Sweatshops and school vouchers

According to some judges and pundits, sweatshops, school vouchers and an eighth grade education offer salvation to the children who reside in the world’s slums, ghettos and barrios. In an op-ed piece entitled “Let Them Sweat,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently took “muddle-minded liberals” to task for opposing global sweatshops. For “kids like Ahmad Zia, a 14-year-old boy” living in Attock, Pakistan, sweatshops are “the only hope.”

Now it may be that Kristof fancies himself a latter-day Jonathan Swift and is skillfully offering an updated “Modest Proposal.” There is ample evidence of satire, to wit: “ a sweatshop job is the first step on life’s escalator.” But my guess is Kristof is dead serious when he proposes that Nike hire young Afghan women “at 10 cents an hour to fill all-female sweatshops.” I think he sincerely believes that the young girls “and their country would,” as he writes, “be hugely better off” for the opportunity to swell the profits of Nike.

There is nothing, however, that could be mistaken for satire in the recent decision of the N.Y. Supreme Court Appellate Division in Manhattan. It’s raw cynicism. George Pataki, the Republican governor of New York, did not like the fiscal implications of a lower court’s decision that held “that the education provided New York City students [70 percent of whom are Black and Hispanic] is so deficient that it falls below the constitutional floor set by the education article of the New York State Constitution.”

Justice Leland DeGrasse, who issued this ruling, “ordered state officials to relieve overcrowding, reduce class size, hire more qualified teachers, improve physical conditions of the schools and acquire new books, computers and supplies.”

Governor Pataki appealed and got the decision he wanted. The Appellate Division ruled that New York City school children were entitled to nothing more than a “minimally adequate” education, which they defined as an eighth-grade education. Judge Alfred Lerner wrote for the majority: “Society needs workers in all levels of jobs, the majority of which may well be low level.”

Not to be outdone, the U.S. Supreme Court recently delivered the coup de grace to urban education, ruling that the use of publicaly funded vouchers to attend religious or secular private schools was constitutional. The diversion of resources to assist 10 or 20 percent of city students to attend private schools merely siphons funds from already inadequate school budgets, guaranteeing that even an eighth-grade level won’t be available.

Rather than ordering additional spending to improve urban education for all the children, the reactionary majority of the Supreme Court chose the most destructive and divisive course. Perhaps they’ll next rule that child labor laws are unconstitutional, thus allowing city children to learn the joys of sweat labor.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org