December 21st, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

What I Think is Why St. Louisans Don't Think Graduating is Important

Around 1870, St. Louis manufacturers who were desperate for manpower (since so many workers had died in the Civil War, and since demand for goods to replace burned-out homes and cities was high) came up with the idea of sending recruiters down South, where African-Americans were finding out that a lot of them were better off, economically, under slavery than they were as sharecropping farmers in the land of Jim Crow. So they were willing to work for cheap if it got them off the farm. So they were trucked up here, like they were to cities all over what we now call the Rust Belt, and set up in their own little segregated slums near the north-side and east-side factories. Then, when the railroad stock bubble burst about 20 years later and jobs were scarce, those same companies fired all their black workers. Thirty years later, a new stock market bubble was buoying the economy, and we had more jobs than we had people to fill them even after decades of wide-open immigration, so they hired a new generation of black workers. A few years later the stock market bubble burst again, and the Great Depression threw a lot of people out of work, including nearly all black factory workers. 15 years after that, virtually every white man in America went overseas to fight the Great Crusade, and while they were gone their jobs were held, and new jobs in defense contracting were given to, women, African-Americans, and illegal immigrants. When the war was over a few years later, they threw the women and the African-Americans out of those jobs to make room for white men who "deserved" and "needed" those jobs more. Roughly fifty grinding years of poverty later, America had yet another stock bubble, the Dot Com bubble, and once again there weren't enough workers to fill every job. Ten years later, that bubble burst too, and once again, here in the industrial midwest and northeast it was African-Americans who were disproportionately laid off. Hence the old saying, "When the white economy gets the sniffles, the black economy dies of pneumonia."

So after 130 years of being screwed over by private employers, African-Americans have acquired a certain amount of cultural insight into which jobs they won't be fired from. Some of those jobs are relatively hard to get. There's always the Army, of course, but even back in the day the Army wouldn't take everybody. That left a lot of parents who needed jobs to feed their kids, and a lot of parents of kids who needed jobs, desperate to find the employer of last resort. And, god help us all, here in St. Louis the official employer of last resort for desperate African-Americans was, and is, the St. Louis city public school district. Put up a few yard signs for a an alderman running for re-election (who can't lose anyway), then after November call and explain that you need a job for someone who can't get one. If that doesn't work, make the customary small donation to the Clay family's congressional re-election fund (even though whichever Clay they're running this year can't lose, either), and then call his constituent service department; they'll lean on the school system if your alderman won't. Given pressure from a family that has that many people who owe them favors, and with that kind of connections in the local clergy and political structure, the school system knows not to fight it. After decades and decades of this, the St. Louis city public school system is completely encrusted with make-work jobs that are sucking up all the education money. For example, can anybody come up with a legitimate reason, in a time when every other company in America buys its decorative plants for dirt-cheap from landscapers, and when the City really shouldn't be spending big money on decorative plants when they're in bankruptcy, the city school district operates an entire chain of their own greenhouses? Answer: somebody's cousin needed a job. Lots of somebodies.

This is made worse by the fact that, for mostly unrelated reasons, the population of the City of St. Louis has fallen by almost two-thirds from its maximum. The existing school system has enough school buildings for three times this many students, maybe even more, without any need to overcrowd. Huge numbers of classrooms sit empty for students whose families are never coming back. Each of those schools costs money to maintain, to repair, to clean, to guard, to landscape, to supervise, and so on. The city school system, which has been technically in bankruptcy for almost as long as it's been on academic probation, desperately needs to close at least half of those school buildings, so they can lay off half their management and non-teaching staff, not to mention the savings in utility bills alone. But every time they try to do this, every time the people who run the city try to come up with some way to make this inescapable or palatable, the African-American political establishment, both secular and religious, and pretty nearly the whole black community in St. Louis, rises up en masse. 90% of the time they can't even remember to mention any of their shallow excuses for why it's better for the kids this way. No, 90% of the time they're accidentally honest about why the school system has to divert so much educational money to make-work jobs in two-thirds-empty buildings: for the jobs.

What's this got to do with graduation rates? Do you think those kids don't notice that their parents, and their pastors, and most of their local leaders, couldn't care less whether the school actually teaches them anything or not, so long as it provides jobs to people who couldn't get a job any other way? And sure, it's mostly only completely that bad in the original black slums of north St. Louis and in southwest Illinois across the river, in the East St. Louis school district. But on the other hand, it's been this way for over a hundred years, far enough back that the City was the populous and prosperous entity and the County was a bunch of ignorant people squatting on mostly empty land sucking up tax dollars. By now, I think it's soaked into our culture.