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Boston, like all major American cities, has its fair share of worthless, bigoted politicians, but Boston is distinguished from other cities by the lack of influence residents and elected officials exert over issues that directly affect the city.
Boston's troubles are rooted in a social trend that began in the early '50s: the shift in white collar population, and the political and financial power that they embody, from the cities to the suburbs. This trend had two disastrous effects on Boston. The city lost to the suburbs its strong influence over the state government, and the Boston tax base began to crumble rapidly.
As the tax base shrunk year by year, demands on city services and the costs of those services rose steadily. Moreover, 48 per cent of Boston's land, including colleges, hospitals, cultural institutions, state property, and federal property, was, and still is tax exempt. Attempts to cover the spiralling costs by raising the tax rate merely resulted in the further shrinkage of the tax base as white collar professionals fled the city for the lower property tax levies of the suburbs. The state legislature, controlled by the suddenly powerful combination of suburbs and the western districts, refused, and continues to refuse, to help the city cope with its "Catch-22" predicament.
During this period Boston's residents, influenced by the inability of city officials to do more than raise taxes, were under constant pressure to leave. Many did just that, but the majority stayed. Those who remained turned inward to their neighborhoods, which had always been strong, for support. As steadfast as these people were, however, they were under constant attack from the rising tax rate, the rising crime rate, the overcrowded schools, and the overall unwillingness of the state or federal government to provide real relief. As a result, they lost confidence in all levels of government including the courts. Meanwhile Boston continued to slide toward the abyss.
The proverbial "straw that broke the camel's back" was Federal District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity's busing order of 1973. From the start the vast majority of white Bostonians, and many blacks as well, were opposed to the plan. Others were ambivalent. Very few were in favor. We all asked the same question:
"What good will busing an underpriveleged white kid from a bad school in South Boston to a bad school in Roxbury and busing an underpriveleged black kid from a bad school in Roxbury to a bad school in South Boston do for the kids or the city?"
Neither the courts, the media, nor the thousands of other voices we heard ever answered this question.
The reaction of Bostonians was inevitable. Those who could afford to take their children out of the public school system did so. Some parents in this group enrolled their children in parochial schools. Other families moved out of the city altogether. Almost all the children who left the system were white. This changed the enrollment significantly. Minorities quickly became the majority in the school system, making a mockery of the court-ordered racial guidelines.
The quality of the education in the schools dropped to disastrous levels. Costs for administrators, aides, buses, monitors and police skyrocketed. Some parents joined organized protest groups such as ROAR. Some decided cooperation was more useful than protest and joined such court-created organizations as the Parents Advisory Councils. Some, a very small group we are all aware of, protested violently.
As a result of the busing order imposed on Boston, the quality of education dropped. The tax rate jumped $56, making it the highest in the United States. Racial tensions increased to alarming levels. Moreover, according to studies of the first two years of busing, court guidelines for desegragation could not be effectively implemented, and many schools remained segregated.
The question now is, "What must be done to correct the system?" Some observers feel that a school committee and city council elected by districts and a new mayor will solve the problem. The School Committee, however, does not run the schools; the court-appointed experts do. The City Council is powerless to layoff teachers, administrators, city workers, or cut pension costs because of unions and state law. No amount of "moral leadership" from the mayor will convince Bostonians to accept the busing plan. Obviously reform is not so simple as these people suggest.
Extensive reform, involving the whole metropolitan area, must take place. First, desegregation must cross city boundries so that that the underprivileged will finally go to school with the privileged. Second, the State Legislature and the governor must finally realize that Boston is the heart and soul of Massachusetts and thus deserves special consideration. Specifically, Boston should be empowered to levy taxes other than the property tax and should be granted more aid because of its large percentage of tax-exempt property. Finally, the federal government must concentrate on aiding the older, northeastern cities like Boston and New York.
Despite its myriad of problems, Boston is a great city. With less finger-pointing by the federal and state agencies, the courts, and the media, and some sincere action to return control of Boston to Bostonians, the city will remain one.
Joseph F. McDonough '81 lives in Matthews Hall. He is the son of Patrick F. McDonough, a member of the Boston City Council.
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