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.

TO EXPERIENCE this negative power directly, as anyone does who becomes entangled with New York City’s educational bureaucracy, is often bewildering and usually infuriating. No doubt the authors of the Bundy Report, as they made their way through the enervated corridors of New York’s school headquarters, past the bland or sullen officials, had plenty of chances to see this system at work and to conclude, quite apart from the larger political considerations which prompted the Report in the first place, that whatever is wrong with the schools must begin with its central administrative staff. It is easy to see how the authors of the Report may have felt that the first step toward reconstructing public education in New York must be to get rid of this frustrating organization, or at least to circumvent it, as the prosperous middle class had done years ago when it built its own system of independent schools, and as the population of the ghetto now wants to do when it insists upon running the ghetto schools itself.1

Yet for all the anguish which the school bureaucracy inspires, it would be naïve to assume that its negative power can easily be manipulated or sidestepped through institutional reforms, or that these reforms, assuming they can ever be legislated, can then, in fact, be implemented. One might have thought that Mr. Bundy had learned from his experiences in Saigon how stubborn an established hierarchy can be in the face of even the most zealous attempts to change it. But even if he had never heard of General Ky he had only to consider the miserable history of school desegregation in New York to know the many ways in which such bureaucracies protect themselves from the moral and political assaults of the outside world.

Though school desegregation had been ordered, in effect, by the Supreme Court in 1954 and mandated, in turn, by the Board of Education as well as by the State Commissioner, it became clear by the end of the Fifties that the schools in New York were going to remain largely segregated; not, as some sociologists have said, because there were not enough white children to go around, but because a number of principals and other administrators, fearful of the white parents and often because of their own prejudices, decided to ignore or subvert orders from the central Board to integrate their schools. It would be unfair, however, to blame this failure solely on the headquarters officials who were charged with desegregation: A bureaucrat’s power over his subordinates, and thus his strength within the hierarchy, is partly determined by whether these subordinates will carry out his orders. If enough of them resist or passively ignore what they are told to do, and if they are supported by forces—in this case the white parents—over whom the system has no control, then the responsible officials are likely to retreat, as in fact they did. That neither the Superintendent nor the central Board, armed with the authority of the Supreme Court, offered to discipline the rebellious principals suggests how stubborn the negative power of such a bureaucracy can be.

In this sense the problem in New York is not that there is too much central authority, as the various decentralization plans seem to imply, but that there is not enough, and that what central authority there is, is ineffective. In its resistance to integration the system showed that it was already “decentralized” to the point of anarchy. Aware that their power depended upon the compliance of a tenured field staff, the administrators at headquarters, when events required that they assert the authority of their offices, typically replied that “it is not our job to tell the principals how to run their schools,” as if the responsibilities of leadership were somehow a violation of democratic procedure.2

Faced with this collapse of central authority, the leaders of the ghetto communities, who had been promised integrated schools, and who had conveyed these promises to the credulous, if restless, parents, correctly decided that they had been betrayed and that to depend any longer upon the Board was useless. What they discovered was that for many school officials public education was not mainly a matter of teaching the children but of maintaining stable terms of employment of teachers, and, of course, administrators themselves. If these ghetto parents needed to be convinced further that negotiations with the system were a waste of time they had only to await the plans for Harlem’s I.S. 201 to be announced.

THE STORY of I.S. 201 is somewhat complex, but since it relates directly to the present move toward decentralization, and since it foreshadows the increasingly violent confrontations that can be expected between the community and the school authorities if decentralization is not enacted, it is worth outlining here. The initials I.S. stand for Intermediate School, an institution which includes grades six through eight, and is intended eventually to replace the present Junior High Schools, which include grades seven through nine. The point is to get the children out of their local elementary schools a year earlier and into the larger Intermediate Schools, which are supposed to draw their students from a wider community and thus, through this purely technical means, enforce a kind of integration. To do this the Intermediate Schools must be built in what the Board calls “fringe areas,” that is, between white and black neighborhoods. They must also be big enough to draw children from a number of elementary schools. At first I.S. 201 was to have been simply another mid-Harlem junior high school, built to relieve overcrowding in two adjacent junior high schools, and the Negro Borough President of Manhattan approved the site accordingly. At this point, however, an officious administrator at headquarters decided, ostensibly in the interest of integration, to make the new school an Intermediate School. But he neglected to change either the mid-Harlem site or the capacity of the building, with the result that Harlem’s first Intermediate School would inevitably be as segregated as a school in New York could possibly be. Probably this administrative decision resulted from nothing more sinister than the disingenuousness, together with the insensitivity, of the official who made it and from the tendency of the system to deal with its problems by changing their labels. Nevertheless, the Harlem leaders who had agreed to continue working with the Board were enraged.

