After the publication of my first book, in 1983, I went on a lecture tour that had stops in several Northeastern industrial cities. My travels took me to Buffalo, Youngstown, Bridgeport, Newark, Detroit, Trenton, Philadelphia, and Baltimore and since I was speaking about labor history, my hosts always took me on tours of the city’s industrial districts. What I saw sent chills through me.
I watched the great Ford River Rouge plant in Detroit, which once employed 44,000 workers, be reduced to rubble. I drove along 10 miles of the Mongahela River near Youngstown and saw the skeletons of steel mills, surrounded by tires and rotting lumber.
I took tours of the East Side of Buffalo where every other house was shuttered and every other lot was empty, where beautiful cathedrals were half abandoned, their stained glass windows covered with wood planks, and abandoned warehouses dotted the landscape.
I drove through sections of Baltimore and North Philadelphia where once proud row houses were boarded up and crumbling, and where industrial building with shattered windows created a landscape of decay that matched the atmosphere of despair and defeat on the streets.
Here, before my eyes, I saw the consequences of globalization, deindustrialization, and economic stagnation, and they were terrible indeed. The people living in these communities, especially the young people, were navigating landscapes comparable to those you see in the aftermath of warfare, and in their eyes you saw the fear and uncertainty of people who feared they had become as disposable as the industries that once dotted those communities
But in those communities, there was one set of institutions that remained functioning and intact, and those were the neighborhood public schools. No matter what happened in the surrounding area, their doors remained open and they tried to serve young people whose lives were being turned inside out by a catastrophe of a kind that no one thought could take place in the United States of America. I visited those schools and, while they showed serious signs of decay, and often seemed overwhelmed by the problems deeply wounded students brought inside their doors, they were in truth, their neighborhoods most important “safe zones,” and at times provided an uplift for everyone through the artistic events they put on and the success of their teams
Now flash ahead 20 years later and these very same schools are being blamed for the economic failures of the communities they are located in, and the educational failures of the students they work with. Their teachers are being publicly pilloried as overpaid and selfish, and a drain on a national economy that requires schools to be run with the efficiency of American business.
My reaction to this is "What? American business? Efficient?" Whose failing enterprises left 10 miles of waterfront in Youngstown a wasteland of rusting steel, rotting lumber and old tires, took three quarters of the jobs away from the largest auto producing center in the nation and left the majority of its adult males without employment, and created an 150 miles stretch of Amtrak from Newark to Baltimore that contains at least 500 abandoned factories and warehouses that never have been rebuilt!
And that was just the 80s and 90s! Whose uncontrolled financial speculation led to the failure of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and A.I.G. along with the disappearance of $7 trillion in wealth once owned by individuals, pension funds, banks and insurance companies? Are 28 percent of the homes in the United States under water because of union teachers? Can they also be blamed for the 44 percent Black unemployment rate in the city of Milwaukee?
America’s public schools were never perfect. But they helped hold the country together through wrenching economic crises that left many communities deeply wounded and many Americans wondering if there was a real future left for them. And it was never easy. Some of what went on in our most economically depressed schools involved real courage and heroism. All of it required patience and hard work.
And one of the things these schools did is show that you could effectively run institutions without huge salaries and bonuses for executives and without a huge gap between the employees and their managers. In most public schools, the principal's salary was never more than a third higher than the highest paid teacher, rather than the 400 to 1 CEO to worker ratio that now exists in American industry. And maybe that was one of the reasons that public schools survived economic crises better than private companies, whose top executives never missed an opportunity to pillage a failing firm for their “golden parachutes.”
If I sound ironic, and maybe a little bitter, it’s because I think most elected officials have it all wrong. It is not American business which is the great success story and public education the dismal failure, but the other way around. Maybe it’s time to bring teachers and administrators into our top firms and have them show how to run things without wasting huge amounts of money on executive salaries, and without making people work in constant fear of being fired
But though that vision is unlikely to come to pass, perhaps it is time to look more realistically at the role our public schools have played in America’s transition from an industrial society into service information society which has left huge portions of our population out in the cold. And to give educators the respect they deserve for handling one of the most difficult jobs in the society with a lot more endurance and courage and generosity than their counterparts in the private sector
With a Brooklyn Accent