SCANDAL OF THE SCHOOLS
BY ALBERT E KAHN
Chapter 2 from The Game of Death
The real safeguard of democracy . . . is education.
In the Richest City
Children at Wilson School in Lackawanna, New York, march in protest against the continued use of the antiquated condemned building in which they attend school
Shortly before eleven o'clock on the morning of February 25, 1952, fire alarm bells suddenly rang out in the Food Trades Vocational School annex at 60 West 13th Street in New York City. No fire or air raid drill had been scheduled for this hour, and teachers knew they were faced with an emergency. Quickly ushering the five hundred pupils from their class rooms, the teachers led them into the street.
The threat to the lives of the children had not come from the outbreak of a fire but from a danger equally as great. By chance a teacher had discovered that one of the eight pillars supporting the school structure was buckling. At any moment the building might have collapsed and buried its occupants.
The building which housed the school annex had been constructed before the Civil War. It was 106 years old. In an editorial entitled, "Next Time Kids May Die," the New York Post commented:
The latest word is that the pillar is being repaired and school will be resumed. New York was lucky this time. How long will our luck hold out? How many kids are living on borrowed time? Our schoolhouses . . . are rotting.
In the shadow of the spectacular skyscrapers of the world's largest and richest metropolis, tens of thousands of children are crammed into squalid, obsolete, miserably equipped schools, crumbling with age and neglect, and lacking adequate lighting, heating and sanitation facilities. Over one-third of the school buildings are at least fifty years old. Many of them are without playgrounds, libraries, gymnasiums or lunchrooms. More than a quarter of a million children attend schools which are not fire-proof.
While Board of Education officials stress the urgency of measures to protect children from atomic bombs, a major portion of the city's schools present a daily, ever-growing threat to the health and safety of their young occupants. With immense sums of money being spent on civil defense operations, scores of schools are literally falling apart through lack of adequate financial provisions. In the few new schools that are being built, the amount of steel is being drastically reduced. The New York Times reported not long ago:
To aid national defense, the Board of Education has decided to reduce its use of steel in all future school construction by nearly 50 per cent. . . . The saving on each building under the policy will be about 500 tons.
The school authorities who emphasize the need for children learning to hide under desks in preparation for air raids seemingly believe that these desks would offer better protection in an emergency than solidly built schools. In March 1952, a parents' conference held in the Bedford Stuyvesant community in Brooklyn issued a report describing these as typical public schools in that area:
P.S. 26- The building is ancient and overcrowded. One part of the building burned down two years ago, and has not yet been replaced. . P.S. 28- A very old building badly in need of painting and repair. . . P.S. 41- The building is a fire-trap. admitted by the authorities to be dangerous to the welfare of the children . . . P.S. 70- An old, dilapidated building with inadequate lunchroom and toilet facilities. . .
An article dealing with schools in Harlem in the May 1952 issue of the Negro journal Freedom told of "decaying, over
crowded fire-traps . . . ancient building, overcrowded class rooms, inadequate supplies and textbooks" and the threat of "mass illiteracy unless drastic action is taken."
In a special report to the New York City Board of Education in December 1952, Dr. Dietrich Lehnert, superintendent of the Bureau of Plant Operation and Maintenance, stated that approximately 150 schools had not been painted since 1943, and many were both unsanitary and unsafe because of such hazards as old boilers, defective toilet facilities, and leaking roofs and walls. "We have," Dr. Lehnert reported, "violations of State and City laws and ordinances in our schools the removal of which would cost approximately $10,000,000."
Throughout the city, bitter complaint has been mounting against the conditions in the schools.
During the open hearings on the construction budget held in November 1952 by the City Planning Commission, more than a thousand parents from one hundred neighborhoods jammed the board of Estimate chamber at City Hall to accuse the Commission of withholding funds needed desperately for the building of new schools. As mother after mother assailed the miserable dilapidated schools in their communities, it was as if the voices of countless children were heard testifying to the wrongs they were suffering in the name of education. In some schools, it was revealed, classrooms were so crowded that many small children had to stand for long periods wearily awaiting their turn for a seat.(1)
"If you don't do something this year," Mrs. Sarah Tanenbaum of the Parents Teachers Association at Public School 15 in Manhattan told the City Planning Commission, "you won't have a problem next year. We simply won't send our children there" . . .
