Public Education's Dire Straits

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"

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.

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.

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

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.''

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.

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.

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.

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.

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