I’m following Mike Konczal’s lead today with some extra-hip throwback-progressive (oxymoron?) rhetoric from the 1930s. Like Mike, I’m also hoping that “maybe this cool retro liberal style will give the Democrats some spine.” Hoping, but not expecting, obviously. If nothing else, this is a great way to show that our present crisis isn’t so unique after all (in education or in finance or in our fiscal challenges/solutions). We had answers in the early 20th-century, and in the middle-class (and the economy) did really well after we put those into practice. Ya gotta read your history…
Anyway, the article is called “The Crisis in Education,” and it was written in 1933. It hits on education reform, on union politics, and on financial crises…in a word, EVERYTHING that’s currently roiling us 80 years later. The author? That’s right, it’s John Dewey. Sorry. It’s an obsession. Here’s a scavenger hunt. See if you can find:
1. the 1930s version of the Kochtopus
2. “Win the Future”
3. The GOP tactics in Ohio and Wisconsin
4. Biased journalism
5. A crumbling educational infrastructure
6. The complicated mission(s) of teachers’ unions (my thoughts on this here)
7. ACTUAL socialism
8. False charges of socialism
9. Decades of static purchasing power for the middle-class
10. Detroit-esque school resource shortfalls and closings
11. A “narrowing” of the curriculum as resources decrease
Without further ado, here is MOST of the article. I’ve trimmed it for length in a few places and added emphasis in a few spots:
The two largest cities in this country, New York and Chicago, have recently witnessed the spectacle of extra-legal bodies arrogating to themselves some such responsibility as is implied in the title “Citizens’ Committee,” that are dictating civic policies, including matters that directly affect public schools. These committees are composed mostly of bankers, of industrialists, and of real estate dealers, the groups in fact which more than any other special groups in this country have helped bring on the present economic and financial crisis.
According to their own statements, these groups in these cities (typical of what is going on all over the country) intervene in the interest of economy. But how do they conceive of economy? What does economy mean to them? What do they think it is? Is it basic reform of municipal administration in order to cut out waste, graft, unnecessary duplication of units, official favoritism, the sacrifice of public to private interests? Are they attacking this problem of economy in any fundamental way? No, and for one reason, many of these organizations are themselves too closely linked up with the sources of waste, too dependent upon favors dealt to them by politicians to undertake anything so needed and so fundamental. By economy they mean a reduction of wages and of salaries of all persons on the municipal pay roll. Experience all over the country shows that the teaching body of the country is the group of public employees upon whom and against whom this kind of economy is most regularly applied.
It happened, as I came up this morning, I bought a paper, the Herald-Tribune, to read and I found something from an address of Professor McGoldrick of the Department of Public Administration Administration of Columbia University, an address to the bankers themselves themselves in their state convention. The heading is “Bankers Told They Shirk City Responsibility.” Here you have an authority in the field of public administration, talking to an audience of bankers, and using more definite and harsh words than I have used. He shows how all the economy measures have been pointed in the direction of reduction of salaries of public employees, and that this fact means still greater deflation of the purchasing power of the community, actually damaging the economic condition of the city itself, certain to be reflected in the general volume of business, and likely to be reflected even in rents. And furthermore this group did not accompany the demand with one for a balanced budget. They did not show any way a balanced budget could be brought about. They asked merely and wholly for a reduction of expenses. The speaker ends by saying, “The banks are the most important agency for control under our present arrangement. This is not an opportunity but a responsibility. It is a responsibility to be exercised with consideration of the best interests of the investing and general public. There is little room for pride in the way these responsibilities were exercised in the last decade. I think we can confidently predict that if the bankers do not show that they are now prepared to act with a greater regard to general well-being in the next decade, they will be superseded by some other form of social control.” Those are the words of an expert in the field from the standpoint of his expert knowledge, not of a radical or a sensational speaker.
I shall not here go into the question of whether or not further deflation of salaries and wages with its corresponding reduction of an already depleted purchasing power is any way to get out of the present crisis. I content myself with recording the practically unanimous conclusion of the economists of the country to the contrary. I do point out that this organized drive against the public school system of the country, typified in the action of representatives of concentrated wealth in the two largest cities of the country, and being taken up all over the country is against the public welfare and that it comes from those who have the least amount of personal concern with public education. Their children for the most part do not attend the public schools. The cultural life of their own families would hardly suffer at all if public schools should be completely closed instead of as at present having their activities curtailed. They are the ones who have steadily fought from the start all enrichment of the curriculum, calling art, music, physical education, handicrafts, etc.—the things which they demand as a matter of course for their own children, in their own homes—fads and frills when they are to be made a part of the educational facilities for the poor and for the masses. Their plea for economy is part of their effort to protect the tax bills of the concentrated wealth of the country, the element which is most able to pay taxes, and moreover the element which has profited the most, both directly and indirectly, from the results of the spread of knowledge and skill through our public school system of education.
