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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.

Undoubtedly there have been expressions of anti-Semitism on the part of various black demagogues, and as the largely Jewish UFT insists on pitting its strength against the black community there will be more. Yet it seems to have become the policy of the union, whenever such slanders have been committed by blacks, to amplify them in a way that suggests that the Nuremberg Rallies are about to be resumed in the Abyssinian Baptist Church. It is, to say the least, irresponsible for the UFT to fill the mails with unsubstantiated anti-Semitic statements of black militants, while obscuring the fact that in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville experimental district nearly 75 percent of the teachers are white and more than half of these are Jewish.

Yet there is a sense in which the prerogatives of Jewish teachers and administrators are, in fact, jeopardized by decentralization, for the majority of New York City teachers do happen to be Jewish and the administrative staff is run largely by Jewish officials who have managed to exclude from their ranks significant numbers of recruits from other ethnic groups. This situation unfair as it may have been, would not have proven intolerable had the proprietors of the system not failed, in the words of the Association of Chairmen in the New York City Schools, “to solve one major problem—successfully coping with the educational needs of disadvantaged children.” This, of course, puts it mildly, for the failure has been calamitous for the children and for the city itself, while the argument by the administrators that the fault is not their own but has to do with the “cultural deprivation” of the students only emphasizes how unwilling these people are even to acknowledge the inadequacy of their instructional programs. That these administrators are protected by an accumulation of state laws, civil service regulations, and union agreements from having to account to the public, including the parents whose children attend their schools, serves, in many cases, less to strengthen their resolve through the knowledge that their jobs are secure than to increase their insularity. The effect of decentralization will be to make these administrators accountable, through the local governing boards, to the communities which they are hired to serve. For this reason the Council of Supervisory Associations, which represents the principals and other administrators, having warned its members last year that decentralization was terrifying in its implications for “white teachers,” has joined with the UFT to fight local control.

It may, at first, seem strange that teachers and principals should be so concerned for each other’s welfare. Their feelings, however, become intelligible within the context of the systems of preferment by which favored teachers are typically rewarded in their schools and by which the more ambitious teachers are advanced upward, through the administrative hierarchy, until they become principals themselves. The mechanism which governs this hierarchy is known, disingenuously, as the merit system. It was installed, in the early years of the century, to replace the method by which principals were appointed according to their political connections. But the merit system and the Board of Examiners which enforces it, have become a political clubhouse in their own right whose procedures have been criticized for years by observers of the system and by a former chairman of the Board of Examiners itself, the late Isidore Bogen.

It was the decision by the Ocean Hill Governing Board to appoint principals who, though they were qualified by the standards of the State of New York, were not among those on the list supplied by the Board of Examiners, that prompted a group of union teachers in the Ocean Hill schools to break with the local governing board, which, until that time, they had supported. These teachers were part of the group which the governing board later decided to transfer on the grounds that they were attempting to sabotage the experimental district. It is reasonable to assume that this group included a number of teachers who were counting upon the traditional system of preferment to assure their future advancement and who felt, for whatever reasons, that they were less likely to advance if their fate were left to the locally elected governing board. A condition which the city’s striking teachers have demanded before they abandon their strike is that the locally appointed principals in Ocean Hill be suspended. Yet the main charge brought by the union against these principals is that they did not discourage the hostility of certain members of the regular Ocean Hill faculty—which, as it happens, was nothing more than verbal—toward the returning teachers.1 The principals themselves, most of whom are black, though one is Puerto Rican and another Chinese, give the impression of calm but determined seriousness, and their schools, when one visits them, lack the feeling, so common in New York City ghetto schools, of superheated aviaries, fetid, caged and shrill, but suggest a kind of purposeful gaiety, derived partly no doubt from knowing that they are parts of an embattled outpost on whose survival so much of the future depends.

Mr. Marvin Mandell has asked, apropos my earlier article, three questions which seem to me of considerable importance. He asks first whether part of the problem isn’t to spend more money than we now do on the public schools, to which the answer is obviously yes. On the other hand, to spend such sums through the present school system would most likely produce no better results than we have now. Dedicated principals in a number of New York City schools have produced good results on normal New York City school budgets. Incompetent principals with supplementary budgets supplied through various experimental programs have produced inferior results. The point is first to change the system structurally so that principals and teachers can apply their talents and energies without interference from the central bureaucracy and without having to satisfy a merit system which encourages procedural regularity while ignoring or even penalizing individual performance.

Mr. Mandell also asks whether the decentralized boards should not provide for some kind (his italics) of due process when seeking to fire teachers, to which the answer is again yes. This is precisely what the Ocean Hill board attempted to do when it asked Superintendent of Schools Donovan to establish the limits of its power with respect to the central board. When Donovan, according to the report of the Civil Liberties Union, refused to do this, the governing board took matters into its own hands by requesting the transfer of the unwanted teachers under the central board’s own by-laws. It was Donovan’s refusal to apply these by-laws in the case of the Ocean Hill transfers that precipitated much of the current confusion. In practice, of course, a governing board which whimsically fired teachers whom the parents knew to be competent and retained teachers who were notoriously incompetent would not remain in office long. One would have to be remarkably innocent of black communities to suppose, for example, that ghetto parents would stand for schools which taught nothing but African history at the expense of reading and arithmetic.