A NEW AND TOUGHER leadership emerged whose alliances, insofar as they felt they needed any with the white community, were not with the Board of Education but with the foundations, the Mayor’s office, and the various anti-poverty programs; the forces, in other words, which generated the Bundy Report. Meanwhile some of the disenchanted parents whose children were enrolled in 201 decided that since they were stuck with the school they might as well run it themselves. The famous disorders followed in which the white principal was forced to leave and the Board, since it was no longer a matter of offending the white parents and in order to avoid any further trouble in the ghetto, more or less capitulated to the militant Negroes. Shortly thereafter the Ford Foundation proposed that 201 become the pivot of a partly autonomous Harlem school district whose budget would be augmented by Ford. Ford also decided to finance two other “demonstration” districts, one in lower Manhattan and the other in Brooklyn, as further experiments in local autonomy. The school administration accepted these plans, partly in the spirit that, for the time being at least, it was getting rid of a headache, and perhaps also on the assumption that these “demonstration” districts would, like most other attempts at reconstruction within the system, come to nothing. Furthermore the Board had no choice. The alternative to capitulation was open warfare. The Bundy Report soon followed with its proposal that the authority of the central Board be severely reduced throughout the city.3

The question remains, however, whether the Report and its subsequent modifications make sense in themselves: whether local autonomy offers a real solution to the crisis in public education. The answer goes beyond the question of who runs the school system, for the ultimate problem is not whether black officials replace white ones but whether the children will learn more in a system administered by several black school boards than in one dominated by a single, impotent white board. Unfortunately neither the Bundy Report nor the Regents’ plan gives us much to go on, for they neglect to show how the inertia at headquarters leads to the disasters in the classrooms, or whether there are any meaningful links between the two phenomena at all.

As a result it is unclear how a formally decentralized system, replacing the present anarchy, based upon decaying, but still potent, traditions of mutual self-interest, will stimulate the 60,000 teachers, 30 percent of whom are substitutes, to outdo their present performances. Both the Bundy Plan and the Regents proposal are content to assume that once the present bureaucracy is out of the way, talents and energies which heretofore have languished will awaken and find their way, through the presumably enlightened local boards, into the schools. That the various plans fail to show how decentralization might actually affect the children and their teachers in the classrooms is perhaps understandable, since their aims are largely political: to avert a revolution by redistributing political power and jobs. But the pedagogical question remains, for it would be foolish to reorganize the system only to discover that this sort of tinkering made no difference at all; that no matter how the system were organized and no matter who got the jobs the problems in the classrooms would remain; that the real difficulty had lain in a different direction all along.

To raise such questions, however, suggests the complexity of the intersecting puzzles which the authors of the decentralization plans must have faced as they did their work; for not only had it been a matter for them of forestalling a revolution in the ghetto but of simultaneously proposing solutions to pedagogical problems which have so far perplexed nearly everyone who has tried to think about them. To have had to face these dilemmas within the sharply foreshortened perspective of America’s racial agony compounds the puzzle, so that one is amazed to consider that Mr. Bundy and his colleagues agreed to undertake their work at all. That they had also to state their conclusions in the form of legislative proposals elevates their task to a truly metaphysical level of difficulty, made still worse by the gloomy presence of an educational bureaucracy which all the forces of history, concentrated as they are on the ghettos of New York, have been powerless to budge. It may nevertheless be possible, by ignoring the legislative consequences of one’s speculations, to begin to sort out at least some of the threads in this tangled web. Perhaps the place to begin is where the Board itself feels it has failed most conspicuously: teaching the children to read.

