Whatever the outcome of the New York City school strike, the conflicting interests which caused it are irreconcilable. The city will have either to transform its public school system radically, which seems unlikely, or find that it has no school system at all, in which event it will be up to the parents themselves to contrive alternative ways to educate their children. Since the crisis in New York reflects a conflict within public education generally, it is of more than merely local interest to try to understand what the problem really is.
On the one hand there has arisen over the past ten years or so an indeterminate but substantial and articulate minority of parents, mainly but not exclusively from the ghettos, who are convinced that the public schools are incompetent and cannot be reformed by their present personnel: that furthermore many teachers are indifferent to their pupils while some are even hostile or brutal toward them. These teachers are protected by their union, the United Federation of Teachers, so that a parent who feels that his child has been ignored or abused is unlikely to get much satisfaction if he pleads his case through conventional channels. Through years of negotation with the Board of Education the UFT has established principles of collective bargaining and job security so that during a recent five-year period, according to the New York Post, fewer than fifty teachers out of a total of 60,000 have been fired from the system, even though by the third grade some 60 percent of the children are doing so poorly that their chances for success in the higher grades, according to the Board of Education, are unlikely. The teachers are inclined to blame this on the children, saying that they are unteachable. The parents, understandably, see the case differently.
On the other hand there are the teachers themselves, protected in the present crisis not only by their union but by the tenured supervisory staff of principals and other administrators who have for their part built their own defenses over the years through civil service, political alignments, and elaborate, if informal, traditions of mutual support within their own bureaucracies. These teachers and supervisors argue that they are doing the best they can: that the number of children from broken homes, from backgrounds that are “culturally deprived” and who reflect the anger of their parents toward white teachers makes their work impossible.
This hostility between the embittered parents and the defensive teachers has been growing for years, sustained partly by a temporizing Board of Education whose conventional liberalism had kept it from seeing that the confrontation, when it finally came, would be revolutionary and would not respond to the expedient manipulations on which it had so far relied. The immediate cause of the present strike, for example, was the decision of a group of schools in the Brooklyn ghetto to fire nineteen teachers who, for whatever reasons, were unacceptable to the local governing board which had been chosen by …