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The Politics of School Decentralization

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. 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.

  2. 5

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

  3. 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.

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