Black State Lawmakers Target 'Gap'

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An influential group of black state legislators issued a high-profile call to peers in state capitals and school districts across the country last week, urging them to help bridge the academic-achievement gap that separates black and white students.

In a report released Nov. 27 in Atlanta, the 600 members of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators said that more support should be given to urban schools to help equalize funding, reduce class sizes, hire and keep qualified teachers, and promote high academic standards.

The report points to longtime disparities in resources available to white, middle-class students and to African-American students in high-poverty communities. Black students also have higher rates of placement in special education and expulsion from school, while posting lower scores on measurements of literacy, science, and math performance, it adds.

"The dream is not yet realized," said C.J. Prentiss, a Democratic state senator from Ohio and the chairwoman of the group's education committee, evoking the vision of the civil rights movement of four decades ago. "Frankly, for some children to have [a good] education while others do not is an injustice. If they are not learning, then something is wrong with the school system, not the kid."

C.J. Prentiss

Sobering statistics document the achievement disparity: While 30 of every 100 white kindergartners go on to graduate from college, only 16 of every 100 black kindergartners later earn at least a bachelor's degree, according to U.S. Census Bureau data cited in the report.

And while 42.1 percent of Asian- American and 34.1 percent of white 10th graders take college-preparatory courses, only 25.7 percent of black and 22.6 percent of Hispanic 10th graders do so, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The lawmakers' report, "Closing the Achievement Gap," details 24 legislative actions that state leaders can champion for predominantly minority and high-poverty schools. Such steps include financing programs that limit class sizes to 15 students, expanding access to Advanced Placement courses, providing well-qualified teachers, and making literacy a top priority.

Recruitment Incentives

The group wants to improve teacher quality, for example, by urging states and school districts to increase teacher pay, provide alternative routes to teacher certification, and develop induction and retention programs for new teachers.

States should also come up with incentives to recruit more male and minority candidates into teaching, the report says.

While minority children make up 40 percent of elementary and secondary enrollment nationwide, minority teachers account for only 13.5 percent of the teaching force, according to the NCES. And that can hinder the achievement of some children, research suggests.

A separate study by Thomas S. Dee, a professor of economics at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., found that students who had a teacher of their own race scored 3 to 4 points higher on standardized reading and mathematics tests than those who had teachers of different races. ("Teachers' Race Linked To Students' Scores," Sept. 19, 2001.)

On their list of polices to avoid, America's black state legislators criticize vouchers and charter schools. Such programs, they contend, draw precious money from regular public schools, especially high-poverty schools, without raising academic achievement.

"Vouchers threaten to create a two- tiered educational system where students who need the most attention and support are trapped in resource-starved neighborhood schools," the report says.

But some minority parents, such as Marthenia "Tina" Dupree, couldn't disagree more. Ms. Dupree, an African-American Democrat and the director of FloridaChoice, which is part of the Miami-based Floridians for School Choice, says vouchers help students. "If one of the report's main concerns is reducing class size, [vouchers] are one great way to do that," Ms. Dupree added. "You can build more schools, but how long will that take? If you have a five- to 10- year plan to reduce class size, and you have a child entering 1st grade now, how will that help him?"

Her group has given $250,000 this year to minority and non-minority families so their children can attend the public or private schools of their choice.

Despite such criticism, the call for legislative action is a "real important step," said Kati Haycock, the director of the Washington-based Education Trust, a nonprofit group whose focus is on improving education for poor and minority students.

She applauded the black legislators' support for high academic standards and accountability. "If the black caucus really made this a high priority," she said, "they can make a big difference."

The report's information on black students' academic performance also provides ammunition for tackling academic barriers, Ms. Haycock said. Until recently, many states didn't track achievement by race and ethnicity, she noted, and some still don't.

Release of the report came two weeks after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which worked closely with the state legislators on the report, launched a similar campaign to close the gaps between black and Latino students and their white and Asian- American classmates.

The NAACP's "Call for Action" asked U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, the 50 state schools chiefs, and the superintendents of 40 major school systems to submit in May a five-year plan that would ensure equity in education funding.

Such a joint effort, representatives of African- American groups say, would help push the finance-equity issue to the top of legislators' agendas.

"The fact of the matter is, in too many of the legislative bodies across the nation, we don't ensure funds are equitably distributed," said John H. Jackson, the national director of education for the NAACP.

"Standards reform has been created in a vacuum," he continued. "It assumes that everyone is equal, but it's clear that there are inequities."

Vol. 21, Issue 14, Pages 1, 27

Published in Print: December 5, 2001, as Black State Lawmakers Target 'Gap'
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