IN NEW YORK CITY, nearly 50,000 children in the third grade, about 60 percent of the total, read so poorly that according to the Board of Education “their success in the higher grades is highly unlikely.” For thousands of New York City children, particularly in the ghetto, their failure to learn to read marks the first of a series of failures whose cumulative effect must be devastating and permanent.4 Yet, until recently, it had seemed that learning to read was a process which, despite all the fussing in the classroom over curriculum and materials, was for most children more or less automatic, like learning to walk or talk. In her recent book,5 however, Jeanne Chall, the reading specialist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has shown that this process has not been nearly so self-evident as one might have assumed. Debates over how to teach the children to read have been going on for decades, but she also shows, despite her own preference for a particular set of pedagogical tactics, that the terms of the debate have now become somewhat obscure: that on the level of theory, at least, no one really knows much about how children learn or how they should be taught.

In her useful book, Professor Chall approaches the question pedagogically—whether to teach the children phonetically, linguistically, or by the method based on the recognition of whole words, or by various combinations of the three. But her book also implies an underlying cultural question which, unfortunately for our understanding, she never adequately explores. The question which haunts Professor Chall’s book and which haunts the decentralization controversy, too, is whether a common language can be taught or learned at all, no matter what the pedagogical tactics and no matter how the schools are administered, once the children sense the hostility to their style of life and their color of an alien and overpowering environment; once they discover, in other words, that no matter how hard they try, they are unlikely ever to be accepted as genuine participants in American society.

For middle-class children of no matter what color, the impulse to learn to read has usually been strong enough to prevail over even the whimsical pedagogy which Professor Chall so scrupulously describes. For these children the classroom seems not so much the place where they are taught as where they teach themselves, through their intrinsic curiosity and ambition, while their teachers stimulate and direct the process. It is only later, when some of these middle-class children grow unsure of the goals and values of their schools, that their enthusiasm for the classroom diminishes and they no longer respond to the curriculum and the teachers. As Edgar Friedenberg, among others, has shown, these middle-class adolescents, when they become disaffected with their schools, grow irritable or aggressively conform, depending on their individual characters, or they drop out. Extreme cases withdraw, or become violent or assertively break the law.

For many ghetto children, versions of these pathologies seem to occur almost from the beginning of school and, though it would be wrong to press the analogy, it may not be unreasonable to suspect that these elementary school “dropouts,” like their counterparts among middle-class adolescents, are rejecting, in ways that hardly suggest a failure of intelligence or sensitivity on their part, a culture which refuses to take them or their parents seriously as human beings and as citizens. For many of these children the recognition that they represent an arbitrarily diminished category within the life of the city may occur for the first time in the classroom where they begin to encounter the rituals and temptations, but also the rigors, of middle-class life, and where they discover—no matter what color their teachers or principals may be—the discouraging truth of their special status.

IN SUGGESTING that the ghettos now run their own schools, the advocates of decentralization seem to acknowledge this problem and to suggest that if the children cannot learn from a dominant and hostile white culture, perhaps they can learn from a specialized and more congenial culture of their own. Yet there is something disingenuous or romantic about this idea, for in its struggles with white prejudice the racial under class in America has produced not an assured and functioning alternative to the dominant culture but a depleted and anguished version of it whose corrosive effects on the parents are often pathetically reflected in the confused and alienated children. It is unclear from the decentralization proposals how, under such social circumstances, a formally decentralized school system will generate among the children of the ghetto the faith that their efforts in the classroom will be rewarded by a chance to take part as responsible citizens in a country which welcomes and will reward their loyalty and trust.

It is not, after all, as if the residents of the ghetto were, like the Algerians or Cubans, the rightful owners of their own country who had only to get rid of their foreign exploiters to return to their own culture and develop their own economy. For all the talk about racial separatism and Black Power, the Negroes are inevitably trapped in America, so intricately caught in the tragedy of its racist history that there seems literally no way for them to disentangle themselves. Unlike the other ethnic minorities, the Negroes are without even the dubious resource of cosmopolitanism. They may learn to speak Swahili and think of themselves as Yorubas or Muslims, but culturally the majority remains quintessentially American—the one ingredient in the melting pot which seems actually to have melted—and their special characteristics are largely those of the urban American under class, alienated now even from the remnants of the plantation culture which they knew in the South.

