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The Ocean Hill Battle

In response to:

The Issue at Ocean Hill from the November 21, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

After reading Jason Epstein’s article on “The Battle of Ocean Hill” in your November 21 issue, several frightening thoughts have come to mind:

First, how easy it is for a facile writer to spin a theory based mainly on conjecture and hearsay and corroborated only by an anonymous crank letter.

Second, how easily the New York Civil Liberties Union pamphlet “The Burden of Blame” has become today’s unexamined and frequently quoted proof of an original theory having little or no relationship to the facts in the case. It is now easier to understand how an earlier document entitled “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” remained for so many years an “authoritative source” for those who wished it to be so.

Third, how easy it is to repeat such unsubstantiated statements as, “Hundreds of such transfers take place every year…” and thus look so very knowledgeable. It now becomes easier to comprehend how Sen. Joseph McCarthy was able to do so much damage by his repeated, unsubstantiated charges about the large number of communists employed in the State Department.

Epstein suggests that the teachers’ strike is a maneuver to publicize the name of Albert Shanker so that he can get the votes of organized labor, civil servants, and some aged socialists in his bid for the mayoralty. This is on a par with the following suggestion: Jason Epstein publishes articles in defense of Ocean Hill in order to spread his name around so that he can garner the votes of Negroes, Puerto Ricans, and foundation executives in a future bid for public office.

A brief look at another of Epstein’s ex cathedra fabrications: He asserts that there are signs “that even the Central Labor Council has begun to withdraw its support from the UFT.” What signs? A Daily News headline? The reader is supposed to believe that a dogmatic statement of this kind must be predicated on a substantial amount of evidence, otherwise it would not be made. Epstein says that the Council “ordered school custodians to reopen the schools and permit non-striking teachers to enter the classroom.” The statement bears absolutely no relationship to what actually took place. Every newspaper reader and every voter knows that the custodians reopened the schools to receive the voting machines and that the UFT removed its picket lines from the schools on Election Day to permit the election to proceed in an orderly manner.

Mr. Epstein is correct in stating that the lesson on Black Power given in Junior High 35 was incorrectly described as one given in Junior High 271. Having found one single fact that does fit his theoretical design, he makes much ado about it. But how is it possible to discuss the issue without referring to intimidation, harassment, and threats of violence in some serious fashion. The only fact that Epstein has to pin on this score is that the principals did not “discourage the hostility…which, as it happened, was nothing more than verbal…” I gather that harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence are permissible practices in a school setting, provided, of course, they stop short of actual physical attack. I venture to say that Mr. Epstein is better at using words and spinning theories than he is at understanding the nature of an educational atmosphere that is conducive to learning.

Toward the close of his piece, Mr. Epstein attributes the difficulties we faced this Fall, to the “legislative refusal, at Mr. Shanker’s urging, to enact decentralization last Spring.” Where in the world did the present thirty-three districts secure their decentralization powers except from the Marchi bill passed by the legislature last Spring? Here too, Mr. Epstein found it convenient to avoid those facts for fear they would not conform to his generalized theory.

There were several bills dealing with decentralization in the legislative hopper last year. One was supported by the Mayor, another by the Board of Regents and there were several others falling in between. One of these was the Marchi bill, which finally was adopted, at the urging of Mr. Shanker. It is significant that Mr. Epstein fails to take cognizance of McGeorge Bundy’s recent admission that he and his Ford Foundation were pushing the issue much too quickly.

Finally, let me say that the officials and members of the UFT, along with other citizens and Mr. Epstein, are also disturbed about the polarization that has developed around the issue. We are aware of the fact that everyone concerned with public education will have to work most diligently to heal the wounds in order to restructure the school system, campaign for adequate budgets, develop fruitful teacher-training programs and new curricula. It is in this spirit that when the teachers returned to school on two previous occasions, Mr. Shanker announced to his assembled delegates that:

I think we would make a mistake if we enter into this with a spirit of victory over Ocean Hill-Brownsville and Rhody McCoy. I don’t view it that way and I hope nobody will…. McCoy and the Governing Board are trying to do something in that district…we have to enter into this thing with spirit, not to gloat over a victory, but to make the whole thing work.”

He went on to say that the Union extended the hand of friendship to the parents and community in Ocean Hill-Brownsville and elsewhere in order to develop a cooperative spirit for the improvement of education in the City of New York.

The irresponsible, unsubstantiated, glib prose produced by Jason Epstein will make this considerably more difficult.

Jules Kolodny

Secretary

United Federation of Teachers

New York City

Jason Epstein replies:

Mr. Genn writes that labor is in no position to nominate or influence the nomination of a mayoral candidate in New York City. Maybe so, but in the statement of September 26 issued by the Central Labor Council, which he advises me to read, I find that Peter Prennan, President of the Building Trades Council, urges the election of Hubert Humphrey and asks union members to “stop talking nonsense” in expressing support for other candidates. To judge by what happened to Mr. Humphrey, Mr. Genn is probably right about labor’s impotence in these matters. Yet Mr. Brennan isn’t ready to give up. But I didn’t say that the Central Labor Council was going to elect the next mayor of New York City, only that it seemed determined to destroy Mayor Lindsay and would like to see, in Lindsay’s place, a candidate more congenial to its own interests, and why not? Surely Mr. Shanker would qualify as such a candidate, and while the strike was on he seemed to have more than enough backlash support to swamp Lindsay, had he been running against him as the Democratic candidate.

