Deval Patrick: Massachusetts’ Idealist-in-Chief

With a new "rags to riches" memoir out, the governor tells The Root why he loves teachers, rejects cynicism and thinks blacks should be sensitive to the gay-marriage struggle.

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It’s really a book of lessons and a tribute to those who taught me those lessons, people who have left me with a sense of hopefulness and idealism: teachers who gave me a reason to believe in a brighter future, or a family that gave me a reason to believe in the power of kindness, or voters, for that matter, who gave me a reason to believe in the power of conviction.

TR: In your book you warn about the dangers of cynicism and say that idealism is vital for our nation’s progress. Standard & Poor’s just downgraded the U.S.’s outlook to negative. Can we still afford our values?

DP: We’ve been dealing with this global economic collapse here in Massachusetts just like everybody else, and yet we’ve invested in education, health care and job creation. Everybody knows that educating our kids, securing our health care and assuring people a way to work and provide for themselves and their families is the way to move forward. I’m proud that our students are number one in the nation in student achievement, that we are number one in the nation for health care coverage for our residents — with over 98 percent of our residents covered, 99 percent-plus of our children.

We’re growing jobs faster than 45 other states, and our bond rating has remained high. In fact, we’re the only state whose bond rating has improved since 2007. So it’s possible to be fiscally prudent and also invest in the things that we know are about better and stronger values.

TR: When it comes to education, Massachusetts stands out. Is there a link between your experience in the A Better Chance program and those results?

DP: A Better Chance was an extraordinary opportunity to come from growing up in poverty on the South Side of Chicago — where I was going to big, broken, under-resourced and sometimes violent public schools — to Milton Academy for high school, which was, for me, like landing on a different planet.

As I write in the book, they had a dress code there for boys to wear jackets and ties to classes, but a jacket on the South Side of Chicago was a windbreaker. The first day of class, all the other boys were putting on their blue blazers and their tweed coats, and I had my windbreaker, so I had a whole lot to learn.

But I think what I learned in those experiences, both on the South Side and at Milton, are that resources are only part of the equation. It’s a teacher who is excited about those kids, who conveys his or her love for those children and high expectations for them — above all, that is the most important. So we [in Massachusetts] have supported teachers, we have created environments where teachers can try new things, to meet the kids where they are.

Yet for all the five years we’ve had these extraordinary achievement results, we have had at the same time a persistent achievement gap. Stuck in that gap are poor kids and kids who have special needs or speak English as a second language. A disproportionate number are kids of color. It’s an economic and educational issue to have an achievement gap at all, but to let it go for the years and years, decades or more that we had here [in Massachusetts], that’s a moral question. Now we have some tools to reach that part of our family as well.