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The Issue at Ocean Hill

About a month ago in these pages I suggested that the conflicting interests in the New York City school strike were irreconcilable and that they raised questions of national importance. What I meant was that the city’s entrenched and decadent educational bureaucracy had come to be regarded by much of its clientele not as an aid but an obstacle to the education of a majority of the city’s children, and that for many New Yorkers the time had come for this bureaucracy to be dismembered and its various powers decentralized. Since the bureaucracy is largely white and the school population more than half black and Puerto Rican, the transfer of authority over budgets and personnel from the central bureaucracy to local governing boards, many of them inevitably to be controlled by blacks and Puerto Ricans, foreshadowed a revolutionary transfer of power not only within the educational system but within the economy of the city itself, with obvious implications for the country as a whole. It was to prevent this transfer that the United Federation of Teachers went on strike.

As of this writing it is still unclear how the strike will be settled, for the issues have proven to be not only persistent and deep but incendiary in ways that could not quite have been foreseen even a few weeks ago. What had begun as a conflict between a complacent educational bureaucracy and its disaffected clientele has emerged as a struggle between Jews and Negroes, in which the largely Jewish school bureaucracy finds itself allied with a broad coalition of organized civil servants and trade unionists against the blacks and Puerto Ricans, who are supported by an alliance of educational reformers, foundation executives, business leaders, and university presidents. That the city’s trade unionists seem determined to destroy Mayor Lindsay in the bargain suggests that their further aim may be to offer one of their own leaders as Lindsay’s Democratic opponent in next year’s election for mayor. Thus, for example, if Albert Shanker, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, and currently the most publicized of the city’s labor leaders, were to win the Democratic primary he would inherit as his constituency a powerful coalition of unionists, civil servants, police and firemen, construction workers and schoolteachers, Conservatives as well as Democrats, not to mention a residue of aging socialists for many of whom John Lindsay has come to seem as sinister, in his advocacy of the rights of Negroes and Puerto Ricans, as Earl Warren must seem to the supporters of George Wallace. The bitterness toward Lindsay of these groups is only superficially ideological. More than 95,000 union personnel within the school system, of whom 71,000 are pedagogical staff, are protected by fifteen separate collective bargaining agreements with the Board of Education, covering not only teachers in all categories but construction workers, cooks, custodians, etc. To transfer a portion of the city’s billion-and-a-half-dollar education budget to ghetto governing boards would, for the first time in the city’s history, put blacks and Puerto Ricans in positions of considerable power where these occupations are concerned, a matter of obvious economic interest to the city’s trade unionists.

It is easy to understand, though impossible to commend, the apprehensions of the job holders who feel not only themselves but society itself threatened by such an event. Yet the vehemence of their apprehensions, particularly among members of the United Federation of Teachers, surpasses one’s notions of what bitterness might have been expected. Thus among the many letters I received on the subject of my previous article, I was especially struck by the following, written anonymously on a greeting card which carries the slogan “Peace on Earth” and under it a woodcut by Antonio Frasconi of a field of daisies. The message inside reads: “Dear Fellow-Jew, When they come to kill the Jews they will kill you too. You won’t escape by buddying with Oliver and McCoy. Remember Germany? Hannah Ahrend [sic] was right.”

For readers who may not be familiar with the situation in New York, my incipient murderers are, of course, the blacks. Oliver and McCoy, both Negroes, are president of the governing board and the unit administrator respectively of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville experimental school district within the Brooklyn ghetto. Their decision last spring to transfer a number of teachers to other districts was the overt act which brought about the New York City strike. In my article I favored the position taken by Mayor Lindsay and State Commissioner of Education James Allen as well as by a majority of the thirteen-member New York City Board of Education: that the only hope for public education in New York City is to decentralize the city’s hopelessly clumsy school system. Indispensable to decentralization was, I suggested, the right of any local school board to choose its own faculty.

