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Bay State Bravado

Bay State Bravado

Should he be successful in his bid for governor, former assistant attorney general for civil rights Deval Patrick has plans to improve public higher education in a state known for its elite private institutions.

By Ronald Roach

As a bright and ambitious youngster growing up poor in Southside Chicago, Deval L. Patrick won a scholarship to Milton Academy, a private Massachusetts boarding school, courtesy of the acclaimed “A Better Chance” initiative. Considered a pioneering educational outreach program, A Better Chance has assisted thousands of talented yet disadvantaged minority students. Attending the prestigious and rigorous prep school altered the course of Patrick’s life. He flourished at Milton before going on to earn two degrees from Harvard University, lead civil rights enforcement at the U.S. Department of Justice during the Clinton administration and oversee diversity efforts at a Fortune 500 corporation then under legal scrutiny for racial discrimination.

Patrick’s educational background, although far from traditional, is a resounding success story. So, it should not come as a surprise that he has strong views about education reform, which he would like to see tested, especially in his adopted state of Massachusetts. Currently seeking the Democratic party nomination in the 2006 Massachusetts governor’s race, the 49-year-old African-American attorney recently spoke to Diverse: Issues In Higher Education about his candidacy, education, the lessons of diversity and the prospects for economic revitalization in Massachusetts.

A civil rights lawyer, Patrick first came to national prominence upon his nomination for assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Justice Department, the nation’s top civil rights post, in 1994. Harvard University professor Lani Guinier was initially nominated to the position, but the Clinton White House failed to defend her from attacks by conservative critics. Patrick’s nomination went more smoothly, and after his confirmation by the U.S. Senate, he established himself as a capable civil rights watchdog. As the most prominent civil rights lawyer in the government, Patrick investigated church burnings throughout the South in the mid-1990s, prosecuted hate crimes and abortion clinic violence and enforced the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Patrick returned to private law practice in 1997, and was federally appointed to chair Texaco oil company’s Equality and Fairness Task Force after the company settled a major race discrimination lawsuit. As chair of the task force, Patrick led efforts that evaluated and rebuilt the oil company’s employment system to establish an equitable workplace environment. He has since served as Texaco’s vice-president and general counsel, and as executive vice-president and general counsel for the Coca-Cola Co.

Patrick launched his gubernatorial campaign in April 2005.

DI: How can your experience in civil rights protection and corporate diversity serve you as a potential governor of Massachusetts?

DP: I think that the lessons of diversity and working toward diversity in those settings — educational and employment — have taught me that the best organizations make use of the talent we know exists in every community. That’s a philosophy I bring to government as well. I want the best talent. I don’t want just the hacks; I don’t want just the folks whose talents may be in helping on campaigns. I want the best talent because government is there, as [U.S. Rep.] Barney Frank says, [for] those things we choose to do together.

And that means we choose to deliver some services, not everything. Most services need to be delivered in the most effective and efficient way possible. I think a concentration on diversity means you are looking for that talent everywhere; and not just in the customary places and not just the customary people.

DI: With Massachusetts being home to prestigious universities such as Harvard and MIT, how would you assess the linkage between the state’s K-12 system and higher education? Is there high quality overall in K-12 and the public colleges?

DP: We have quality, but what we don’t have is consistent quality. It still depends on where you live and what your family’s resources are. And by the way, we have a reputation for excellence in public higher education, but it shouldn’t rely entirely on the presence of a couple famous private institutions, as you say, but it does.

At the same time we have Harvard and MIT and fabulous schools like Wheaton and Amherst and Williams, at public universities we are spending at the level of 47th in the nation. I’m talking about per capita spending per student. That retreat from public higher education — where most people get their break — has been coming at the very time we know it takes a higher ed degree to get a toehold in the new economy, the way a high school diploma used to get you [there].

We’ve done some good things in the name of education reform, but what I’ve been urging is a more comprehensive strategy that starts before kindergarten and continues up through the community colleges, universities and state colleges. And it sets us on a course of having the best public education system in America. 

We rank pretty well in K-12, but it’s uneven. If you live in Roxbury, Mass., the chances of a high quality K-12 public education are a lot more remote than if you live in a wealthy suburb like Lexington, Mass. As I talk to education experts, to parents, to education administrators and to teachers, the consensus ideas that come out are, for example, broader access to early childhood education, all-day kindergarten, smaller class size and longer school day with enrichment programs.

I frankly think we ought to be willing to put the question of the length of the school year on the table. We still have a school year where you get out in time to plant and stay out long enough to harvest. You’ve got to ask yourself — we ought to ask ourselves — whether or not that’s a calendar that makes sense for modern families.

Safety is an issue in some surprising places, in suburban schools because of the spread of [the drug] OxyContin — the criminal element is an issue. Teacher development and teacher support — I meet teachers all over the state who are spending, in some cases, thousands of dollars of their own money for required materials in the classroom. So, we are requiring our teachers to do more and giving them fewer and fewer resources to get it done — and then also holding them accountable for those outcomes.