Not long after the Commission hearing, the press reported that Mr. and Mrs. Allen Myers, a couple living on the lower East Side, were keeping their nine-year-old daughter out of Public School 19 and tutoring her at home, in defiance of the school authorities. "We want to determine," Mr. Myers told newsmen, "whether the City Board of Education has a legal right to force parents to send their children to filthy, unsanitary, crumbling schoolhouses that are a physical and mental hazard."
Describing Public School 19, Mr. Myers related:
One half of that building was built ninety-four years ago, it is black dirty, the walls and ceilings are broken in places.
The hallways are so narrow that in case of fire there is danger of children being trapped. In one half, there are no toilets . . . The classrooms look out on dark, narrow, filthy alleys. Do you think I would send my only child to that dump? I have told the Department of Education I would rot in jail myself first.
Fire Department records revealed that there had been no fire inspection at Public School 19 for fifteen years.
Such appalling conditions in the public schools are by no means indigenous only to the city of New York. As a consequence of the Cold War, they prevail and are worsening in many parts of the United States.
2. Havoc for the Young
"OUR SCHOOLS were not bombed as were the European schools," the education editor of the New York Times and Pulitzer Prize winner, Benjamin Fine, wrote late in 1947. "But more than two years after the end of the war they are being wrecked just as surely as though they had been blasted by a fleet of bombers."
The Second World War had played havoc with the nation's public schools. Everywhere, supplies suffered drastic cuts, school structures deteriorated and urgently required building programs were postponed. With the coming of peace, millions of mothers and fathers had eagerly anticipated that the nation would burgeon forth with cheerful, up-to-date schools for their children. Such hopes were 'swiftly dashed.
As the ominous features of the Cold War took shape, more and more attention was paid to the grim business of rearmament and less and less to meeting the crucial educational needs of the nation's young. By the time the Truman Doctrine was enunciated in the name of defending world democracy, one of the most precious attainments of American democracy -its system of free and universal education- was gravely imperiled in every section of the land.
Along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, throughout the Deep South and across the midland plains, in great industrial centers and obscure little towns, legions of luckless children were attending school in grimy antiquated buildings, tottering ramshackle firetraps and wretched makeshift structures. As construction costs spiralled and the demands of war production multiplied, community after community was forced to abandon desperately needed school building projects. In Detroit, more than a third of the public schools in use in the late 1940's consisted of wooden shacks that had been built for temporary purposes in the 1920's. A public statement issued by teachers in St. Paul, Minnesota, reported "school buildings that have long been condemned as fire and health hazards," "no free textbooks" and classes so overfilled that children "suffer burns from being crowded against radiators." In Arkansas, according to the State Commissioner of Education, Dr. Ralph B. Jones, one out of every four children of school age was receiving "no school education whatsoever". . .
Side by side with the rapidly deteriorating school facilities, an already drastic shortage of teachers was mounting on a nationwide scale.
"To say that American education is facing a crisis is an understatement," declared Dr. Ralph McDonald of the National Education Association. "The teacher shortage has gripped every state with unprecedented intensity. Our schools as a result are rapidly disintegrating.'
And as the Cold War intensified, the situation in the schools grew steadily more desperate.(2).
Bad as are school conditions in the cities, they are infinitely worse in the rural areas. "No self-respecting farmer," states Dr. Howard Dawson, rural education director of the National Education Association, "would house his pigs in some of the hovels used for school buildings."
In numerous small towns and farming communities, children are receiving their "education" in one-, two- and three-room windowless shacks and weatherbeaten sheds, completely devoid of electric lights, running water and the most rudimentary sanitation facilities. So dark are the interiors of many of these so-called schools that classes in them have to be cancelled on cloudy or rainy days. Supplies and equipment are pitifully wanting, and often the only books, paper, pencils or crayons available are those provided by the children themselves or bought by the teachers out of their meagre salaries.
