or will not be found opposing the most illegitimate and preposterous claims of one of their own race and creed. As individuals they are in most cases excellent citizens ; but the clan spirit seems to have a compelling force among them, which leads to frequent disregard of the public interest.

This clannishness is intensified and solidified by the absurd bigotry of the opposing faction, in Boston largely made up of women. Each faction reacts on the other, and the strife engendered is absurd, but harmful. If, as there is some ground to believe, amply qualified Catholics have been discriminated against, in the appointments of teachers (in Boston only one grammar school, out of a total of fifty-seven, has a Catholic master, and he is a recent appointment), the efforts of just and fair-minded persons to remedy this injustice are often thwarted by the greedy and clannish attempt of the Irish Catholics, whenever opportunity offers, to fill every position from their own clan, with no regard for fitness. If there is a vacancy for a teacher, and an Irish Catholic presents himself or herself for the position, it may as well be assumed that every one of this race and creed on the board will support his or her candidacy as against a whole army of candidates infinitely better fit for the duties of the position. A few exhibitions of this kind give new life and venom to the anti-Catholic element, and the result is a factional and sectarian contest vicious and disgraceful. Moreover, this clannishness of the Irish Catholic is often utilized by unscrupulous politicians, who really care nothing for the religious and sectarian issue, as a means of gaining support for men and measures of which many of the Irish Catholics heartily disapprove : a false sectarian issue is raised and votes obtained for an ulterior purpose, often even for a corrupt scheme. The clan, Irish Catholic, British American, or other, is an excellent political weapon in the hands of an adroit manipulator.

Neither the Irish Catholic clan nor the opposing faction is a safe trustee of the public interest in the management of the public schools. It ought never to be inquired whether a candidate for a teacher’s position or a janitor’s position is Catholic, Jew, Methodist, or Unitarian. Character, intelligence, and training for the position should be the only tests of fitness. But this religious and sectarian factor cannot now be ignored, in dealing with the forces operative in controlling our public school administration ; it is active in selecting candidates, in electing members, and in controlling their action in the board. It would be equally a disaster to elect a board the majority of which should be made up of Irish Catholics or of their virulent opponents ; both should be kept in a harmless minority until both acquire toleration and a genuine democratic public spirit. There is no room for a clan of any kind in the administration of the most democratic institution of our democracy.

This leads naturally to the statement that one of the chief results of women’s suffrage in school affairs is an increase of race and sectarian bigotry ; that few women have ordinarily voted except under the leadership of persons with an inordinate and groundless fear of Catholic domination. It cannot be conceded that women’s suffrage has brought “ the home into the management of the school,” or that “ woman has purified and ennobled political activity.” It is difficult to see that the women who, year after year, have taken an active part in school affairs move on a plane any higher than that along which male effort acts. As members of school boards they have little genius for facts; their statements in debate frequently illustrate the well-known truth that imaginative fiction is woman’s literary stronghold; there is always an exception (in favor of themselves) to all rules; when their own desires are involved their vision is oblique; they are seldom, if ever, impersonal. When, in Boston, a new code of rules vested in the Superintendent the duty of presenting to the full Board, for its acceptance or rejection, his personal judgment as to the fittest candidates for teachers’ positions, so that it would have been a gross breach of his duty, and a fraud upon the Board and upon the public, for him to have made himself the mouthpiece of any other person’s choice and judgment, it was a woman, an ardent advocate of the reform in the abstract, — a woman whose goodness of heart and purity of purpose were exceeded only by her own conviction of their paramount virtue, — that was the first member to insist, strenuously to insist, that the Superintendent should select and name her candidate, and not his own. Her attitude was like that of the governor of an island undergoing the process of benevolent assimilation, who, when informed by a visitor, coming with letters of introduction that commended him to the gubernatorial favor, that he had come to try a lawsuit in the courts of the island, said, “ I will speak to the judges for you; ” and, to a hesitating doubt as to whether such course was quite discreet, replied, with a surprised air, “ Why, I make these men judges ; of course they will decide as I indicate to them.” A “ packed ” Supreme Court would be a normal tribunal to a female President.