Though the teachers may evade this lesson in their classrooms—indeed the curriculum requires them to with its talk of brotherhood and the achievements of those Negroes who have managed to transcend the system—there is no evading the fact, for the truth is as plain as the streets of Harlem and as crushing. Though Negro principals responsible to Negro boards of education may in some way mitigate or postpone the discovery they can hardly invalidate it, for the brutal poverty of the American ghettos must be obvious to the Children and profoundly degrading. No matter who runs the schools, the most poignant lesson to be learned in the ghetto is despair, which, as it deepens, paralyzes the mind and will. It is a process which seems for thousands of children already to be well advanced by the third grade.

Yet to leave the question at this point is to abandon not only the ghetto but the city itself to catastrophe, for the fate of the one is inextricably bound to that of the other. Whatever Black Power may mean in a positive sense, its negative meaning is clear enough, for the ghettos by their very presence—quite apart from the possibilities of violence—imply the end of urban society. The 50,000 third-graders now languishing in their class-rooms are a burden which the next generation of taxpayers can hardly support, not only in the form of increased welfare costs, police protection, and other social services but in the loss to the city’s economy of much of its future working and tax-paying population. Businesses which depend upon a predictable supply of trained personnel have already begun to leave the city, and though new office buildings continue to go up, the money-lenders have become apprehensive. Yet it is astonishing that most of the city’s commercial and financial leadership remains so indifferent to this impending threat to its own interests, for it takes no great sophistication to project the future cost to the city’s economy of the failure of its public school system. At the rate of $3,000 a year in direct and indirect costs to support a person on welfare, the 50,000 third-graders whose failure the Board has predicted, will, when they come of age, cost the public $150 million a year, assuming that for every child who grows up to escape the ghetto there is another who has escaped the Board’s statistical estimate. To this annual sum must be added the cost of the second grade, the first, and the grades yet to come, to say nothing of the loss to the city of the productive capacity of such vast numbers of its citizens.

Perhaps the city will survive the summers that are immediately ahead, but it is unlikely to survive an economy that seems about to go into reverse, as the city’s faltering revenues are increasingly absorbed by a largely unproductive population. Last year the city’s budget for social services was $1,071,000,000. This year the budget will be $1,390,000,000, an increase of nearly 30 percent. Under such pressure the city’s tax base is certain to erode as middle-class tax-payers, unable to support such rapidly accumulating burdens, move out, and as businesses, unable to staff their offices, follow them to the suburbs. In such circumstances it makes no difference that much of the city’s welfare budget will eventually be supported by federal funds. The fact is that such costs are, in themselves, unsupportable. The failure of the third grade obviously is a disaster to which the proprietors of the city should quickly turn their attention, for if the children of the ghettos are trapped in a dance of death, their dancing partners are the holders of the city’s mortgages, the owners of its utilities, the beneficiaries of its bridges and tunnels, and the rulers of its commerce. For the ideologists of Black Power to talk of coalitions with the working class seems beside the point. Their appropriate allies are the city’s power elite.

Yet when one searches for the flesh and blood which constitutes such an elite one finds instead a sociological abstraction much as one finds, in searching for the true manipulators of Black Power, a political abstraction. It is not simply the Board of Education whose power now seems to have become fragmented and its authority hollow, but the city itself which no longer appears capable of protecting its own interests.