Statistics released by the National Education Association reveal the almost incredible fact that approximately ten million children living in rural areas in the United States are receiving a substandard education . . .
The type of teacher to be found in many rural communities is graphically portrayed in Benjamin Fine's book, Our Children Are Being Cheated, in an account of a visit he paid to a three-room school in a small mid-western town. In a filthy room strewn with apple cores and dirty milk bottles, where a potbellied stove "gave off acrid smoke that brought tears to one's eyes," Fine attended one of the classes.
Conducting the class was the principal of the school, a former mechanic who had become dissatisfied with machine-shop work and applied to the county superintendent for a school post. "I've been here a couple of months now," the mechanic turned-school-principal told Fine. "Never taught a day before in my life . .. But it just come natural to me . . ."
"Any discipline problems?" asked Fine.
"None at all. I use a stick. See it in the corner? Cut 'em up now and then. .. I handled one guy. . . yesterday. I had to wrastle with him and bang him up a bit. He's not in school today."
A further indication of this school principal's character and his qualifications as a teacher of children was his remark: "I don't want to go back to the shop. A poor element works there. A shop is a place that breeds discontent. See, I was out of my element. I don't want to associate with that low type." (3)
For those American children whose skin happens not to be white, the situation is worst of all. In the words of the Report of the President's Committee on Civil Rights, which was submitted to President Truman in 1947:
Whatever test is used -expenditure per pupil, teachers' salaries, the number of pupils per teacher, transportation of students, adequacy of school buildings, length of school term, extent of curriculum- Negro students are invariably at a disadvantage.
But the temperate language of the report to the President ill conveys what frightful conditions prevail in schools for Negro children throughout the Jim Crow states of the South and the Negro ghettos of northern cities, and how the hours of their supposed enlightenment are blighted by misery, ugliness and bitter humiliation.
Some concept of the conditions faced by most Negro school children in the South can be derived from Benjamin Fine's description of a rural Negro school in a southern state:
It was located about fifteen miles from the nearest village. We drove by car and had to go through tortuous, winding roads that at times were all but impassable. Finally the car stopped in front of an open field. Nothing but a wooden shack . . . ugly, unkempt, unpainted, could be seen. A few hogs rooted about . . .
"Where is the school?" I inquired in some surprise.
"This is the school," the county superintendent, who was my guide, answered. Then he added as we got out of the machine,
"Be careful of those mud holes. Last time I stepped into mud over my ankles and had a deuce of a time getting out."
The school proved to be an old chicken coop that had not been fixed up in any way. . . . Two classes were in session . . . About forty children were crowded into each section; they sat huddled on hard benches, made from crude slabs of wood. There were no tables or other equipment of any kind. An old potbellied stove stood in one corner, belching smoke from a cracked side. There were no windows or any lights in the shack. . . .' Immediately in back of the little building was an old-fashioned crude privy . . . used by the eighty boys and girls.
. . . forty children had less than a dozen readers. The school did not have a blackboard, chalk, crayons, or pencils.(4)
3. "The most important business"
"THE MOST important business of this nation -or any nation, for that matter- is raising and training children," President Truman declared in an address delivered on February 15, 1950. "I think that every child in the nation, regardless of his race, color or creed, should have the right to a proper education."
Regarding the plight of public education in the United States in 1950, the Annual Report of the National Education Association stated:
Nearly half of America's public-school children received a substandard quality of schooling. . . one quarter received a "minimum essential' type of schooling. Four million children of 5-17 years of age . . . got no schooling at all . . .
The noticeable discrepancy between the ideal voiced by the President and the actuality recorded by the National Education Association was due to the fact that -Truman's words to the contrary notwithstanding- the "most important business" in the nation at the time was not the education of children. The most important business was the production of armaments and preparations for war.
