Derrick Z. Jackson

Public education’s dire straits

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / June 12, 2010

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THE ALARMS keep ringing in the national emergency of public education. One was a recent Globe story highlighting how parents in Arlington are raising $1 million, not just to prop up extracurricular activities like music and sports, but to pay teacher salaries. “It gets away from the true notion of a public education,’’ Rosemary Driscoll, president of the Natick Education Foundation, told the Globe. “But I think the pressure is only going to get greater and greater.’’

Another was the release this week of a Harvard Graduate School of Education study saying that 43 percent of third-graders in Massachusetts read below proficiency. Two-thirds of the below-proficient readers are from low-income families. Two-thirds of those who are proficient and above proficient are from households that are not low income.

The study exposes the mortally soft underbelly that dramatically undercuts Massachusetts’ standing as the best reading state in the nation for fourth-graders. Massachusetts’ high ranking is primarily because the state’s white and Asian-American students and suburban students are significantly more proficient on reading tests than their peers around the nation, while the percentages of African-American and Hispanic students and low-income students who are below proficient (8 in 10), mirror national statistics.

“Research indicates that 74 percent of children whose reading skills are less than sufficient by third grade have a drastically reduced likelihood of graduating from high school,’’ the study said. “As a result, these children are unlikely to develop the skills essential for participating fully in this knowledge-based economy and for experiencing life success.’’

Proof that we are not equipped to immediately answer the alarm came from state Education Secretary Paul Reville. While calling the report a “very important call to action,’’ he added, “Right now we don’t have nearly as much money as we’d like to have to do the kind of work that we’d want to do in early literacy.’’

So what we have is a system that continues to corrode for low-income youth in Massachusetts (although there is a disturbing percentage of wealthier boys and girls who cannot read either). Meanwhile, parents in Boston’s suburbs stage galas and send out e-mail blasts for money. This is a really bad sign. We’ve known forever that urban property tax bases are hopeless in assuring quality public schools and state attempts at equalizing per-pupil funding have fallen way short.

Now suburban systems, either because they are truly exhausting their tax base or because short-sighted voters refuse to increase taxes, are increasingly relying on private parent support. Besides Arlington, the Globe cited several million dollars’ worth of fund-raising in recent years in Lexington, Wayland, Cohasset, Falmouth, Brookline, Winchester, Needham, Natick, Newton, and Wellesley. The amount of private money donated to public schools in Massachusetts has nearly tripled over the decade, to $27 million last year.

More power to parent groups that take education this seriously. However, these groups are exercising financial privileges that urban and sparse rural communities do not have. With their wallets, they inadvertently widen the statewide economic gap that impedes efforts to close our appalling achievement gaps.

That is not the fault of the parent foundations. Rather, it is a reason for local, state, and federal leaders to begin behaving as if this is a civil rights crisis and come up with new metropolitan, state, and federal formulas for funding schools. National data say public schools have re-segregated on the fault lines of race and income. Data also say that reading scores and other standardized test scores merely follow the income levels. Neither urban tax bases nor parent fund-raisers in East Boston or Mattapan can ever hope to catch up to a Lexington or a Wayland. The national emergency of education is worsening. We have sunk so low in Massachusetts, we are creating a nation where half of today’s schoolchildren cannot read at the level to be successful in life.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at