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Learning, the hard way

WELLESLEY -- It didn't start with writing personal checks to pay for elementary school Spanish classes.

The confusion in this western suburb about the definition of public education dates back at least 14 years.

That is when my oldest son entered kindergarten. At the first PTO meeting of the year, a dad whipped out his checkbook and urged the rest of us to do the same.

The issue then was the modular classrooms that had sprung up over the summer to accommodate the burgeoning enrollment.

The father suggested: Why not just build a permanent addition to the school and be done with it? ''If everyone in this room tonight wrote a check," I remember him saying, ''we could start construction this fall."

Apparently the balance in his checking account was a little different than mine. So was his idea of a public school. It was amazing to listen to the school superintendent have to explain the concept of collective responsibility to well-educated adults. If people of means finance a building project for their neighborhood school, she asked patiently, what about other similarly overcrowded schools around town?

Let the parents of those children raise the money to fix their own schools, came the reply.

It does not work that way. All the schools are our schools. We cast our lot together, for good or ill. The majority rules. That means: Win some, lose some.

When Wellesley voters rejected a budget proposal this month that would have earmarked money for elementary school and 6th-grade Spanish, supporters of a worthy program lost one. That the ballot question failed by only 17 votes is frustrating, but it's beside the point.

The take-away lesson for disappointed parents might have been the need to do a better job next time convincing townspeople of their point of view, or to do a more aggressive job of getting like-minded residents to the polls.

Persuasion and participation usually win the day. Whatever happened to losing gracefully, and living to fight another day? Instead, parents indignant that they lost such a close vote launched a fund-raising drive to use private resources to pay for a core curriculum public-school program.

All parents want the best education for their children. That's why so many of the well heeled send their offspring to private schools. It is why so many people of more modest means assume mortgages they can barely afford to live in communities with good public school systems. It is why residents of poorer cities and towns will forever be shortchanged by an educational funding system that is so dependent on property taxes.

In the face of the fundamental inequity in educational opportunity we do not need Citizens to Save Spanish, parents determined to circumvent the will of a majority when they do not prevail at the polls. No matter how committed they are, no matter how worthy their goal, these parents are sending a message that their cause is more legitimate than the democratic process.

That is not a civics lesson our children need to learn.

The children of suburban parents already have educational advantages that their public school counterparts in less affluent communities could hardly imagine. A silent auction for one of Wellesley's elementary schools this year raised more than $80,000 that can be used to purchase equipment or to fund enrichment programs. In only a few weeks this month, parents raised $380,000 in their failed bid to restore Spanish classes. That ought to be enough to hire private tutors.

It didn't start with writing personal checks to pay for elementary school Spanish classes and it won't end there, either. The same vote that rejected funds for Spanish also eliminated money for Wellesley's two branch libraries. The Committee to Save the Branch Libraries meets on Wednesday. Bring your checkbook.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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