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 …

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