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The Politics of School Decentralization

Reconnection for Learning: A Community School System for New York City York City Schools; McGeorge Bundy, chairman

published by the Mayor’s Advisory Panel on Decentralization of the New

Public hearings on questions of school policy in New York are typically ritualistic and empty, the issues being either trivial or decided in advance by the interested parties. Lately, however, Negroes and Puerto Ricans have begun to come to these hearings and the tone, as a result, has considerably sharpened and become bitter, so that the Board of Education, which usually sends a representative, now occasionally stays away. Last summer, for instance, the Board decided not to attend a hearing held by the Mayor’s Council Against Poverty to consider whether the Board of Education or the ghetto communities themselves should have charge of some $69 million in federal funds intended for the improvement of ghetto schools. Dozens of Negro and Puerto Rican leaders testified at this hearing, and one after another of them urged that sooner than give this money over to the Board which, they argued, would inevitably use it against the interests of the ghettos the city should give it back to Washington.

Most of these speakers represented community organizations within the ghettos; many of them were parents, and some were black schoolteachers. Nearly all of them described the public school system as a racist conspiracy to deny the children of the ghetto an education, and themselves, if they happened to be teachers, advancement. Their complaint was not that the schools had tried and failed, nor even that they hadn’t bothered to try, but that they had deliberately or reflexively blocked and stupefied the children. Some of the speakers wanted the federal money spent on an alternative school system, run by the local communities within the city, responsible not to a distant and authoritarian central board of education, but to the parents themselves. What they wanted, in effect, was to get rid of the central school administration, with its complacent bureaus, its record of failure, and its insularity, and to take charge of the ghetto schools themselves.

LAST FALL these desperate and angry voices were joined by that of the formidable McGeorge Bundy, who, having left the War Room of the White House, has been for the past year and a half head of the Ford Foundation. The so-called Bundy Report, which appeared in November, 1967, became the first of several plans for decentralizing the New York City public school system by proposing to turn its powers over to the various communities within the city. Mr. Bundy’s proposal was to break the system into between thirty and sixty largely autonomous community subsystems, each with substantial control over its own budget, personnel, and curricula. Soon after the Bundy Report appeared, Mayor Lindsay presented a modified school decentralization plan of his own which was more nearly calculated to appeal to the State legislators whose approval is required before any substantial changes can be made in the City system.

When the legislature ignored Mr. Lindsay’s modifications, the State Board of Regents, which is ultimately responsible for the City schools, offered still another plan. The Regents’ proposal would create somewhat fewer autonomous school districts, thus limiting the extent of decentralization, but it went beyond both the Bundy plan and the Mayor’s modification by offering to do away immediately with the present nine-member Board of Education and replacing it as of June 30 with a new, five-man Board, appointed by the Mayor. Last month, at the urging of James Allen, the State Commissioner of Education, and with the support of a group of business leaders the several plans were coordinated and presented to the legislature in Albany. Though the current proposal closely follows the Regents’ plan, Commissioner Allen had no difficulty in getting the Mayor and Mr. Bundy to go along, for both the city administration and the Ford Foundation apparently share with the Regents and the State Commissioner the belief that the city schools are at the edge of chaos.

Whether the system should be broken down into thirty or sixty districts, as the Bundy plan suggests, or into twenty districts, as the Regents have advised, the urgent matter is to wrench the school system away from the bureaucrats who are now running it and whose failure now threatens the stability of the city itself. As a practical matter the children of the ghetto, who now comprise nearly half the total public school enrollment, are largely without a functioning educational system at all, and the present school administration has shown that it is incapable of supplying them with one.

Mr. Bundy’s Report represents his debut in urban affairs, but for the former White House official the political crisis which his Report hoped to settle is nothing new. In the ghettos of New York as, a decade ago, in the Mekong Delta, an angry and insurgent population feels that it has exhausted its last political options and is now ready for violence, even if violence means suicide. For the parents of the ghetto the schools are the only means by which their children can escape, but each year, as the failure of the schools becomes more apparent, the grip of the city’s discredited education officials grows tighter. The city is thus faced with a classic revolutionary situation. The problem for Mayor Lindsay and Mr. Bundy is to keep the peace, but the present strategy is the opposite of what it had been in Vietnam. There we strengthened the mandarins. The plan now is to weaken them and to offer a form of self-government to the indigenous population. At the heart of the various decentralization programs is the dispersal of New York City’s central educational bureaucracy, a pyramid of some 3,000 officials, so firmly impacted at its base and so remote at its summit that it promises to survive (unless it is destroyed by its angry clientele) longer than the pyramids of Egypt.