But it ought to be said that women on school boards do much useful service. They have time to visit the schools, and they find many defects and abuses that overworked business and professional men would never discover. In spite of the fact that so few women register and vote, and that those who do vote are largely under the domination of leaders with whom the test of official excellence is found more in religious bigotry, and in a willingness and capacity to flatter and follow these self-constituted leaders, than in a straightforward and able performance of public duty, yet there is strong reason to believe that the women’s vote can — and will, if necessary — be used to prevent a thorough Tammanyizing of our public school administration. From the subjoined note 1 it will appear that this vote is in Boston varium et mutabile semper. The remarkable rise from 725 in 1887 to 19,490 in 1888 was caused by the violent sectarian controversy over Swinton’s History. While this extraordinary increase in the vote is very indicative of women’s capacity and liking for religions and sectarian conflict, yet it cannot be gainsaid that no small part of that vote was based on a genuine fear, perhaps not entirely groundless, that the integrity of the teaching in our schools was menaced. A really “ rotten school board ” would undoubtedly produce another extraordinary and overwhelming women’s vote. For this vote to be both useful and effective, it should be blended into a non-partisan, non - sectarian organization with men voters. The independent women’s movement is based on a vicious and indefensible principle, and is led with a narrow blindness apparently not devoid of self-serving.

If machinery can be devised so that a non-partisan, non-sectarian “Public School Association,” or whatever it may be named, can be made genuinely representative of the disinterested public spirit which, in abundant force, is ready to put forth to protect and to perfect a sound administration of the public school system, the women’s vote can be made mightily effective. Reform by self - constituted committees has never availed for any length of time. The difficulty is inherent. In Boston, there has been no lack of pure motive and of self-sacrificing effort on the part of those who have led the Public School Association movement: they have already accomplished so much as to lend support to the hope that they may practically solve the problem, with such legislative assistance as shall restrict the field of activity to work purely educational. Much has already been done in arousing a sense of the importance of the work, and in checking the raids of the politicians. Their problem now is one of organization ; it is difficult, but probably not insoluble.

But, as in the other departments of municipal administration, the most vicious and powerful forces that threaten the honesty, efficiency, and respectability of the public school administration grow out of money expenditure, and mainly out of the expenditure for land, for buildings, and for repairs. It is the business part of public school administration that affords the inviting field for personal and mercenary politics. In our larger cities, this expense for land, buildings, and repairs is necessarily very heavy. If the growth of population in cities were confined to extensions upon vacant lands, and sites were there obtained and buildings erected with reasonable foresight, the school population would be housed at moderate expense. It is the shifting of population which costs. For instance, in the North and West ends of Boston, schoolhouses were given up, and their sites sold, many years ago, as business came in and drove out the old residents ; but recently, new sites have had to be bought, and more than ten dollars per square foot paid, in order to erect buildings for the enormous school population of the Hebrew and Italian emigrants who have hived in these sections. A dense population makes a demand for new sites, and at the same time raises their price. The site for the Paul Revere School at the North End will cost about $225,000.

A few figures as to Boston’s disbursements for school purposes will illuminate. In five years, ending January 31, 1900, Boston’s expenditures for schools have been $16,118,064.85. Of this sum, $4,872,055.81, or about thirty per cent, was spent for land, for new buildings, and for repair of old buildings. Of the remaining $11,246,009.04, $9,290,574.96 was paid for salaries of instructors, Superintendent, supervisors, and other school officers, including truant officers ; $693,167.37 was paid for janitor service ; $666,053.85 for supplies and incidental expenses ; and $456,622.25 for fuel, gas, and water. It is safe to say that the expenditure of $5,000,000 (nearly) for lands, buildings, and repair of buildings offers ten times more opportunity for corruption and chicanery than the expenditure of the other $11,250,000. This is the honey that attracts the political bee.