Yet when the Ocean Hill Governing Board asked that a group of teachers, who were hostile to its attempt at decentralization, be transferred to other districts, the Union objected that the teachers had been denied due process and that the collective bargaining agreement had been violated. Furthermore the Union attempted, successfully as it turned out, to create the impression that the teachers were not simply to be transferred to other districts but to be fired, presumably from the system itself. However, as the New York Civil Liberties Union has shown in a report on the subject, the question of due process is factitious. Under the by-laws of the school system a teacher may be transferred from one district to another at the discretion of the superintendent and, in fact, “hundreds of such transfers,” according to the Civil Liberties Union, “take place every year, apparently without the UFT’s objection.” Indeed, a common complaint among teachers in the city is that the Union’s grievance committee is often indifferent to teachers who feel that they have been transferred unfairly. Evidently the UFT chose to make an issue of the Ocean Hill transfers partly to discredit the experiment but mainly, by raising the question of due process and referring to the transfers as if the teachers had been fired, to terrify its membership and thus prepare the way for a major strike. According to Eva Kerr, another of my correspondents, who was present in Ocean Hill at the time,

The actual facts are as follows: in the second week of May, 350 teachers walked out of the district (without notice), and did not return. One hundred fifty of these asked for and received transfers from the central Board of Education. The remaining 200, who were working with substitute licenses, received letters at the end of June from the governing board requesting that they do not return to the district. This request was based exclusively on their dereliction of responsibility. In actual fact, they were not fired, but were asked to transfer elsewhere, without penalty, a common practice in the city schools in regard to substitute teachers. And they were not let go for “various” nebulous, capricious reasons, but simply because they left their jobs, without even troubling to advise their principals of their future intentions. A school district cannot be properly administered without teachers‌. The 100 teachers under discussion this fall are those who remain of the 200 asked not to return in June. The rest did not return September 11 with their coworkers. They have apparently decided to go elsewhere also, without advising their Ocean Hill schools‌.

Having embarked, however, on its third illegal strike of the current school year the UFT has by now begun to move beyond the question of due process to the considerably more potent issue of anti-Semitism. Like the majority of teachers in New York City, most of the teachers who were asked to transfer out of the Ocean Hill district were Jews. That they were replaced by the local governing board with teachers more than half of whom were also Jews has not kept the UFT from insinuating that black anti-Semitism is at the heart of the conflict in Ocean Hill and that if the schools are decentralized throughout the city, fanatical blacks will drive Jewish teachers by the thousands from their classrooms. Thus Silvia B. Friedlander, still another of my correspondents, scolds me and wonders whether to cancel her subscription to The New York Review because I neglected to include in my earlier article accounts of teachers, presumably black, who teach children that “policemen are pigs who kill little children or [who] lock teachers [presumably Jewish] in an auditorium and yell ‘We’ll take you out in a pine box.’ ”

Such stories have become fairly current throughout the city during the last few weeks and in trying to find their origins I have been led repeatedly back to handbills issued by the UFT and to a semi-literate weekly newspaper known as the Jewish Press which, while insisting upon its own lack of prejudice, shows a bitterness toward Negroes that recalls the attitude toward Jews of the old Brooklyn Tablet. Thus the UFT has reproduced in one of its handbills what it claims to be the “verbatim text of a leaflet distributed by the Parents’ Community Council of JHS 271 and phoned in to a union representative.” The document, supposedly written by Ralph Poynter, a well-known black militant who is a substitute Manhattan schoolteacher but who has now left the city, argues for an all black faculty and courses in African history. It turns out, however, that 271, which is in the Ocean Hill experimental district but which is now designated IS for intermediate school, has no Parents’ Community Council, and that the telephone number of this fictitious organization has a Manhattan exchange. Either Mr. Poynter had attempted to aggrandize himself by associating his views with an imaginary organization within Ocean Hill, in which case the UFT has perpetuated a fraud, or the UFT is itself the source of the fraud, which, given the present bitterness within the city and the extremity of its racial tensions, is unforgivable. To make matters worse, the “verbatim text” of Mr. Poynter’s manifesto is accompanied by an anonymous anti-Semitic diatribe of the utmost crudeness which according to the UFT was supposed to have been distributed to the teachers in two Brooklyn schools. Yet it is the UFT which has now called these materials to the attention of the city at large in an attempt to suggest that they represent the feelings of the black community generally.

Another UFT handbill shows a photograph of Leslie Campbell, a black teacher of Afro-American history at Ocean Hill’s IS 271. In this photograph he is standing beside a blackboard on which are written the words Black Power. Accompanying the photograph is an excerpt from a magazine article, in which Campbell advocates an Afro-American state. The UFT handbill states that “this excerpt is one example of what the Ocean Hill-Brownsville governing board feels is suitable curriculum for the children in that district.” A caption adds that the photograph shows “an observation of an actual lesson in JHS 271.” However, the issue of the magazine in which the photograph first appeared turns out to have been published in October, 1967, when Mr. Campbell was teaching not in Ocean Hill but at JHS 35, in a different part of Brooklyn and under the auspices of the central Board of Education.

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