Commentary | Education

Lessons—The Other Role for the Urban School

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


The other role for the urban school

By Richard Rothstein

In Los Angeles, 75,000 students are bused to school daily. Half travel in buses operated by the district, the rest in buses run by companies under contract.

This spring, drivers for one of the companies, Laidlaw Education Services, went on strike in an effort to gain parity with the district’s own drivers, who earn an average of $22.56 an hour and, unlike most Laidlaw drivers, get full benefits. After a month, the union settled with Laidlaw for a raise of about 25 cents, to bring the company’s drivers up to an average of $9.25. That enabled the company to keep its costs low enough that it remained cheaper for Los Angeles to contract for some busing than to transport all children itself.

But the bargain has a downside. Laidlaw’s wages for most of its drivers are below what they need to join the middle class. For the district, contracting may be good fiscal policy. But it is questionable public policy.

Management theorists say an organization should focus on its core business and farm out support services to companies that specialize in such work. When schools take that advice, administrators spare themselves the distractions of bus repair, school cleaning or food purchases. Further, the cost savings that typically accrue can be used by districts for educational purposes, like reducing class sizes or increasing teacher pay.

Yet the gap between wages paid by contractors and those paid by municipal agencies like school systems has led many cities to adopt “living wage” rules requiring contractors to offer pay that, if not as high as municipal wages, is higher than that provided by the private market as a whole. New York City, where all school buses are privately run, is now debating such a law, which would expand on one enacted in 1996.

So far, the debate has overlooked the way a second role is woven into the history of urban schools. The schools’ essential function, of course, has been to educate. But for immigrant and minority workers, they have also been an important source of better jobs, a first step to the middle class.

They have fulfilled this function even to a fault. Indeed, for most of the last 150 years, urban schools have been consumed less by controversies about instruction than by issues like payroll-padding. School reform has usually concerned not academic standards but curtailing patronage and nepotism in the hiring of teachers, principals, clerks and janitors.

A century ago, Irish and German immigrants got a lift to the middle class from jobs in municipal agencies. Wages for the jobs they did were higher there than in the private sector, and ward bosses who ran big cities hired workers in return for votes.

Once those immigrants moved up the economic ladder, they were followed into public jobs by Italians and Jews. Getting hired often had more to do with whom you knew than what you knew, and schools employed more workers than necessary.

There is a widely held belief that early waves of immigrants achieved middle-class status solely by studying or getting menial industrial jobs and then climbing the ranks to become foremen and craftsmen. While that was true of many, others also had the benefit of public policies that prevented the private labor market from keeping immigrants at the bottom. Union drives, an increasing minimum wage and political patronage (much of it in urban schools) played big roles through the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Today there are still school jobs with an important social role. African-American and Hispanic workers, many of them women hired as classroom aides or cafeteria helpers, are usually the only employees who actually live in the neighborhood of the urban school where they work, and whose children typically attend that school. These women have little access to private-sector jobs that pay wages above the poverty level.

It is hard to justify some of this work on educational grounds alone; in fact, federal education law now requires new school aides to have two-year college degrees. That makes sense educationally, but will force schools to recruit from outside their immediate neighborhoods.

For bus drivers, cafeteria workers and janitors, money spent on above-market wages could be used instead to improve education. But educational benefit is not the only consideration. It would be nice if private labor markets could, on their own, provide the hand up that low-wage workers need to begin a climb to the middle class. But the private sector has never done this on its own, and is not doing so now.

As a result, schools share responsibility for creating good jobs. There may be a point to insisting that immigrants, like Los Angeles’s bus drivers, should now strive for upward mobility without taxpayers’ subsidizing their wage scales. But that is not how previous generations began to climb.

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