The advocates of decentralization are obviously correct to assume that the pedagogical problems which afflict the schools are ultimately political problems; that the children will not learn to read, will not accept the confinements of civilization and the responsibilities of citizenship, until a substantial shift of power has taken place within the city. But the proposal that power be shifted from a moribund Board of Education to the political leaders of the ghetto is a pale and inadequate imitation of the kinds of bargains that have to be struck and the amounts of power that have to be exchanged. The children will hardly accept the rules of civilization so long as they know that there are no places for them in it, that they must therefore live outside the culture of the city not only as its victims but, actively or passively, as its antagonists. One has only to visit a middle-class schoolroom to sense the strength of will required of the children to sit in their chairs by after day, year after year, and pay attention to the largely trivial curriculum, nor is it conceivable that such powerful restraints can be imposed for long by the authority of the teachers and the institution. It is only the child himself, sensing that failure in school implies failure in life, who can set such rules and find the interior strength to obey them. Now and then it is superficially charming, amid the anguished poverty of a ghetto school, to find this restraint occasionally missing and the children apparently gayer, more spontaneous—one would have to say brighter—than their middle-class counterparts. Yet the charm fades, as one bitterly wonders whether the source of this gaiety may not lie in the recognition by the children—often reinforced by their teachers—that because they are black they have failed already and further effort is useless: that the systematic restraints by which, for better or worse, middle-class character is formed, are for them irrelevant. Obviously it will take more than a few black elementary school principals to offset the despair which now encloses these children. It will take something as powerful as the knowledge that they will one day come of age and inherit the society in their own right, a recognition which most white children have never lacked, yet which may, at last, turn out to have been a delusion unless their black neighbors come to share it with them.

IN SUCH CIRCUMSTANCES it is disappointing that the legislature has so far greeted decentralization so diffidently, for whatever its pedagogical inadequacies it supplies a beginning and a model which, with vigorous leadership, might be exploited further. Perhaps one day it might be possible to turn other city institutions over to black leadership—the ghetto police precincts, for example, or the public utilities or the enormously powerful Transit Authority, even the bridges and tunnels and the housing and redevelopment agencies which imply control of the city’s construction industries and therefore of its traditionally segregated trade unions and their rich pension funds.

Recently the State of New York established a Metropolitan Commuter Transport Authority to bring the metropolitan area’s several transport facilities together within a single agency. A generation ago such an agency would probably have been put in the hands of that consummate power broker, Robert Moses, who would have known exactly how to distribute its incidental blessings, in the form of jobs, contracts, and accumulated cash reserves for further investment, among the job-lot power brokers who have for years dominated the city’s political and institutional life. It would, of course, be naïve to assume that Governor Rockefeller had much freedom to decide who was to run the new Transport Authority, particularly the freedom to cross the city’s well-defended ethnic barriers. Yet what might have happened had this powerful public trust been given to the authentically black leaders of the ghettos instead of to the white politicians to whom the Governor, as a matter of course, has handed it over?

That black leadership may have little experience in planning public transportation is beside the point. Moses didn’t know much about it himself, as anyone knows who has tried to negotiate the Long Island Expressway at rush hour or has waited in traffic on the Triboro Bridge while his plane takes off from Kennedy Airport without him. Mass transportation in New York could hardly be worse, and the proposals offered by the new Transport Authority don’t promise any improvement. Yet just as the school system may be seen as primarily a source of employment for a certain class of citizens rather than mainly as a means of educating the children, so the transport network may be seen as primarily a means of enfranchising and stabilizing another substantial element of the population rather than mainly a means of moving people from one place to another. As for where and how the new roads and subway tunnels are to be built, black leadership can hire the same planners and engineers that white administrators can hire, while from the point of view of achieving political stability the blacks have an incalculable advantage. By distributing the power of such an agency among their own constituencies, these black leaders can generate the positive meanings which Black Power now lacks and which it can never achieve through violence alone.

At first glance the political costs to the Governor of such a radical transfer of power might seem suicidal, as it might have seemed suicidal for the ancien régime to invite the leaders of the Jacobins to supervise the treasury at Versailles. Had he issued such an invitation, however, Louis XVI and his friends and relatives might have died with their heads on, while the history of France would probably have turned out no differently had the spectacular violence of the Revolution been avoided. The present monarchy, based on an enfranchised bourgeoisie, would most likely have to come to pass in any event.

