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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 02/16/2012

Are public schools unfairly blamed for America’s economic woes?

This was written by Mark Naison, professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University in New York and chair of the department of African and African-American Studies. He is also co-director of the Urban Studies Program, African-American History 20th Century. A version of this first appeared on the blog With A Brooklyn Accent.

By Mark Naison

After the publication of my first book, in 1983, I went on a lecture tour that took me to Buffalo, Youngstown, Bridgeport, Newark, Detroit, Trenton, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, where I toured industrial districts. What I saw was chilling.

I watched the great Ford River Rouge plant in Detroit, which once employed 44,000 workers, reduced to rubble. I saw along the Monongahela River near Youngstown the skeletons of steel mills, surrounded by tires and rotting lumber. On the East Side of Buffalo there were districts with every other house shuttered and every other lot empty, stained glass windows of beautiful cathedrals covered with wood planks, and landscapes dotted with abandoned warehouses. Once-proud row houses in sections of Baltimore and North Philadelphia were boarded up and crumbling, and industrial buildings with shattered windows created a landscape of decay that matched the atmosphere of despair and defeat on the streets.

This was all the terrible consequence of globalization, de-industrialization and economic stagnation. The people living in these communities, especially the young, were navigating landscapes comparable to those seen in the aftermath of warfare, and in their eyes was the fear and uncertainty of people who feared they had become as disposable as the decimated industries that once thrived there.

But in each of these communities, there was an institution that remained functioning and intact — 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.

While those schools showed serious signs of decay and often seemed overwhelmed by the problems deeply wounded students carried with them to class, the schools remained their neighborhoods most important “safe zones,” and at times provided an uplift for everyone through artistic and athletic achievements.

Now flash ahead 20 years later and these very same schools are being blamed for the economic failures of the communities in which they are located and for the educational failures of their students. Their teachers are publicly pilloried as overpaid, selfish and a drain on a national economy that requires schools to be run with the efficiency of American business.

My reaction: “What? American business? Efficient?” Whose failing enterprises left 10 miles of waterfront in Youngstown a wasteland of rusting steel, rotting lumber and old tires? And 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 a 150-mile stretch of Amtrak from Newark to Baltimore with at least 500 abandoned factories and warehouses that have never been rebuilt? And that was just in he ‘80’s and ‘90’s!

Whose uncontrolled financial speculation led to the more recent troubles of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and the American International Group, along with the disappearance of $7 trillion Dollars 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 they had a future. Some of what went on in our most economically depressed schools involved real courage and heroism. All of it required patience and hard work.

One thing these schools showed is that they 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 today have it all wrong. It is not American business that is the great success story and public education the dismal failure. 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.

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 out huge portions of our population. And it is time 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 some in the private sector.

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