It is slight wonder that an ex-president of the American Federation of Teachers at a public meeting in Chicago asked whether this movement was not one, “under cover of the depression, ruthlessly to slash selected public services and costs in the interest of the big taxpayers with little regard for the needs of the masses of the people and their children.” It is no wonder that he protested against “surrendering the control of the school to organized large tax payers who are not dependent upon the public schools for an education of their children as the mass of the people are.” It is no cause for surprise that the legislative representative of the New York Teachers Union, a part of the American Federation of Teachers, pointed out in a public address recently that twenty-one of the fifty-one directors of the so-called Citizens’ Budget Commission of the City of New York are affiliated with the twenty-five leading banks of the city, and that a large part of the others are representatives of the speculative real estate agencies of the city, and showed that their policy regarding cuts in salaries of public servants, which came before the special session of the legislature in Albany recently, was dictated and controlled by the heads of the two biggest banks of New York City and of the nation. And he went on to show that the average rate of dividends declared by these banks last year has been 20%, some of them running to 60%. These bankers are holding up New York City for the money they loan for five times the rate of interest which they are charging the Federal Government. He then went on to raise the question whether we are already in process of having a dictatorship of banking and financial interests superimposed upon the nominal government of this country.
We are a tolerant and a good-humored people in this country. Certainly the mass of the teaching body is, and I suppose there are many who will regard this statement as too strong and will hesitate to endorse it. Incidentally, I should like to call attention to the leading article in the issue of the Saturday Evening Post, which bears the date of the meeting here today, January 28. I hate to advertise this because I am afraid somebody will go out and buy the Post, and I would much rather urge something in quite the opposite direction.
The social and economic position of this writer and the general humaneness of his point of view are sufficiently indicated by the fact that he states that the income tax is communistic and is the beginning of communism in this country, and then goes on to say that taxes ought to be levied per capita irrespective of difference of income and not per dollar on the dollars of the taxpayers. But he then goes on—and this is the thing in which I am particularly interested—and picks out the public schools of the country and the wages of the public school teachers as the chief topic in his plea for reduced taxation. The entire tone of the article is to create the feeling that the public school teacher is a pampered, petted creature living at the expense of the hard working and hard pressed tax payers. This is one of the many points where a group representing large financial interests—you have already heard about the United States Chamber of Commerce—is already organizing a campaign, using the depression not in order to secure legitimate and desirable changes in the internal workings and administration of a government devoted in undue measure to serving privilege, not to secure a new method of tax revision in the whole system and method of taxation, but to make public servants and especially school teachers the goat. The very same persons who on every other occasion deprecate every reference to “classes” as an effort to create discord among our citizens are now deliberately appealing to envy and jealousy in order to carry through a so-called economy which in fact is only reduction of wages in the interest of big taxpayers—that element of society best able to stand the burden of taxation.
In the first place, the total amount raised by taxes for school purposes in this country has never been more than four per cent of the total annual income of the country. 1930 is the last date for which figures are available. It was then three and one-third per cent of the total national income. Because of the depreciation of income since then the ratio has now probably become somewhat larger. As for salaries, there are large sections of the country, located for the most part in the southeastern section, in which the average rural and elementary school teacher’s salary is less than $621 per year. The average salary in what is in the total probably the largest single group of sections scattered over the country is less than $787 a year, that is of the elementary and rural groups. There is a portion, about as large roughly speaking as the lowest section, situated mainly in the states just across the Mississippi, in which the salaries of this group are between $788 and $952. There is another group, mainly in New York and New England in the east and in the Rocky Mountain states in the west, where the average salary is between $953 and $1167, and there is a portion, including Connecticut, New Jersey, and parts of New York in the east and California, Nevada, Arizona, parts of Wyoming and Washington State in the west in which the salary of this group averages over $1167.