While the teachers have at times exercised some political influence with reference to their salaries, and have terrorized some politically fearful members of the Board, it is very improbable that any considerable part of the money paid for salaries is corruptly or even wastefully expended. We have too few, not too many teachers. Few, if any salaries are exorbitant. Almost the only waste that can be pointed out is the payment of salaries to incompetent teachers. That there should be some incompetence due to superannuation is inevitable ; and no school board will be hard-hearted enough to crowd out faithful teachers as soon as they have passed the line of highest efficiency. Yet it must be admitted that many special salary orders have their genesis in politics, and that this large pay roll will be maladministered if the tone of the administration is not kept fairly high. The political influence of our increasing army of public employees is not to be lightly passed by.

Payments for janitor service of nearly $700,000 are not so free from taint. The character of the service is such that it is difficult, although not impossible, to arrange payments upon a regular schedule ; the result is constant demand for increased compensation in individual cases and for extra allowances. A janitors’ association which has, or claims to have, large political influence, and to control at the polls the political destinies of ambitious politicians, leads to the strong suspicion that many of the claims for extras are really payments for political favor. A janitor’s compensation is perhaps regulated as much by the number of political pulls he has as by the number of schoolrooms he cares for.

The large sum paid for supplies and incidentals ($666,053.85) would seem, at first thought, to offer the same sort of opportunity for corruption and commissions as is afforded by the expenditure for lands and buildings; but, as a matter of fact, so many of the supplies purchased for the schools are of a definite and stereotyped kind, and the prices are so generally known, that large profits, affording the payment of corrupt commissions, would be likely to excite attention. However it may be managed in other cities, it is not believed that in Boston there has been any substantial amount of corruption or waste in the administration of this department. It is probably true that certain publishing and supply houses have from time to time succeeded in inducing an expenditure which was unwise, and that they have been assisted in this by members of the School Board whose motives were not always easy to apprehend. Too many educational “ improvements ” originate in business interests. Art and drawing are fruitful sources of large bills for stuff mainly used to waste time that should be devoted to learning how to think. Probably no one doubts that drawing should be taught; no one conversant with the facts doubts that drawing as now managed is a waste of teachers’ and pupils’ time and of the public money.

The experience of Boston in the matter of expenditure for sites, buildings, and repairs is sufficiently instructive to justify description. It is the sort of politics permitted by this expenditure that constitutes, at present, the greatest danger to our school administration.

Prior to 1895 the Boston School Committee had no authority to build school buildings. They were built and repaired by the City Government proper; really by the Mayor’s appointees, though the appropriations had to be voted by the City Council. Although the School Board had legally the designation of the sites, practically the City Government, that held the purse strings, selected them; and frequently selected them, not for the benefit of the school population, but for the benefit of the political manipulators. “ This lot, or no appropriation,” was the message of City Hall to the School Committee. One high school building is located on a steep sidehill, close to a street up and down which grumbling and shrieking electric cars move every few seconds, to the disturbance and waste of the energies of teachers and scholars in all but the coldest weather. It is there because Alderman Blank wanted to have that lot sold at a large price to the city, and prevented any appropriation until this was agreed to. It is safe to say that school sites were commonly chosen with little regard to future or even present needs; that the school buildings were not economically built; that a large part of the money nominally spent for repairs was wastefully or corruptly misapplied. Besides, the School Committee did not get its fair share of the tax levy. Buildings were not provided in sufficient number; children were refused admission, for lack of room ; stores, halls, and churches were hired and fitted up for school purposes, at an annual expense of over $20,000. The fact is that the City Government preferred to spend the money within its control for other than school purposes. It will never do to leave the schools dependent upon the appropriating will of the ordinary city government of one of our large cities. Some definite provision from the tax levy must be made by law, or the result will be annually to drive the school boards to the legislatures for relief, precisely as happened in Boston. A mass of legislation 2 for the Boston schools followed. The effect of this legislation was to give to the Boston School Committee full power to buy land, to erect and to repair buildings, and also to furnish for this purpose $3,450,000 of money derived from special loans. This sum was in addition to the aggregate of the amounts appropriated by the City Government for the School Department in the years prior to 1898, and of the school portion of the regular tax levy in 1899 and 1900 ; for by the act of 1898 the School Committee was given a definite amount of the tax levy, — $2.90 upon each $1000 of taxable property.

