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Authoritarianism & Homework

Does voting really count? Why bother to vote? These are questions that came to mind recently when I read the text of House Bill 1309. It would amend current law by adding in the following: “Unless restricted by any provision of law, the vote on a petitioned warrant article shall be binding upon the town” and “Unless restricted by any other provision of law, the vote on a petitioned warrant article shall be binding upon the school district.” So, what’s the issue here? If voters approve a warrant, then it becomes law, right?

Not necessarily. It turns out some towns and school boards are totally ignoring the will of the voters. There are several examples of this outrage, but for brevity, I will concentrate on only two instances here. The Newfound Area School Board dismissed as a “giant hindrance” petitioned warrant Article 5, which passed by a margin of 921 to 625 on March 12, 2019, that would have required large capital improvements to be approved by voters in separate warrant articles. On April 9, 2019, Merrimack voters passed, by a margin of 1,771 to 1,478, Article 8, which “seeks to require the following amendment to the “IKB Homework” Merrimack School Board Policy: “At the discretion of the individual teacher, homework assignments will be (1) collected, reviewed, and graded; and (2) the accumulative average of the semester’s homework grade will be counted towards the student’s total cumulative semester grade.” The school board had instituted a policy in 2017 that homework no longer counted toward students’ grades, and angry parents had presented the warrant article for the voters to decide. The school board ruled that the warrant was only “advisory in nature” and ignored it. A local parent filed a civil suit against the school board, but the New Hampshire Board of Education and New Hampshire Supreme Court both ruled in favor of the local school board. As is often the case, judges defer to bureaucrats over regular citizens.

I see a couple of issues here. The most obvious is who works for whom, and who bestowed the bureaucrats with divine knowledge? If you’re going to have representative government—and preferably a republican form that protects individual rights over mob rule—then obviously elected representatives need to listen to what voters have to say. Otherwise that makes a mockery of the whole process, and no wonder so few citizens bother to take the responsibility of voting seriously. Of course, with any issue, honorable people will disagree on the best way to do things, but majority approval for non-fiscal issues and super-majority approval of taxes are the generally accepted and tried-and-true ways to run a government in a civil society. Naturally, it would be best to have as few as possible of these critical areas in the realm of government and leave them up to individuals to decide their priorities—and fund them themselves rather than expecting their neighbors to fund them—but if you’re going to have government, elected representatives have to consider the folks they represent. If they don’t, you can always “throw the bums out” at the next election, but while they’re still in office, they can cause quite a bit of mayhem.

The school board’s attitude on homework is reflective of the dismal state of government schools these days. The board insists that homework is still required, but it just doesn’t count towards students’ grades. So why would students even bother doing it? No homework—what’s next? No grades? The standards just get lower and lower all the time. Why not let the teachers decide? In my time, homework was assigned to reinforce what was taught in school that day. It was also part of a curriculum that stressed time management, discipline, and personal responsibility. It is true that for the very bright, sometimes homework was more busy work than anything of real value, but in a one-size- fits-all compulsory education scenario, that’s inevitable. That’s all the more reason to expand school choice to accommodate individual needs, interests, and abilities.

But what about the less scholarly-inclined students who don’t fare so well in testing? Homework has always been their avenue to making it through school by boosting their grades. It’s generally accepted these days that testing isn’t always the best gauge of what a student actually learned, so why deny those kids the chance to succeed? Even more important, there’s an important life lesson to be learned by doing homework and having it count towards your grade: hard work is to be rewarded. And isn’t that how it is out in the real world? It’s not always the smartest that succeed the most, but those who apply themselves the most. There have been plenty of complaints already of students’ grades dropping due to the new school board policy, which has left some students at a disadvantage when competing for colleges and scholarships. Isn’t it strange that those who deride testing these days are the very same folks who would force the scholastically-challenged to rely more on testing for their grades? Strange or not, hypocritical or not, school board bureaucrats know better.

It is interesting that the school board was unanimous in deciding to keep the new policy, but the voters were about 55% to 45% in favor of going back to the old system. Clearly the bureaucrats felt one way and a significant portion of “the people” felt differently. Perhaps the bureaucrats truly believed they were doing what was “best” for the students and stuck to their guns. Or was it power lust? The truth of the matter is that there is no “best” way for all students, and any attempt to impose it will always give some students the short end of the stick.

By the way, the new homework policy instituted three years ago dictates that teachers may assign homework, and it must be “evaluated” by teachers, but “evaluated” does not mean graded. In my time, part of a teacher’s job was to actually read and grade homework. That was part of their homework. Should a labor contract dispute come up in the future, how convenient for government teachers to have their time freed up to walk the picket line for higher wages and benefits.

Unfortunately, HB1309 was “laid on the table” recently, which doesn’t bode well for its passage. Apparently, school board bureaucrats and selectmen aren’t the only ones infected with authoritarianism virus.