If such proposals might have seemed whimsical in 1798 and only slightly less whimsical in 1917, perhaps we have by now lived with revolution long enough to find them no longer really whimsical at all. It was not, after all, such a disaster for the Yankee proprietors of Boston to turn their public institutions over—no matter how reluctantly—to the relatively uncultivated heirs of Ireland’s great hunger. Mr. Bundy’s own rise to power is itself an incidental consequence of his ancestors’ foresight in this regard. Clearly the question of race presents special difficulties, but nothing like the difficulties foreshadowed by the indifference of the ghetto children to the future of our common society. Nor does it make sense to say that the black communities in New York lack the political power that the Irish once had in Boston, for the blacks, in their despair and abdication, can, through their accumulating pressure on the public treasury, bring the city down. In this sense the blacks have won their revolution already. The violence which the city also faces is, from a political point of view, anti-climactic. The alternative left to the white majority is capitulation or genocide.

The discouraging obstinacy of New York’s educational bureaucracy hardly suggests that the police department, the transportation bureaucracies, or the other city agencies will prove any less reluctant to turn their powers over to the black community. Yet in the severity of the crisis there may be some hope. If there is, in fact, an American power elite, clearly the time has come for it to defend its interests against its own bureaucracies and to exploit, in ways that have nothing to do with generosity, the residual middle-class impulses which one continues to find amid the social wreckage of the ghetto. It was not, after all, Malcolm X’s plan to destroy the American middle class but to build a black version of it from the proceeds of black dry-cleaning stores and service stations. The flaw in Malcolm’s vision was its modesty. The necessary goals of Black Power are the fundamental institutions of the city itself.6 If these goals are not met, it is impossible to see how the schools can transmit their language and their culture to tens of thousands of ghetto children, and then what will be left of the city?

  1. 1

    As it is already doing in a small way through its street academies and Harlem Prep, privately supported ghetto schools whose enrollment consists mainly of public school dropouts and whose aims are to send most of these students on to college.

  2. 2

    No reform is possible in New York City until the headquarters staff and the principals are made directly accountable for their performances. Neither the Bundy plan nor the Regents’ proposal specifically provides for such direct accountability though both imply it. Middle-class parents who send their children to private schools take such accountability for granted. The headmaster’s job depends directly upon the approval of the parents represented by their trustees. The five-man Board proposed by the Regents will be effective only if it can find ways to hold the professional staff personally responsible for their performances. Under the system of tenured civil service it is hard to see how such a program of direct accountability can be implemented. Nevertheless, it should be the primary duty of any new board to assess the work of its professional staff and, in consultation with local boards, replace incompetent personnel as circumstances require.

  3. 3

    Though The New York Times supports decentralization editorially, its coverage of the experiment in decentralization at 201 has been superficial and inflammatory. By exaggerating the difficulties that the school has experienced, and continues to experience, Leonard Buder, who covers 201 for the Times, has given the impression that the community is incapable of running the school. According to Buder the legislature has been diffident toward decentralization partly because of what it has read about 201, most of which Buder has written himself. Part of the trouble, however, comes from the equivocal relationship between the local community and the central bureaucracy. Though the Board agreed to support the experiment in local control of 201, it has done little to help and much to hinder not only 201 but the two other “demonstration” districts as well. Buder’s reports emphasize the chaotic results while ignoring the Board’s obstructive tactics. 201 has thus become the exemplary victim of a system in which the central staff refuses to relinquish its powers and may even have attempted to subvert the experiments in local autonomy as it had earlier subverted desegregation. Fred Hechinger, the education editor of the Times, also supports decentralization in his articles, but warns against “extremists” who might take over if the professional staff should be removed. It is unclear, however, what Hechinger means by “extremists.”

  4. 4

    Of nearly 30,000 academic diplomas awarded to graduates of the city high schools in 1967 only 700, according to the Urban League, went to Negroes.

  5. 5

    Learning to Read, McGraw-Hill, 327 pp., $8.50.

  6. 6

    Some black leaders argue impressively that the white bureaucracies will never turn their city-wide powers over to blacks. They propose instead that black leadership concentrate on taking power within the ghettos themselves and running them, in effect, as separate cities. There is much to be said for this idea, but how will the autonomous ghettos finance their independent economies without external support? There are few public institutions within the ghettos capable of producing investment capital, whereas such city-wide or metropolitan institutions as mass transport typically generate quantities of new capital for further development. No wonder their proprietors hang on to them so jealously. It will not be enough for blacks to control their essentially dependent ghettos if whites do not recognize their self-interest in capitalizing black communities through public or semi-public institutions.