The argument before the legislative committee in favor of taking this control of expenditure for sites, buildings, and repairs away from the City Government, and giving it to the School Board, took the double form of an assertion that, logically, the board managing the schools should house the schools, which was true ; and further, of an assertion, modestly made by members of the School Committee, that they were better men than the Aldermen and Common Councilmen, which was probably also true. The fatal defect in this argument lay in disregarding the fact that the same forces which had made the Board of Aldermen and the Common Council bad were thus made operative upon the School Committee, and that the badness of the former was thus made certain of duplication.

Under these increased powers, the Boston School Committee has organized a “ Schoolhouse Agent’s Department,” and is now, and has been for two years, absolutely responsible for the application of all money appropriated for school purposes. It is not easy to determine whether the waste and misapplication are now less or more than when the City Government controlled this expenditure ; probably there is little difference. No candid observer will claim that either system gives satisfactory results. In spite of this legislative help in administering Boston’s affairs, the city has not obtained sufficient schoolhouses of its own for its school population. Its expenditure for rent of buildings and parts of buildings used for school purposes has steadily increased. Last year (ending January 31, 1900) the amount thus expended was $34,587.17 ; this year (ending January 31, 1901), $44,047.99, or the interest, at three per cent, on nearly one and a half million dollars’ worth of buildings.

It is not the purpose of this article to state in detail the sins of omission and commission of the Boston School Committee, but rather to use its record to illustrate some principles of wide application. The experience of the Board for the last five years demonstrates that it cannot be relied upon as an efficient and foresighted builder of schoolhouses. There is but little if any practical increase in efficiency over the old method of divided power, under which the buildings were built and repaired by the City Government. But if the building operations are no better, the School Committee is much worse. While theoretically it is clear that the school buildings should be built and repaired by the same body responsible for the school management, practically it is found that the expenditure of the large sums thus involved, under contracts capable of wasteful or corrupt manipulation, sets in operation forces so vicious and sinister that the integrity and efficiency of the whole public school system are endangered. The School Committee has become the ambition of the politicians, some of them of the most mercenary type. The corridors of the School Committee chamber are filled with the same sort of lobbyists and parasites so familiar around our City Hall; they reek. “ Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.”

When a member of the School Committee is publicly charged with having used his official position to advance his private interest, — with having urged the sale of his goods on the ground that he would reciprocate by securing for the purchasers thereof profitable trade with the city, through his official position on the School Committee, — and such member admits by silence the truth of this charge, it is clear that a subsequent administration cannot have public respect if it puts such a member at the head of the leading committee on finance, where his signature is necessary for the approval of all bills. It will certainly be said, whether true or not, that a moral sensibility that sees no wrong in the charged and admitted practice will find it easy to withhold his signature to bills justly due until he is “ seen ” by the money - needing creditors of the city. Such practices drive out of competition for public business the best business houses; lead to corrupt coalition for the purpose of eliminating competition among those who remain in the scramble ; increase the cost of the public work in the long run by practically the amount of the tribute money compelled to be paid; make every honest teacher ashamed of his official superiors; work corruption and demoralization generally. It is bad enough when such methods exist, and are not publicly known ; it is infinitely worse when they are known, and are not instantly stopped. “ Hypocrisy is the respect which vice pays to virtue ; ” and an administration that has not sufficient respect for public sentiment to put the stamp of apparent disapproval upon such practices indicates a brazen shamelessness which must count upon an inert and conscienceless public opinion.