The system needs a different kind of leadership. Now, we’ve done some things around choice; we’ve worked on charter schools, which has been an interesting experiment. We’ve had some successes and some failures. We have not taken all the lessons that can be learned from the best of charter schools and made them available in the district schools yet. We have not gone the route of vouchers and we would not in a Patrick administration, because I don’t think they’re right. And I don’t think we’ve quite gotten the funding around charter schools right because it’s still a diversion of resources from the district schools.
I do think we’ve done some important things and we’ve been on an education reform path for about 12 or 13 years now. And it’s time for the next chapter.

DI: You have campaign literature that describes the Massachusetts economy as “weak at best.” How would you revive the state’s economy and what role would higher education play in the revival?

DP: There are two things I can say. First of all, it’s just a fact that the Massachusetts economy has recovered more slowly than the national economy. And the national economy hasn’t recovered all that fast. Our economy is relatively weak, although we have all of the tools for it to be exceptionally strong.

We are the only state in the union, in the last year, to have lost population. And there are lots of reasons why people leave. Housing is very expensive, particularly in the eastern part of the state, so what we’ve been losing are working families, young families. Education is not a reason why we’ve been losing population, but I think you have to think about a strong economy by also thinking about education opportunities, housing opportunities [and] the strength of public transportation that are all of a piece. That’s why I think we have to move on all three of these fronts simultaneously.

I think there are some real openings we have in Massachusetts that are unique. For example, we have a relatively well-educated workforce. We have a long tradition of entrepreneurialism. We have a concentration of venture capital in Massachusetts, which is second or third in the world. We have some real factors for what I have been describing as an innovation economy.

That is our tradition. We innovated the textile industry 120 years ago; we were the innovator in the shoe industry 100 years ago. Now those industries have moved on.

There are some things I’m very interested in encouraging, for example, around biotech. It’s one of the reasons why I think it’s a particular outrage that [current Massachusetts Gov. Mitt] Romney has demonized and demagogued stem cell research, which is the fastest growing industrial sector right now in Massachusetts. He’s busy chasing it off to California and other places.

We can be, I believe, a center in alternative fuels. We don’t have an entrenched energy industry right now — that is an extractive industry. We’ve got all this capital and creativity, and we have a climate that’s crying out for it, which makes for a certain urgency around getting it right. We’ve got wind projects, which are pending. There’s a solar [power] industry we can encourage. That’s the kind of thing I look for Massachusetts to show leadership in.

If we get that right in terms of alternative energy and renewables, then the whole world is our customer. Our economy has to be about innovation, it has to be about the next thing.

DI: As the Massachusetts population grows and becomes more diverse, how do you see the state improving access to higher education for all its citizens?

DP: First of all with basic demographics, the state is about 12 percent to

15 percent people of color today. Less than 10 percent are African-American. The growth has been among Latinos and Asians, and much of that has been outside Boston. It’s been north of Boston in Essex county and down in the south coast region by New Bedford and Fall River.

I think there are a couple things that are important opportunities for enhancing the diversity of the state and enhancing the opportunities of a more diverse population. First of all, when Maynard Jackson was elected the first Black mayor of Atlanta, there were things he did in government that affected the diversity of the government. But there were things he did in government that also affected the diversity of the rest of the business and social and civic community just by his example.

They caused people to cast a broader net, to think more broadly about who was ready for leadership. And the same thing is going to happen in Massachusetts if I am governor. There are things we’re going to do to make sure we’re drawing on talent for government that we know exists in every community in Massachusetts. But there are ways we’re going to model the importance of casting that broad net for everybody else, and that will make for broader opportunity for leadership in business, in our very large not-for-profit sector, in organized labor, in education and across the board.

In terms of opportunities, I’m very interested in assuring that anyone who graduates from a high quality — and they will all be high quality — public high school in Massachusetts has an opportunity assured to him or her in a high quality public university in Massachusetts. And I’m working out how to do that, but I intend to assure it. That’s one of the things government is there to do, which is to make conditions where people can make the most of their potential.

DI: How would you assess the public’s reception of your campaign?

DP: I think the response has been overwhelming. We have nearly 2,000 volunteers that have signed up so far. We will run a very grass-roots campaign. We will organize at the grass-roots level. That’s been the only winning strategy for a Democratic candidate for governor in 25 years in Massachusetts. It’s not the money; it’s the ground organization.

There are 2,157 precincts in Massachusetts and in time for the caucuses early next year we will have a captain in every single precinct — no matter how they voted in the past. Each captain will have half a dozen or so coordinators to help by neighborhood, ward or block.

There are both political and philosophical reasons for that [approach]. The political reason for that is that’s where the opening is. That is the winning strategy. But the philosophical reason is that there are a whole lot of good people of every race, every socioeconomic background, every community who have just checked out — they don’t care anymore. They’re not interested in government; they’re not engaged in civic life anymore.

What they think when they think of politics is two heads on TV at the polar extremes of any idea, screaming at each other. Meanwhile, the idea of government as helping to solve problems, as government in partnership with private initiatives, as government as an incubator for really good ideas and creativity has faded, if not disappeared.

And in order to get people to re-engage in that they have to be asked back in a personal way. That’s the philosophical reason for having a ground organization. And it’s been great.  

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