It is doubtless significant that the author of the Saturday Evening Post article picked out one of the states where teachers are paid the highest rates, namely New Jersey, as an example of how petted and pampered the school teacher is and how he is fattened at the expense of the tax payer. Anybody who thinks that from $3 to $4 a day, which is the average in the rural and elementary school, is an adequate wage in the richest country of the world, is a wage that will call educated men and women to the teaching profession and hold them there, that it is a wage which will enable the teachers to care for the education of their own children and maintain a decent status in the community, is past all argument.
Of the total amount of money raised by taxation in the entire country, federal, state and local, for all purposes, a little less than one-fifth goes to the public schools. I think we would all agree that the part that goes to the public schools is the part which the ordinary tax payer pays most willingly, and yet of the whole tax bill of the country only one-fifth goes to the support of the public school system…For one I do not believe that the average American citizen, parent and tax payer, wants to see the gains which have been made eliminated. The task is to make the people of the country realize the facts amid the cloud of misrepresentation, of the screen of poison gas which is emitted from selfish quarters…During the war and for years afterwards teachers’ wages remained practically stationary, while the cost of living increased, as we know, enormously. During the twenties hard work secured, at least in the more prosperous and enlightened parts of the country, a definite gross increase in salaries, but by 1930 the salary measured in purchasing power was hardly equal to that of 1914.
We are not questioning the need of revision of methods of taxation and distribution of taxation. We are pleading for going back to the causes to get real economy in these ways instead of beginning merely by slashing. What is needed is the revision of the methods of the tax system itself, not merely reduction of wages—a revision which is imperative if bad conditions are not to grow worse…Secretary Wilbur who presided at the conference and who has not been accused either of radicalism or sensationalism, closed the conference by saying, “If you are going to pay school teachers, you have got to get the money, and that money now is going to be sought for from a dozen sources. So we must take an aggressive attitude for the schools if we are going to see our children through. It is not a matter of passing resolutions; it is a matter of fighting, and there is no better thing to fight for than the American school child, and I want to leave with you as you go that challenge. Fight through for these American school children. Fight the highways, fight the politicians, fight all the groups—it’s worth while.”
The Conference itself brought out clearly the reason for calling the present situation a crisis. The agenda prepared in advance called attention to the fact the situation might be put in four words: “Increasing responsibilities, decreasing resources.” The depression has actually led to an increase in school enrollment and the schools have many problems to meet due to the effect of unemployment on home life. Teachers are themselves voluntarily supplying clothes and at least one free meal a day to children. The public school teachers of New York City have given, according to official records, over two million and a quarter dollars out of their salaries to relief funds in the city of New York, and we may safely challenge every group in the community to show a record of voluntary service in the present crisis equal of that of the teaching group in the public schools.
But the schools are having to deal with this situation with reduced funds. School revenues last year were cut down at least six per cent throughout the country, and there is no doubt the reduction will be much greater when the returns for the current year are in. In some large cities even last year reductions ran to 25% and 30%. Teachers’ salaries were reduced to a slightly less extent. In city school systems it amounted however to 10% and over. In one state of the Union the wage of the rural school teacher has declined 40% in three years, and in three other states it amounts to 25% for the same time. Capital outlay, that for grounds, buildings, equipment, went down in the cities which reported 28% year before last and 40% last year, evidently at the expense of increase in school population. In other words buildings are not being kept up, equipment is not being provided to meet even the normal increase in the schools. To meet the decrease in funds, the size of classes, already too large per teacher, which teachers organizations have been working to cut down, have been increased; many teachers have been dismissed; graduates of training and normal schools, trained to go into teaching, are put upon the waiting list (New York City alone is said to have 5,000 such persons); the length of the school year is cut, in some cases by a month or more; some schools have been closed entirely and a larger number threatened with having to shut their doors; in many places payment of salaries is long in arrears; and, as already indicated, building activities have been arrested and needed repairs postponed, while many schools are reported operating with an abnormal lack of equipment.
In many respects the curtailment and impoverishment of the curriculum, the elimination of important modes of service, are even more serious than the points mentioned. Art and manual training, home economics and physical training, are crippled; special classes for crippled and backward children are eliminated; night classes and evening schools are dropped; many cities have given up kindergarten and sub-primary classes. In New York City, the richest city in the world, there has been curtailment of continuation classes, playground facilities, and provision for adult education, in addition to other eliminations. It is not exaggerating to say that the enrichment of educational services, which is the outstanding gain of American public education during the last forty years, is today seriously and fundamentally threatened. There is no doubt about the reality of the crisis and it is foolish for both teachers and the public interested in the public schools to conceal from themselves the seriousness of the condition.