The Federal budget for the fiscal year 1950 as presented to Congress by President Truman called for almost twenty-two billion dollars for military spending, Cold War operations and atomic research. An additional billion and a half was to be allocated during the course of the year to various European countries for the purchase of American-made arms. Less than 3 per cent of the budget was set aside for educational purposes . . .(5) ·
While enrollments of elementary and secondary school children were growing at the rate of almost a million a year, the needs of the schools were being deliberately neglected in order that the requirements of the armament industries might be met.
Appearing before a House Education and Labor subcommittee in October 1951, a group of prominent educators declared that the Government's policy of refusing steel priorities to urgently needed school construction was having a calamitous effect. "The result within a few years," said Edward M. Tuttle, Executive Secretary of the National School Boards Association, "will be a disaster to our nation, the consequences of which will be beyond calculation or repair."
Such warnings fell on deaf ears.
Leading mobilization officials and the governors of fifteen states who conferred in Washington, D. C., in December 1951, issued a statement asserting that military needs were so great that there was "little hope of increasing allocation of steel to states for construction of schools. . ."
In the words of the U. S. News &- World Report, schools had been selected to be among "the first home-front sacrifices of the rearmament effort." (6)
In January 1952 the New York Times published a series of articles reporting the findings of a comprehensive survey of the crucial condition of the nation's schools. Summarizing information collected in the forty-eight states, the survey stated:
Eighteen months of defense mobilization have taken their toll. Danger signals are flying everywhere. . .
The schools, like other aspects of civilian life, are beginning to feel the effects of the Korean conflict. As a result, they face a gloomy year. Many educators are worried lest the gloom continue for an other decade.
The Times report went on:
Today many thousands of children are attending classes in school basements, apartment-house basements, empty stores, garages, churches, inadequate private homes and even trailers. What is more, one out of every five of the regular schools is either unsafe or obsolete.
The defense program has played havoc with building plans. . . . Almost unbelievable conditions exist in many communities. . . The increased demands of the defense program for critical metals steel, copper and aluminum-make it appear unlikely that the needs for new school construction can be met in any substantial degree.
"We threaten the lives of thousands of our boys and girls daily," declared. U. S. Commissioner of Education Earl J. McGrath as a new school year began in September 1952, "by sending them into firetraps and unsafe structures, . . . One of every five pupils attends school in a building that does not have minimum fire safety conditions, though there has been an average of more than 2,100 school fires a year over a fifteen-year period." (7)·
With more than thirty-two million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools for 1953, the U. S. Department of Education estimated that within three or four years there would be an imperative minimum need for six hundred thousand new classrooms or approximately twenty thousand new school buildings. The amount of steel required to erect these structures was about six million tons, or approximately 5 per cent of U. S. steel production for a single year.
The steel, however, was "not available" for building schools. It was being put to other use.
On a comparatively quiet day on the Korean battlefront in January 1953, an army communiqué reported that U. S. artillerymen had shot away about six hundred tons of steel, approximately enough steel for constructing two school buildings, each accommodating one thousand children. In everyone of the thousands of tanks being built for service in Korea and else where in the world, there was enough steel for three class rooms. The cost of a single aircraft carrier was sufficient to pay for the construction of a thousand medium-sized schools . . .
While it is possible to estimate the number of new buildings, the amount of steel and the total funds necessary to remedy the desperate situation in American schools, the full cost to the nation of the school crisis is beyond all calculation. The prodigious waste of human talent through lack of adequate education; the loss to millions of children of the immeasurably precious possession of knowledge and of the ability to earn a proper livelihood in years to come; the crushed ambitions, mutilated spirits and crippled futures of countless numbers of boys and girls in every section of the land; these are costs for which no statistics are available.
