Since the early 19th century, most mainstream liberals and conservatives have agreed on at least one thing: public education is the key to eradicating and preventing major social problems. Whether the concern is the lack of civic awareness among immigrants, poverty, AIDS, or obesity, public schools were regarded as the key agent of progressive change. Evidence of deficiencies in any of these areas was taken as proof of public education's failures.
In the last quarter century, no theme has received more continuing attention than the purported failure of public education to stem America's loss of competitiveness in the global marketplace and the gradual erosion of the middle class living standard. Neither the U.S., nor the state of Maine, can hope to remain competitive in global marketplaces without quality schools. Nonetheless even a casual perusal of recent news items suggests that attacks on schools too often divert the public and policymakers from attention to equally basic problems.
Public schools have long been celebrated as the means by which poor children can escape poverty. Schools, however, can have little impact on the health of the child entering school. The current dispute over extending the range of federal and state health care benefits to more lower-income children is not merely a battle over health care but also over educational opportunity. Children who enter a school with undiagnosed vision or hearing problems or with undetected lead paint poisoning are unlikely to thrive at school.
Even many of our better public schools in middle- and working-class neighborhoods do a very good job, but they still cannot assure that their best graduates will prosper under the terms of the new corporate globalization. Leading corporate executives have argued that the key to keeping and increasing the number of good jobs in this country is an educated workforce. Yet where have the best manufacturing jobs gone? As Larry Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute and Richard Rothstein, former New York Times education reporter point out in a recent issue of The American Prospect, the auto industry's new high tech auto plants have migrated to Mexico, where workers generally have had much lower levels of education than in the Midwest.
Where manufacturing has expanded in the U.S. auto industry, it has been foreign firms operating in the U.S. south, an area that once again is not noted for excellence in its public education. The primary competitive advantage these state governments offer is longtime hostility to unions. Individual states have made short- term gains by ratcheting down corporate taxes and suppressing unions, but in the long run all workers pay a high price. Whatever the overall level of worker education, U.S. workplaces have made substantial gains in productivity, but over the last quarter century these gains have not been passed along to the workers who enabled them.
Maine and other Northeastern and Midwestern states have experienced dramatic losses in manufacturing, inflicting great hardship on middle-aged, mostly high school-educated workers. In may instances these jobs have been replaced by service sector jobs paying much lower wages. As Mishel and Rothstein point out: "There was never anything more inherently valuable in working in a factory assembly line than in changing bed linens in a hotel. What made semi-skilled manufacturing jobs desirable was that many (though not most) were protected by unions, provided pensions and health insurance, and compensated with decent wages. That today's working class doesn't get similar protections has nothing to do with the adequacy of its education. ... Hotel jobs that pay $20 an hour, with health and pension benefits (rather than $10 an hour without benefits), typically do so because of union organizations, not because maids earned bachelor's degrees."
Unions are widely blamed for the loss of good working-class jobs and for prolonged economic stagnation, but it is at least as plausible to argue that their relative lack of influence in America has been a major contributor to long-term stagnation. Labor reporter David Moberg points out that more than three decades ago then United Auto Workers President Leonard Woodcock tried to persuade auto manufacturers to use their considerable political influence to lobby for an expansion of Medicare to all U.S. citizens, thereby lifting an immense cost burden from U.S. manufacturing and dramatically improving its competitiveness.
In the mid-50s, legendary UAW President Walter Reuther argued that the long-term health of the auto industry would be greatly enhanced by production of smaller and more fuel-efficient cars.
Public education, especially secondary and post-secondary education, can play an immense role in addressing these problems by encouraging broader debate on them and by fostering collaborative, problem-solving abilities among students. Productivity gains depend in large part on education, but sustaining those gains and distributing their fruit equitably require attention to equally vital issues of corporate governance. Public education, often merely because it is public, too easily becomes a scapegoat for currently untouchable arenas in our private political economy.