The pith of the matter is this : when politics is once let loose upon the administration of the schools, it does not confine its wasteful and corrupting influences to the matter of land, buildings, and repair jobs, — to the business part of school administration ; it attacks also the educational part. This is a direct blow at the morale of the whole educational system : it tends to drag superintendent and supervisors into the maelstrom of politics ; it tends to make the appointment of teachers the football of partisan, sectarian, or mercenary politics ; it tends to imbue teachers with the idea that the way to advancement is by obtaining a political pull, with the idea that the favor of the ward committeeman is more to be desired than the approval of their supervisor ; it tends to degrade the public procedure in the school committee to a wrangle over sites, building contracts, repair jobs, and thus to bring the body into public disrepute ; it disgusts watchful parents, who believe that the control of the schools, whose influences enter so vitally into the moral and intellectual life of their children, cannot be safely intrusted to those who seem to have low intellectual and moral ideals ; it lessens the respect of pupils for their teachers, and thus makes harder the task of the most faithful and high-minded. This result is already indicated in Boston. What educational topic has been debated in the Boston School Committee within the last three years ? A report from the Board of Supervisors, involving the most radical and far-reaching changes proposed for many years, was recently received and referred without exciting a ripple of general interest. The members who cared for the subject matter knew that the topics discussed in that report were of no general interest to the School Board. The proper function of normal school training as a part of the preparation of teachers was found as uninteresting as the Rule in Shelley’s Case ; but a scheme to spend $165,000 for a lot of land on Huntington Avenue, on which to erect a normal school building to accommodate a couple of hundred girls, excited wild and vociferous interest. No other result of the legislation above referred to could reasonably be expected. Give to the school committee of any city similar powers as to the expenditure of money, and its character and methods will be practically the same as the character and methods of a board of aldermen or common councilmen in the same city. Until we can purge our entire city administration not merely of actual criminal corruption, but also of the other expensive and demoralizing forms of public exploitation that now go on, it is absurd to vest in school boards the power of erecting and repairing schoolhouses. The practical problem is, not to get the business part of school administration efficiently or even honestly done, but to prevent the inefficiency and dishonesty, probably inevitable in our larger cities with our present civic standards, from corrupting and discrediting the educational part of the school administration. We may get on with inadequate buildings ; we cannot get on with vulgar, unintelligent, ill-trained appointees in our schoolrooms.

This leads to a brief statement relative to the political forces operative in selecting teachers. Something has already been said as to the race and sectarian prejudice entering into that problem. There are other political factors, — factors which tend to prevent appointments from being made solely on the basis of moral and intellectual fitness and successful experience. One of these factors is the pressure in favor of residents. The basis of this pressure is found in political, and not in educational reasons. Educationally, teachers should be selected for qualification, and not for citizenship ; politically, citizenship, and not qualification, is the prime requisite. Ordinarily, the Brookline, Quincy, or Melrose teacher has no political influence in Boston. With the higher salaries paid in Boston, the city should have the pick of the experienced, well-trained, and successful teachers of New England. As a matter of fact, about two thirds of the appointments in Boston have for years been made from among the inexperienced graduates of the Boston Normal School. Really, the main reason for maintaining this school as a part of the public school system of Boston is to furnish a means and an excuse for putting in inexperienced teachers who have some local political influence, instead of taking the experienced teachers from other towns and cities, who would gladly come to Boston because of the higher salaries and wider opportunities. It is, of course, true that many of these Normal School graduates become efficient and satisfactory teachers ; but the city pays high for their apprenticeship. There should be free trade in teachers. There is no more reason why the best teachers of New England should not gather in the metropolis, and obtain positions through their merits and demonstrated fitness, than there is why the best lawyers, ministers, and doctors of New England should be excluded from the competition and opportunities of the great city.

Another aspect of the operation of politics in controlling the appointment of teachers is found in the attempts of the political manipulators to minimize the powers of superintendent, supervisors, and masters in the selection of teachers. Under the statute law creating the Boston School Committee, the Superintendent and supervisors have no powers except such as are given them under the rules of the School Committee. Prior to June, 1898, teachers were practically selected by sub-committees of the School Board; the experience and skill of the Superintendent and supervisors had no official, and little practical recognition. At that time a new code of rules was adopted, after a strenuous battle, vesting in the Superintendent, in conference with the supervisor in charge and the master of the school, the responsibility of selecting, subject to the approval of the Board, all teachers. This new method had, of course, no legal effect upon the powers of the Board, but it removed the field of political influence, in the selection of teachers, from the secrecy of the sub-committee to the publicity of the full Board, and gave to the schools and the public the advantage of an initial selection by the executive educational officers. The result has been constant war by the politicians upon the Superintendent. They have already succeeded in cutting down his powers, so that his appointments must be approved by the subcommittee in charge of the school in which the appointment is to be made, before he is permitted to report them to the Board. His reflection in the summer of 1900 was for weeks prevented, because he had refused subservience to those who desired him to appoint their nominees, based upon political pull, and not his own, based upon educational qualifications.