Finally Mr. Mandell asks whether decentralization can’t lead, in reactionary white neighborhoods, to the harassment of black or radical teachers, to which the answer must be that insofar as this is likely to happen it is probably happening, in such neighborhoods, already. On the other hand, there are nearly 900 decentralized school districts throughout the state of New York, and throughout the country there are thousands. New York City’s monstrously centralized system is an anomaly. Its headquarters staff of more than 3,000 administrators, assistants, clerks, and hangers-on serves no purpose whatever except to maintain its own unnecessary survival. When its procedures are not merely useless, they are destructive and costly. For example, principals are required to order classroom supplies, including books, early in April for delivery the following September. They are expected to submit their requests to the central bureau of supplies on complicated forms which are then transferred to even more intricate forms by the central bureau during the summer. By September orders are sent from this bureau to the various suppliers throughout the country who then spend their own time and money untangling the elaborate forms so that they can at last send the materials out to the schools, usually sometime in December or January. Since principals are presumably mature men, well paid for their positions of trust and authority, one wonders why they are not permitted simply to buy whatever they need, whenever they need it, directly from the supplier. But then what would happen to the hundreds of bureaucrats who make their livings in the bureau of supplies?

Meanwhile another bureau compiles lists of materials that are eligible for purchase by the principals while still another supplies information which tells the teachers how to use the books and other gear which, thanks to the bureau of supplies, are unlikely to arrive until they are no longer needed. In the midst of this chaos, there is even a bureau in charge of innovation and another bureau to dispose of innovations that have amounted to nothing, including a project, abandoned last year, to “Utilize the ukulele to help bring reading success to reluctant readers through attitudinal change.”

To dispense with this nonsense is what decentralization is about and much of the uproar against it arises from the bureaucrats who will be dispensed with as well. But decentralization also means community control, and community control means that blacks and Puerto Ricans will control millions of dollars with which to hire not only the teachers but the contractors and the architects, the plumbers and electricians, to say nothing of the custodians and the teamsters, who have, up to now, been able to make their favored arrangements with the central bureaucracy. This is what has brought the city’s Central Labor Council into the struggle and this is why the UFT has chosen to close the city’s schools to their million students in order to crush an experimental district which, for its own part, shows every sign of succeeding. All of this is discouraging enough. What is outrageous is the apparently successful effort by the UFT to arouse among its members the fear that from New York’s pathetic ghettos there has arisen a monster which threatens not simply the jobs of the trade unionists but the very lives of the city’s Jews.

Yet, it seems possible that Mr. Shanker, as of this writing, has overreached himself. In committing the UFT to the defense of an educational system whose only supporters are to be found among its own employees, Shanker has brought his union in conflict not only with the collective will of the blacks and Puerto Ricans, but with the views of the Mayor, the majority of the Board of Education, the State Commissioner of Education, and an increasing body of enlightened opinion within the city which feels that decentralization is a necessary development and that the highly promising Ocean Hill experiment, under the deliberate and sophisticated leadership of Mr. McCoy, must be allowed to continue. But how, given the passions which he has aroused among his members, can Shanker capitulate to the reality of his circumstances without destroying his own position in the bargain? There have been signs, in the last few days, that even the Central Labor Council has begun to withdraw its support from the UFT. It has, for example, ordered union school custodians to re-open the schools and permit non-striking teachers to enter their classrooms. The strike, from everyone’s point of view, has continued long enough.

The State Commissioner has now proposed—and may soon mandate—that the Ocean Hill district shall become a direct ward of the state, a position supported by the Mayor, the Board of Education, and the Ocean Hill Governing Board. The Commissioner has guaranteed to return the so-called “unwanted” Ocean Hill teachers to their classrooms under state supervision and the Ocean Hill Governing Board has agreed to take them back. The UFT, if it continues to reject the Commissioner’s proposal, is thus not only likely to be isolated politically but to lose the ostensible issue on which it struck. Mr. Shanker, having aroused the least admirable passions of his followers and promised them a victory which events are unlikely to provide, may have put himself in the position of poor Napoleon, who, having encouraged his troops to abandon common sense and human feeling, could not withdraw beyond the Vistula and then found himself with no choice but to cross the Niemen into Russia. Unless he reconsiders in mid-stream, it could be a long, snowy winter for Mr. Shanker and his union.2

Letters

The Ocean Hill Battle January 16, 1969

The Ocean Hill Battle January 16, 1969

The Ocean Hill Battle January 16, 1969

  1. 1

    Another union charge was that the returning teachers were not given regular classroom assignments but instead were assigned to certain duties which in the jargon of the schools are known as “other than teaching positions,” or OTP. Normally these positions are coveted by a majority of classroom teachers since they give relief from the burdens of everyday classroom work. For this and other reasons, it would seem that the complaints of the union in this respect are disingenuous.

  2. 2

    Having rejected the proposal of the State Commissioner, the union is now counting on Governor Rockefeller to call a special session of the state legislature. The legislature can dissolve the Ocean Hill board and suspend Mr. McCoy, but these formalities have already been undertaken by the city Board of Education, to no avail. McCoy and the board not only represent the Ocean Hill community, but in a curious way they embody it. To dispose of McCoy and the board would require that somehow or other the community itself be disposed of first, perhaps by bussing its 9,000 school children, and their parents, to New Jersey. The legislature can also remove the central Board of Education and require Mayor Lindsay to appoint a new one. But Lindsay is unlikely to appoint a new board which will satisfy Mr. Shanker. In the long run, of course, the legislature can reject decentralization altogether. But even this is unlikely to mean much, for the moment has apparently arrived for urban education to change its institutional form, with all that this implies for the transformation of the ghetto. The legislature, in its blindness, may refuse to ratify what history and the failure of public education in New York seem already to have decreed, and Mr. Shanker will no doubt work hard and pay large sums this winter, as he did last spring, to see that it does so. The chaos this fall is the result of the legislature’s refusal, at Mr. Shanker’s urging, to enact decentralization last spring. Who can say what chaos will follow if, under pressure from the UFT, the legislature repeats its error this winter?

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