And yet once more, the sole method of meeting the crisis which is put forward from powerful sources, probably as things stand today the most powerful in the Nation, backed by an influential press, catered to by politicians who owe their power and often their income to dealings with the invisible government of the country, is to cripple the schools still more. Every single day deliberate efforts are put forth to represent the teacher as a petted and semi-parasitic element in the community, unwilling to share with the rest of the community a fair portion of the burden of the depression…if the teaching body yields without a fight to show the difference between true and false economy, without an effort to show up the motives of organized finance, the teachers will not only harm themselves and the cause of education, but will also become the accomplices of politicians in continuing to do business in the old way at the old stand.
Above all, it behooves the teachers in behalf of the community, of the educational function which they serve, and not merely because of their personal interest in a fit wage for what they do—self respecting and honorable as is that motive—to make clear beyond a peradventure that public education is not a business carried on for pecuniary profit, that it is not therefore an occupation to be measured by the standards which the bankers and real estate men and the big industrialists seek for themselves in working for personal gain and measuring success and failure by the ledger balance, but that money spent on education is a social investment—an investment in future well being, moral, economic, physical, and intellectual, of the country. Teachers are simply means, agents in this social work. They are performing the most important public duty now performed by any one group in society. Any claims which they can rightfully make are not made in behalf of themselves as private persons, but in behalf of society and the nation. These will be what they are and are not in the future largely because of what is done and not done in this day and generation in the schools of the country.
Why have I brought coals to Newcastle in calling these familiar facts to the attention of those engaged in teaching, many of whom are already suffering and likely to suffer more? Fundamentally I have done so for one reason only. As I see it the great question before the teachers is the question of How. By what method shall teachers make clear to a confused public, a public deliberately misled by powerful agencies, the rightful claims of public schools in this time of crisis? I know of but one basic answer. It is found in the old saying of Benjamin Franklin, “We must hang together or we shall all hang separately.” Organization, union, combined and concerted thought and action, is the answer, and the only answer I can see to the adequate solution of the problem of the crisis. There is a militant organization serving as the organ and instrument of this effort already in existence. It is the American Federation of Teachers, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. Some years ago, I wrote a little document which was printed by the Union as to why I was a member of the Union. I am going to take the liberty of quoting briefly from one part of it that bears upon a difficulty (which to my mind is wholly gratuitous) in the minds of many teachers, namely, the affiliation with the American Federation of Labor. That statement was made years before the present depression and it is milder than I should make now. “Our whole educational system suffers from the divorce between head and hand, between work and books, between action and ideas, a divorce which symbolizes the segregation of teachers from the rest of the workers who form the great mass of the community. If all teachers were within the Teachers Union and if they were in active contact with the working men and women of the country and their problems, I am sure more would be done to reform and improve our education and to put into execution the ideas and ideals written about and talked about by progressive educators than by any other one cause whatsoever, if not more than by all other causes together.”
Now if the teachers organizations, through the American Federation of Teachers, can join the movement to make the federal government do its share, there will be a relief of local funds which will take away a large part of this pressure for the reduction of the salary of the public servants of the community. Get this program of organized labor and contrast it with the program of the representative of the National Manufacturers Association at the Washington conference. Contrast it with the twenty suggestions of the United States Chamber of Commerce, and then ask: Who are the friends of the teachers and of the public school in the present crisis? Are not public school teachers paying too high a price for maintaining a kind of intellectual and social exclusiveness, an academic snobbery, in keeping aloof from any contact with organized labor in this country?
It was through the agency of the American Federation of Teachers that a bill has already been introduced in Congress authorizing the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to make loans to the various units of the country in charge of the schools for school purposes.
Some teachers have the idea that the sole object of a teachers union and the American Federation of Teachers is to protect teachers’ wages. I have no apologies to make for that phase. I don’t see why any workers should not have an organization to secure a decent living standard. The laborer is worthy of his hire. But the foundations of the teachers unions of the American Federation of Teachers are very much wider and I should like to have you study together the history of unions representing even a minority of teachers, often a small minority, in such cities as Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Atlanta, and others, to see that they have stood in the van of all movements calculated to improve public education, to introduce the principles and ideals of progressive education into the schools attended by the mass of the children; that they have been the most active instrument there is, not merely in protecting teachers from individual abuse, but in standing against the efforts of politicians to use the public school system for their own purposes. I should like to assure any doubting Thomases on this point that if they investigate the actual records of the unions already in existence they will find good reason to be proud to be associated with the teachers who have already organized and combined in these unions.