A “sense of urgency” is lacking about addressing racial disparities in educational achievement, according to President Margaret McKenna, who spoke on an Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts panel held in conjunction with the release of “A Report on the State of Black Massachusetts.”
The statistic that seemed most stunning to the Urban League audience at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston was this: A typical white household in Boston holds $247,500 in wealth, while the typical black household has $8.
Lack of resources in high-poverty districts is driving poor outcomes, according to Nicole Rodriguez, a policy analyst with the bipartisan Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
“I hope there’s a sense of urgency,” said McKenna. “Everyone says that Massachusetts is first in education. I say: Time out; we have one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation.”
The disparity also is seen in the state’s high school graduation rates: 91 percent of whites, 75 percent of blacks, and 70 percent of Latinos graduate.
“That’s not OK,” said McKenna, who, as a member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, is attuned to issues at those levels as well as in higher education.
McKenna identified several problems related to the achievement gap and noted that their remedies in many cases would not be costly:
- Research shows that the lack of summer learning is a top reason for the achievement gap, according to McKenna. She said that providing summer sessions is not expensive, but the political will to do so is lacking.
- Massachusetts is 44th of 50 states when it comes to providing breakfast to eligible elementary school children. “We know what a difference that makes,” said McKenna.
- Citing lack of dental care and other medical services as one of the leading reasons for absenteeism, she said: “It’s hard to learn if you can’t see, can’t hear, or have a toothache.”
- Providing adult education to parents is beneficial to their children’s achievement.
- Bilingual education should be reinstated in Massachusetts, where the achievement of Hispanic and Latino students is 44th of 50 states. “We’re the only state left with an English-only mandate,” said McKenna. “And the dropout rate for these kids is high at least in part because of this mandate.”
- Funding for early-childhood education has fallen by 20 percent since 1996. “We have to reverse that trend. Every dollar put into child care services yields $13 in savings later on,” said McKenna.
She also spoke about the need for more civics education and for a more diverse elementary and secondary school faculty, called for better support for community colleges, and criticized a trend that has seen the balance of scholarship funding shifting toward merit and away from need.
McKenna offered the assistance of Suffolk’s Sawyer Business School’s Center for Entrepreneurship to support minority business owners and entrepreneurs.
The panelists also addressed the issues of health care, poverty, politics, and policy.
State Rep. Russell Holmes, who moderated the panel discussion, emphasized the importance of voting and the work of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus in focusing attention on the issue of achievement disparity and in proposing remedies.
Boston’s economic development chief, John Barros, said he believes that political involvement during the most recent mayoral election “sent a message to Mayor Walsh that growing disparity is an issue for Boston.” The city has responded through initiatives such as the fee increase for developers of high-end housing, which will be used to support an increase in units for low-to-middle-income residents.
Harold Cox of the Boston University School of Public Health noted disparities in 16 of 20 health outcomes and attributed these differences to issues involving poverty, education, smoking rates, lack of open space, and “food deserts,” or lack of neighborhood grocery stores. He said that partnerships with universities can begin to address some of these issues.
Policies such as the G.I. Bill and Social Security helped the white middle class grow its wealth but left people of color behind, according to Ana Patricia Muñoz, director of community development research for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Redlining and predatory lending exacerbated the problem, she said. “There is a persistence of inequality over time. This didn’t just happen. We need bold policies and bold approaches.”