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In an egregiously transparent publicity stunt last week, Massachusetts Gov. W. Mitt Romney told a packed auditorium at Murdock Middle-High School, “By testing our students, we’re testing ourselves as educators and administrators and even political leaders to see where we are failing.” He had gone to Winchendon—which is about 70 miles from Boston, near the New Hampshire border—to tout his education policy, pose for the cameras and demonstrate how he harbors no hard feelings toward the school, despite the state Board of Education’s recent labeling of Winchendon schools as “underperforming.” As a test of his own performance, the governor’s disingenuous spectacle was a miserable and arrogant failure.
Romney avoided explicitly mentioning the school’s underperformance—ostensibly his reason for visiting—instead speaking in euphemisms of the need for a “special partnership” between the school and the state. Rather than providing the Winchendon community with concrete plans for improving the school, he waxed poetically on the dangers of drugs, tobacco and teen pregnancy. Later, when pressed by reporters, the governor plugged his full-day kindergarten initiative and pledged support for finding alternative ways to help schools educate disruptive students.
“We want you to succeed in getting an education that will allow you to succeed in college,” Romney told the students during the assembly. But a handful of students had views of their own to express. Some held signs mocking his policies—“I am a $tatistic” read one, “I am the underperformer” read another—appropriately patronizing the governor in response to his own patronizing appearance.
“I proudly booed and yelled ‘phony,’ ” junior Sarah Mungeam told the Boston Globe. “He didn’t come here to help us. He came here to look good for his public relations.” The students were right to express their disappointment and frustration with the governor.
One particular incident, however, is disconcerting; the Globe reported that after senior Jacob Whitney publicly refused to shake the governor’s hand—a gesture purportedly intended, and received, as a joke—Whitney claims the school delivered him a three-day suspension. Although the Globe quoted the Superintendent of Schools Robert A. O’Meara as saying no student would be disciplined for refusing to shake the governor’s hand, Whitney and his mother claim otherwise—although Whitney does admit to furiously punching a hole in the wall of the school office in frustration over the punishment.
If Whitney’s account is accurate, the response of Murdock Middle-High School’s administration was far more out of line than its own students. High schools are notorious violators of student civil liberties, and we hope schools learn to better promote the values of dissent and free speech—rather than suppress those qualities in its students.
To the governor’s credit, Romney’s press secretary expressed his administration’s disappointment that a student might have been “punished for expressing his or her opinion.” Still, the entire situation was regrettable.
As part of the governor’s 10-year education plan, the Winchendon school system will be required to submit improvement plans to the state Department of Education, and if results do not materialize within two years, the state may take over the school’s administration. Luckily, by the time the next governor’s election rolls around, almost all of Murdock’s students will have reached voting age—at which point, they will be able to join Democrats in taking back the governor’s mansion for effective reform.
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