A Bronx Tale: Questions for Those Who Argue Failing Schools Cause Urban Decay
It has become fashionable for the Right Wing of the School Reform Movement, along with some progressives, to argue that failing schools are a major cause of the decay and stagnation in inner city neighborhoods.
As a historian of the Bronx, who has traced the borough’s development from the 1930’s through the present, I would like to raise a few questions about this formulation, based on important episodes in the Bronx history.
First, when factory owners in the Bronx began closing their operations in 1950’s and 1960’s, or moving them to other states or other countries, did they do so because the schools of the Bronx were failing and the places they were moving their operations to ( e.g. South Carolina, Alabama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic) had better schools and a better educated labor force? The resulting job losses devastated the Bronx’s economy, but they were the result of factory owners quest for cheaper labor, not for a better educated labor force.
Second, when banks and insurance companies began redlining the Bronx, and landlords in the borough started burning their buildings to collect insurance money ( a phenomenon which reached epidemic proportions from the late 60’s through the late 70’s) did they do so because the Bronx public schools were performing poorly or did they do so because the job losses referred to in Question 1 made it difficult for South Bronx tenants to pay their rent?
Third, when the city of New York during the 1975 fiscal crisis, decided to eliminate music programs in the public schools, and shut down the after school centers and night centers which had been fixtures in every public school in the city since the early 1950’s, did they do so to punish the public schools for failing to educate their students properly, or because banks refused to lend money to keep the city government afloat unless they made drastic reductions in youth services no longer deemed “essential?”
Fourth, when a crack epidemic swept through the Bronx from the mid 1980’s through the mid
1990’s, did it do so because the schools were failing to do their job, or because young people in the Bronx gravitated to the underground economy because there were no legal job opportunities available and because youth recreation programs had been devastated by budget cuts?
Presented in chronological order, these were the four great tragedies that led the Bronx, once a place where upwardly mobile Black and Latino families moved to in search of better housing, better schools and safer communities ( from the 1930’s through the 1950’s) become a international symbol of urban decay and urban violence.
Can anyone seriously argue that” failing schools” were the major cause for this chain of disasters, or were the causes to be found in global movements of capital, investment decisions by banks, landlords and local businesses, and government policies that took resources and services out of Bronx neighborhoods and Bronx institutions, including public schools
July 11, 2011