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The Great Recession and Public Schools

If any doubt still lingers that public schools have nothing to do with the nation's economic woes, it is dispelled by a scathing essay by Sherwood Ross posted on Nov. 27 ("Why Poverty Spreads Across America"). He shows that today's unprecedented poverty is a cancer that is caused by employers, who have "shown not an ounce of loyalty to their work forces" and by the federal government, which "has lied the nation into costly criminal wars."

These are serious charges that demand evidence. Ross is up to the task. He cites Camden, N.J. as a glaring example of what can happen in other cities when a permanent underclass of unemployed, combined with gutted state and federal services, create "stark neofeudalism." Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland. St. Louis, Philadelphia and Newark, among others, suffer from similar pathologies.

The implication for schools is undeniable. Blacks and Hispanics have been hardest hit by unemployment because they disproportionately worked in manufacturing and construction, two sectors most directly affected by the recession. Their children overwhelmingly attend public schools, which are forced to adjust to the new realities. When their parents are not working, they are hard pressed to feed their children, provide them with adequate housing, and attend to their medical needs. As a result, teachers become de facto parents, performing triage, rather than teaching subject matter.

As dire as matters are now, they are only going to get worse. Corporations continue to offshore jobs because labor is cheaper abroad. And the government continues to spend 52 cents of every tax dollar on fighting wars. It's hard to conceive of a bleaker picture for those already barely eking out a living. But it's even harder to understand how public schools are responsible for what is taking place. This is particularly the case when school budgets are being slashed, causing teacher layoffs and reduction in related services.

Nevertheless, reformers argue that if teachers were doing a better job of educating the young the U.S. would be in far better shape to compete globally. This canard has no factual basis, and yet it is accepted as gospel by voters frustrated and angry over the state of the economy. When people are frightened, they seek scapegoats. It's time for them to look at social and economic policies, rather than at schools. But don't expect this to happen. Repeating a lie often enough gives it the appearance of truth.

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