As yet we don’t know what caused the horrific crash of the Amtrak train in Philadelphia this week. Human error? Mechanical malfunction? Delayed technology? The crash happened less than 20 miles from my home on a stretch of track that I travel regularly into Philly or Washington. As a frequent traveler, I can assure one and all of something certain: our train infrastructure has been allowed to fall into ignominious disrepair. A trip on the train these days is like traveling through the pages of a history book detailing the once glorious system of public works in this country, which has then been allowed to fall into a mess of barely functional tracks, dilapidated train stations, rusting bridges and routine lengthy delays. Why has this happened? Why in the age of European and Japanese bullet trains, does it take longer to take the train from Philadelphia to Washington today than it did 50 years ago?
Adam Gopnick, writing in The New Yorker, has the answer I believe. In a piece called The Plot Against Trains, he says:
What we have, uniquely in America, is a political class, and an entire political party, devoted to the idea that any money spent on public goods is money misplaced, not because the state goods might not be good but because they would distract us from the larger principle that no ultimate good can be found in the state. Ride a fast train to Washington today and you’ll start thinking about national health insurance tomorrow.
That train that derailed travelled right past the crumbling hulk of the junior high school my mother attended. In fact in travelling through Philadelphia the train passed dozens of crumbling dilapidated schools that were once pointed to with pride by the citizens and civic leaders of my home town. At one time we were justly proud of the fine edifices we constructed for our children to go to school and at one time those buildings housed the very best that public education had to offer in this country.
What happened? Many things happened, of course. There was the systematic creation of the ghetto brought on by federal, state and local housing policies after World War II (please see the work of Richard Rothstein on this phenomenon), there was “white flight” to the suburbs, but mostly this was the rise of the political philosophy, as Gopnick has pointed out in relation to trains and airports, that the government can ultimately do no good. In the large cities of America, we have exactly the schools we deserve because we have refused to invest in them.
This pathological, deeply ingrained distrust of government is perhaps best demonstrated by the House voting to cut Amtrak funding the day after the tragic accident, but it is also symbolized by the decision to privatize education. The charter school movement, the voucher movement, the entire narrative of “failing schools” and “bad teachers” is all a part of this refusal to provide adequate monies to provide for what we used to call “public works.” If, as Gopnick said, the dominant ideology is that no ultimate good can be provided by the state, why should we spend state monies on schools? Let the privatizers run the schools; the job is big, expensive and messy anyway.
Philadelphia, where the train accident occurred, is an object lesson in how to destroy a public school system. The system had been starved of funds for decades before any politician noticed. Then suddenly after systematically denying funds to the school system, politicians determined that the solution to the problem ridden public school system they created was charter schools. These schools then proliferated in the city, with very, very mixed results. Some did well, if test scores are your measure of improvement, some did poorly, some closed in the middle of the school year leaving students stranded, and some charter leaders defrauded the public out of their money. But good, bad, indifferent or criminal, all charters drained money from an already cash strapped school district and led to the further deterioration of this once great public institution.
All of this was intentional. All of this could have been avoided. All of this is the result of our refusal to appropriately meet our public responsibility.
The truth is that there are things that government can do better than private industry. Public transportation is one. Protecting the environment is another. Public schooling is the most important. Our refusal to provide the money needed to support public programs can be seen by anyone who rides a train, listens to climate change deniers or walks into an urban public school.
We need to wake up. We need to recognize that public monies well spent make life better for us all. We need to realize that the decay of urban school systems is a problem for all of us and it will take money from all of us to begin to fix it. I wish instead of using their great wealth to pursue their own flawed vision of schooling that plutocrats like Bill Gates and the Waltons would just pay their taxes and let us use the money on our public schools. It is time to take the private out of our schools and put the public, the whole of us, back into our public schools, because whether we choose to believe it or not, we all have skin in this game.