So long as the statute law gives to the superintendent and supervisors no powers whatever, and their functions are limited to the duties imposed upon them by the rules of the school committee itself, it is safe to say that a superintendent who holds a high and strong ideal of the duties of his position will either be left little power in the selection of teachers, or else he will find his holding of office precarious and uncertain. It seems clear that the superintendent of schools should, by statute law, be given large powers in the designation of teachers ; that his appointment should either be the only method by which nominations may come before the board for approval, or that, subject to a veto by a majority of the board, such appointment should be legally effective.

Before closing this paper a caveat should be filed. The writer does not intend to convey the impression that the increase in money-spending power has transmuted the Boston School Committee into a body of persons, a large number of whom are corruptly making money by abuse of their official positions. The fact is quite other. Actual corruption — selling their votes for money, receiving commissions on public contracts they have voted to make, dividing profits of a land deal — is almost certainly confined to a very small minority. But this small minority, by playing on sectarian or partisan prejudice, local jealousies, and personal ambitions, accomplish an infinite amount of evil. A person who is ambitious for political advancement, though personally above taking money, is often not highminded nor strong-minded enough to refuse to deal politically with one who he morally knows is seeking a vantage ground for political spoil. Many members are weak and timorous. A half dozen active and vociferous ward-heelers seem to such members to speak for the public sentiment of all Boston, when in truth these ward-heelers are simply promoting a land or building job, and are bullying these weak members into voting money into their pockets. “ Woman’s magic spell” has been known to make political fools of guileless members having too much faith that the beautiful is always the true and the good. In a word, the forces operative for unrighteousness from outside the Board are more numerous and vicious than the factors from within. But the point is, that this combination of sinister outside influences, operating on weakness within and combining with some dishonesty within, produces an appearance of widespread corruption.

This appearance sets in operation still another destroying force: as the school committee loses respectability, “ reformers ” and other well-meaning but misguided people indulge in wild and lurid denunciation of the committee, and of all its members and works. The sheep and the goats are not distinguished; indeed, they are often indistinguishable. Of course, this undeserved censure is gall and wormwood to the honest members who are honestly trying from within to stem the tide of corruption. They come to look forward to the termination of their official life as to a release from prison. Hence the difficulty of getting good men to serve upon unpaid boards. An unsalaried office must be honorable, or it will attract only crooks and saints : and saints are rare ; the supply does not equal the demand. Next to corruption itself, the wild and baseless charges of corruption, made by a large number of the citizens who call themselves “ reformers,” are probably the most actively harmful political forces in our community to-day. They utterly destroy what respectability remains to a school board that has a few corrupt members. When a school committee once loses respectability, it is almost impossible to induce persons having real public spirit and reasonable unselfishness to serve upon it, even if they could be nominated and elected without a disagreeable personal struggle. Who considers it an honor to-day to serve in the Common Council of the city of Boston ? We are taught to respect our courts ; and even presidential appointments of sons of justices to lucrative and desirable positions, made while the presidential policy is pending before the bar of the Supreme Court, will make few of us believe that personal motive or parental interest will prevent a full and free operation of the judicial intellect. We recognize that respect is essential not only to the integrity and usefulness of the courts, but also to the preservation of a law-abiding spirit among the people. We do not permit ourselves even to think evil of our courts ; for we know that if they should be reputed bad, they shortly would become bad. The same principle is applicable to other public functions, and especially to positions upon unpaid boards. To be respectable, they must be respected. The methods of reformers need reforming as much as the methods of politicians. We shall never obtain honest, efficient, and respectable school administration (and again the stress is put upon respectability) if we carelessly and unjustly make our school boards an object of contumely and reproach.

