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Massachusetts' Katrina Moment

Posted by Jim Stergios  May 9, 2012 10:00 AM

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In a previous job, I spent a lot of time in major Massachusetts cities outside of Boston. Cities like New Bedford and Fall River, with their stunning coastal views, and cities at the edge of Boston with so much potential like Lynn and Brockton, always intrigued me. But I have to admit to two favorites--Springfield and Lawrence. They are indeed among the most troubled, but they are both architecturally unique, with strong neighborhoods and muscular industrial histories.

Whenever in Lawrence, I would try to make it to Saint Anthony's Maronite Church or eat at Cafe Azteca. The smells in each place are enough to keep you going for days. A sensation similar to the "beignet haze" you get walking within 50 feet of New Orleans' Cafe Du Monde.

With the Lawrence Public Schools now in state receivership, a few recent posts have focused on what could and should be done there. I am decidedly against the idea of waiting for Superman and seeking a centralized solution from the new school receiver Jeff Riley, no matter how many good things I hear about him. We've seen that movie before with Michelle Rhee and other heroic reformers. They quickly get ahead of the local population and the embedded interests, and politically their attempts are pretty certain to meet resistance and failure. I've written extensively about the need to move away from that model of the heroic reformer who fixes all of the schools from the central office.

So, what to do?
#1. Recognize the problem
I have made it a point in recent posts to draw a direct parallel to Katrina, calling the Lawrence school receivership Massachusetts' "Katrina moment."

A few folks challenged that parallel, with, for example, Kevin Franck, communications director of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, tweeting this:

KevinFranck May 08, 2:13pm via TweetDeck

1,800+ people killed? RT @JimStergios: Lawrence district schools = Massachusetts’ Katrina #mapoli #edchat

So, Kev, let's run the numbers.

The unemployment rate in Lawrence is a whopping 15.8 percent. The unemployed/Underemployment percentage is almost certain to be 1 of 5 people, and the number of those who have dropped out of the workforce completely only makes the number more alarming.

The unemployment problem in Lawrence precedes the recession and is structural. In 2005 the unemployment rate stood at 9.8 percent. (See page 11 of this report.)

Median household income in Lawrence stands at less than half the average in Massachusetts (in 2009, $31,000 vs. $64,000), and household income for Hispanics in Lawrence, by far the largest ethnic group in the city, has been flat since 2000.

Poverty is deep and broad in Lawrence. Fully 37 percent of households in Lawrence earn less than $20,000 a year (vs. 16 percent for Massachusetts). That embedded poverty, just like the embedded unemployment, feels a lot like the structural poverty "discovered" in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.

In fact, New Orleans' unemployment rate prior to Katrina was only 5.6 percent. Median household income in New Orleans prior to Katrina was $31,369; the percentage of individuals earning less than $20,000 was far lower than in Lawrence.

As is well known, the poor student achievement data and outrageous dropout data lead to poverty, embedded poverty, poor health outcomes and high crime levels, which can lead to death, physical and mental impairment, and the demise of a once-great city.

The toll in terms of crime has been enormous since 2000. There have been over 50 murders, 228 rapes (which are routinely underreported), 1,642 robberies, 4,080 assaults, 5,885 burglaries, and almost 10,000 thefts (not including the largest category of thefts, car thefts).

Take all of these factors and then remember that our Lawrence is a small, small city covering only 7 square miles and with only 76,000. New Orleans (the city and the parish) extends a massive 350 square miles; and boasted 450,000 residents just prior to the hurricane. Truth be told, Katrina affected the entire metro region (1.4 million residents prior to the hurricane) and well beyond.

The comparison stands. Perhaps people like Kevin would like to compare the state of Lawrence schools with those in New Orleans? Happy to have that conversation.

In Lawrence we have had dropout rates north of 30 percent for some time now.

And a lot of the above statistics are related to the fact that over 40 percent of Lawrence's population has less than a high school diploma. Another 30 percent have only a high school diploma, which, if it is from the Lawrence Public School system, is not likely to have provided strong grounding for later learning. So you have nearly 80 percent of the population of Lawrence with either no high school diploma or no more than a high school diploma.

Education is the driver for unemployment, crime and the inability of the city to attract or grow businesses or jobs. Lawrence's schools are as bad as anything in NOLA before the deluge.

#2. Think big but not centralizing

The solutions are there if we simply have the courage to avail ourselves of them. In places where the state chips in well below 50 percent of the local school budget, I can understand the pushback from local mayors, who complain about dollars lost to their big central school bureaucracies. I don't agree with it for a minute, but I understand the (backwards) logic that the dollars belong to the adults in the system rather than to the students and parents.

But in Lawrence, the state is paying for almost the entire $135 million (soon to be $150 million) school budget. Moving to the New Orleans solution (with nearly all of its schools now public charter schools) has raised student scores and improved a number of key academic and school-based metrics. Doing the same in Lawrence is a no-brainer. There is little, if any, local money being put into the Lawrence schools and therefore no reason for the state to hold back on charterizing the entire district.

The blueprint is here -- and the results for Lawrence's kids would, over time, change not only their lives, but the trajectory of a once-great city.

It's all possible, but our political and education leaders need to have the brass to choose that course.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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