These are among the unrecorded debits on the ledger of the Cold War
Describing a visit to the 70-year-old P.S. 141 in Manhattan, journalist Art Shields wrote in the Daily Worker on September 17, 1952: "I saw a thin five-and-a-half-year-old boy whimpering in a corner of an over crowded school on 58 St. near Amsterdam Ave. yesterday. . . . His legs were tired and aching and he hadn't any seat. The overworked woman teacher tried to tell the kids that there weren't any seats for 15 or 20 of her pupils. But this kid didn't know what she was saying. His parents had brought him from Puerto Rico last year. And all he knew was that he was tired out from standing on his little legs. . . It's a terrible thing to see a kid cry when he is suffering and there isn't any relief. And the teacher couldn't give him relief without making another little one give up his seat. It wasn't time to shift the children, so the tiny Puerto Rican stood and cried. . . . In another room I counted 60 kids and only 30 seats."
(2)Almost 6.000 schools in the United States were compelled to shut down through lack of teachers in 1946; and during the following years the number of individuals entering the teaching profession continued to diminish. By 1952, with 105.000 new teachers needed annually and only 35,000 being trained, school authorities estimated that within a decade there would be a shortage of 700,000 teachers in the United States.
One of the main causes of this trend is the shockingly low pay received by the overwhelming majority of American teachers. In many cities, teachers are paid less than dog-catchers, rat exterminators and garbage collectors. Large number of teachers draw less than $25 a week, and in rural areas teachers are frequently paid as little as $10 and $15 a week.
Tens of thousands of teachers are employed on emergency or substandard certificates. As Dr. M. D. Collins. Georgia Superintendent of Schools, has ruefully observed: "Some of the teachers we employ can't teach. They just call the rolls."
Of the 600,000 teachers in elementary schools in 1952, 300,000 did not hold college degrees and of this number. According to the National Education Association, one third were so poorly trained as to make their functioning as teachers "dangerous to the mental and emotional health of children."
(3) While teachers as patently unqualified as this one described by Fine are far from rare in the rural schools today, there are of course thousands of teachers in rural communities who sedulously strive to overcome the multiple handicaps confronting them and to provide their pupils with at least the rudiments of an education.
(4)For additional data on Negro schools and the treatment of Negro children in general, see Chapter IX.
(5) Significantly enough, the total amount of money being spent on schools in 1950 by Federal, state and local governments was proportionately far less than the sum expended for the same purpose during the depression years of the early 1930's. In the words of Benjamin Fine of the New York Times: ". . . the percentage of national income that goes for public elementary and secondary schools is considerably lower than it was in the depression years. In 1933-34, according to the Office of Education figures, 4.32 per cent of the national income was spent for public school education. But in 1949 -1950 . . . the country spent only 2.57 per cent.
(6) Out of the more than 20,000,000 tons of steel at its disposal for the first quarter of 1952, the National Production Administration allotted approximately ? of 1 per cent for nationwide school building projects. The case of New York State was not exceptional: in place of the 20,875 tons requested by the state as urgently needed, the Government allocated ? tons.
At the same time, hotels, new stores, amusement places, firms manufacturing luxury goods, and similar privately owned, profit-making ventures were being granted sizeable amounts of heavy steel for construction purposes.
Noteworthy was the fact that the Director of Building Construction of the Defense Construction Administration was Frank Creedon, who had come under attack, is an official of the War Production Board during World War II when, in the words of the New Republic, "he chose to allocate extremely scarce materials to race tracks, theatres and the like."
(7) On April 22, 1955, after drastic cuts in the budget of the U. S. Office of Education, Commissioner of Education McGrath handed in his resignation to President Eisenhower. In a letter to the President, McGrath stated that the cuts in federal educational expenditures were "making it impossible for anybody to serve education through this office."
Among the Office of Education projects to be eliminated by the budget cuts were a program to educate 500,000 children of migrant workers; a program to help 5,000,000 handicapped children; a project to help the 10 per cent of high-school freshmen who never complete their courses; a program to provide adequate school libraries, especially in rural areas; and a plan to lessen the number of 10,000,000 Americans who are "functionally" or virtually illiterate.
"If further drastic cuts are imposed," stated William G. Carr, executive secretary of the National Education Association, "there will be little left of the United States Office of Education except a name plate on one of the doors of the new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare."
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