If the foregoing analysis of politics in the administration of public schools is reasonably correct, it follows that efforts for reform should not be revolutionary in their nature, however they may prove to be in their result. There is no panacea in organization or reorganization. We are dealing with human nature, and no amount of shifting the political machinery will change the essential nature of the problem. The programme of reform is not an ambitious one. It is simply this : the business, the money-spending functions, of the school committee should be made as few as possible ; the purchase of sites and the building and repair of schoolhouses should be taken away from the school committee. The designation of sites within certain limits, and the approval of schoolhouse plans, should be left to the school committee ; not that such control can be made fully effective, but it would tend to prevent a total disregard of educational fitness by the commission or city council, or other official body that may have this work in direct charge. Again, the superintendent or board of supervisors should, by statute law, be given certain definite powers as to the appointment of teachers, subject to approval or veto by the school committee. Little more than this can be done through the mere framework of organization ; subsequent reliance must be placed upon the wholesome activity of the better class of citizens. A strong effort should be made to take the nomination and election of members of the school committee out of politics, partisan, sectarian, personal, and mercenary. So important is this work that we may fairly expect to see it command the support of so large a body of our voters, male and female, as to insure success, provided the leaders are reasonably discreet and entirely disinterested. If (as many doubt) it is possible to maintain a nonpartisan citizens’ organization for the purpose of administering any part of our city governments, it is certainly possible to do this with reference to our public school system. It is a far cry to the time when the entire city government of any of our large cities will be non-partisan, not to say non-political. The most hopeful point of attack is in the administration of the public school system. If the movement for women’s suffrage has any sound basis, if through it there is any reason to expect the prevalence of higher ideals and purer administration of public affairs, the fullest opportunity for demonstrating its beneficence is afforded by the need of destroying the pernicious influence of politics in the administration of our schools. If women do not seize this opportunity, if they care not for that function of the government which most directly and vitally affects them and their children, it is absurd for them to argue that their activity with reference to streets, sewers, and state affairs would be beneficial.

Our governmental experience furnishes us one analogy, instructive as to organization and hopeful as to result: it is found in our administration of justice. The highest and noblest function of any government is to furnish a pure and efficient administration of justice. Speaking broadly, we have succeeded in this. We have done it by keeping our judges out of business ; by limiting their functions strictly to judicial work ; by making their procedure open and public, and thus preventing personal solicitation. These safeguards, with the traditions of a high and noble profession, have given us courts almost always pure, almost generally efficient. The same method must be pursued in the administration of our schools. Next to that of the courts, theirs is the most important work intrusted to the government. The field of their administrators must be strictly limited to educational work; in that field inefficiency and corruption must not be tolerated.

G. W. Anderson.

Men’s Vote for Mayor.Women’s Registration and Vote for School Committee.
Registration. Vote.
1886 45,667 1,193 878
1887 51,815 837 725
1888 63,098 20,252 19,490
1889 56,806 10,589 10.051
1890 54,021 7,925 7,439
1891 55,018 0,008 5,428
1892 66,667 9,992 9,510
1893 68,228 10,296 8,915
1894 68,588 11,091 8,733
1895 76,721 12,073 9,049
1896 No Mayor chosen. 10,340 6,417
1897 79,763 9,262 5,721
1898 No Mayor chosen. 8,723 5,201
1899 81,341 10,385 7,090
1900 No Mayor chosen. 12,473 9,542
  1. Probably there are as many female voters as male voters in the city of Boston. If this is so, it is apparent from the above table that in most years not more than one tenth of the women voters have voted. For instance, in 1895, about 77,000 men voted for Mayor, and about 9000 women for School Committee. In 1897, about 80,000 men voted for Mayor, and less than 6000 women for School Committee.
  2. See Acts of Legislature of Massachusetts for 1895, chapter 408 ; for 1897, chapters 304 and 442 ; for 1898, chapters 149 and 400 ; for 1899, chapter 239.