THE PROPOSED New York City school budget for next year is nearly one and one-third billion dollars. The strategy of decentralization is to turn much of this money, and thus much of the power to run the schools, over to local boards of education, a majority of whose members will be chosen by the parents within the individual communities, while the rest will be appointed by the Mayor from lists supplied by the central Board in consultation with representatives of the various neighborhoods. Thus, in theory, the central Board will be reduced largely to looking after labor relations, the protection of the children’s constitutional rights, maintaining educational standards, data processing, city-wide testing, and so forth. The real power—that is, the power to give out the 60,000 jobs within the system—will reside with the politically chosen local boards.

Though it is unclear from the Report whether these local boards will, in fact, reflect the interests of their communities, or will accommodate themselves, as the central Board itself does, to city-wide interests and pressures, resulting in the same inertia from which the system suffers now, it is clear that the proponents of decentralization are less concerned with what is taught in the schools than with who runs them. In this they share the attitude of the present school administration as well as that of the school administration a century ago, before civil service reforms replaced a political spoils system in which school jobs were given out by local leaders in consultation with City Hall. The main assumption of the proposed new legislation is that, since the city’s demographic center has begun to shift toward the ghetto, the distribution of power within the school system should now begin to shift accordingly.

As the Bundy Report itself acknowledged, the case for restricting the power of the central Board is hardly original. A study issued in 1933 urged a form of decentralization and there have been others in 1940, 1942, 1949, 1962, and 1965. But the current proposals are unique in their urgency and aggressiveness, partly because their sponsors feel that it is no longer a matter merely of improving the schools but of saving the city, and perhaps, since the case of New York is typical of all large city systems, of saving the entire country. The proposed legislation asks for immediate and specific reform to take effect as soon as next month. Mr. Bundy, Mr. Lindsay, and Commissioner Allen are offering New York’s educational mandarins hardly more time to pack their bags than the Diem family got.

THERE ARE, however, a number of difficulties with the plan, the most serious of which is that the Board and its professional staff, supported in the present case by the powerful United Federation of Teachers, are unlikely to give up without a fight. Their political resources are formidable and, given what they stand to lose—that is, their jobs—they are likely to fight bitterly. To the administrators and teachers, as well as to their representatives in Albany, decentralization means that a largely Jewish bureaucracy with a strong residue of Irish flavoring, must now begin to make way, at least in the ghetto schools, for a largely Negro insurgency. White candidates for principal ($18,970-$25,795) or assistant superintendent ($30,000), who have served their time in the schools, passed their examinations, waited in line, attended the banquets, made the friends, and done whatever else the system expects of its future leaders, will, if the new legislation is enacted, have to stand by while Negroes and Puerto Ricans, appointed by community boards of education, take the jobs which these candidates have been waiting for and which they feel they have earned. In Negro and Puerto Rican districts even the incumbent principals and superintendents, to say nothing of the individual teachers, will not be safe from the local boards, for while the proposed new legislation promises to maintain the tenure of these people, it does not guarantee to keep them in their present jobs. The local boards, under decentralization, will have the power to pluck the present staff members from wherever in the hierarchy they may now be perched and throw them, tenured but jobless, into cold storage until they resign or can be retired.

According to the Board of Examiners which administers the so-called merit system by which teachers and principals are advanced to higher positions (and which the new legislation proposes to abolish), the Bundy Report was “terrifying in its implications” for “white teachers.” Privately, the Report has been called anti-semitic. Recently it was attacked by the Board of Rabbis. Last month Herman Mantell, president of the Council of Jewish Organizations in Civil Service, which represents 26,000 members of the Jewish Teachers Association, promised that his organization will campaign against persons who are implicated in “creating political chaos” in the school system, by which he presumably meant not only the Mayor, the State Commissioner, the Board of Regents, and the Ford Foundation, but also whichever state legislators are so bold as to vote for decentralization.

Though the language of the Bundy Report was conciliatory, as when its authors insisted that they had been “deeply impressed by the honesty, the intelligence and the essential good will” of the same educational leaders whom they intended to rusticate, the Report’s message was clear to the bureaucrats even before it was published. Their response was predictably critical, occasionally agitated, as in the case of the Board of Examiners, but reassured by the knowledge that the system has survived plenty of trouble so far, including its conspicuous and admitted failure to educate the children of the ghettos, and it will probably survive this crisis, too. Though the present school administration has tried to refute the Report on such grounds as its implied attack on “professionalism,” its main strategy has been to keep cool, avoid public arguments, and support the idea of decentralization in principle, though only in principle, while counting on representatives of the city’s ethnic majorities, prodded by such statesmen as Mr. Mantell, to kill the proposal in the legislature. As if anticipating such a response the Bundy Report chastised the Board for its characteristic inertia, what the Report calls its “negative power,” the power to thwart its critics by ignoring them, on the proven assumption that sooner or later the critics will grow tired and quit.

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