Mr. Genn says that protecting the jobs of its members was precisely not what prompted the Central Labor Council to support the UFT, but Mr. Mitchell disagrees. In this case, I think, Mr. Mitchell has the better of the argument. Why else would the Central Labor Council support the UFT if not, as Mr. Mitchell says, “to protect the tenure of its plumbers, electricians, etc?” Where Mr. Kolodny, Mr. Mitchell, and Mr. Genn do agree is that the custodians were sent back only in order to open the schools for election day. But here the facts are against them. The custodians went back on election day and have stayed ever since. Their return represented the first break in the strike and supplied the clue that Shanker would soon capitulate, as he did, despite objections from a number of UFT delegates who presumably wanted to hold out for Shanker’s original demand: that the Ocean Hill experiment be destroyed. As the strike wore on, the UFT may have become more trouble to the Central Labor Council than the issues in the strike were worth. The forthcoming Republican majorities in the state legislature had begun talking about stiffening the state’s Taylor Law, which prohibits strikes of public employees, and the strike itself had become so obviously a conflict between black parents and white teachers that the black unions within the Central Labor Council were threatening to split off. The headline in the Daily News (“Labor Bigs Put Heat on Shanker to Settle”) to which Mr. Kolodny refers is followed by a denial by Harry Van Arsdale, President of the Central Labor Council, that he was “pressuring Shanker” to end the strike. But Van Arsdale then said “it is true that the national, state and city labor leaders are very concerned about this situation and are bending every effort to help resolve the situation and get the children back into the schools.” So maybe Van Arsdale was “pressuring Shanker” after all.

Mr. Shanker has now urged his union to resort to what he calls “guerrilla tactics” in its struggle against decentralization. This may explain some of the difficulties that have recently arisen in Ocean Hill and in Harlem’s 201 District. In both districts there have been disputes over aspects of the makeshift terms on which the strike was settled. In Ocean Hill the principals of three schools were temporarily relieved of their duties pending a decision by the State Court of Appeals concerning the legality of their appointments. Since it is unusual under American law to deprive a man of his rights while his case is under review, it might be argued that these principals have been denied due process. The Ocean Hill Governing Board, whose own legal status is under judicial review, has demanded that these principals be reinstated, at least until their cases are finally disposed of. The issue is more than simply procedural. The UFT teachers who were returned to Ocean Hill when the strike was settled have been squabbling with their non-striking colleagues and it is important that the principals be on hand to maintain decorum. Partly because its principal was one of the three who had been suspended, JHS 271 in the Ocean Hill complex had to be closed down temporarily, and before it could be reopened there had arisen a serious conflict between Rhody McCoy, the unit administrator of the Ocean Hill district, and the representative of the State Education Commission who had been appointed to oversee the district in the aftermath of the strike.

In the 201 district a dispute has erupted over whether to keep the schools open on certain school holidays as provided in the strike settlement so as to permit the teachers to make up the pay they lost during the strike. Since the 201 schools remained open during the strike, the local governing board sees no reason to deprive the children of their holidays. Nine teachers, however, who had been on strike are insisting that they be permitted to make up the extra time and the dispute has now become so bitter that the governing board no longer wants these teachers in the district. Since the Superintendent of Schools and his truculent deputy, Nathan Brown, have insisted that the teachers remain in the district, the governing board has reluctantly asked the parents to keep their children away from the school to which these teachers are assigned, and nearly all the parents have complied. At this moment the situation is a stand-off, though it is likely that if Mr. Shanker would abandon his “guerrilla tactics” in this instance and if the bureaucrats at headquarters would use a little common sense, the crisis could be overcome.

Whatever happens in the experimental districts, it is unlikely that Mr. Shanker will resume his strike, especially since the last one failed to achieve its purpose, that is, the destruction of Ocean Hill. Furthermore, the current UFT contract will expire this spring and Mr. Shanker has apparently decided to hold the threat of a new strike in abeyance in the interest of the contract negotiations that will soon get under way. Shanker’s manner in the past few weeks has been considerably more statesmanlike than in the past. The union has stopped distributing anti-Semitic leaflets to its members as it had been doing during the strike when it was trying to show that decentralization was, in part, an anti-Semitic conspiracy on the part of black militants. (Mr. Mitchell denies that these documents were fraudulent, as I maintained they were. Mr. Kolodny admits that of the two handbills I referred to, one was “incorrect.” So was the other.) And the union has been relatively silent on the subject of due process, the issue with which it roused the fear among its members that decentralization would mean that thousands of teachers would arbitrarily lose their jobs.

Despite the continuing troubles in Ocean Hill and in the 201 district there is a feeling in the air of detente, inspired perhaps partly by exhaustion. Much of the difficulty this fall arose from the failure on the part of the legislature to clarify the legal status of the experimentally decentralized districts, particularly with respect to the powers of these districts to select their own personnel. In these confused circumstances it is probably true, as Judge Travia has ruled, that the locally elected governing boards have limited, if any, legal authority (when Travia was in the legislature last year he helped see to it that the experimental boards would be powerless); and that the locally appointed principals, under a strict interpretation of the law, may have been appointed illegally, as the Appellate Division has ruled. On the other hand, the governing boards were elected by a majority of the voters in an election sanctioned by the Central Board of Education; the principals, whatever their status under the civil service law, have amply demonstrated their competence and decentralization itself has proven to be, if not an unqualified success, at least a plausible attempt to supply an alternative to the disastrous situation in which the public schools have fallen in the past few years.

It is time, obviously, to bring the law more nearly in line with reality, which would include not only provision for local districts to run their own schools but protection for teachers and other personnel against the arbitrary use of local power. To argue as advocates of the present system have done that the education laws may not be bent to conform with social reality is to argue against the need for legislatures themselves. Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Kolodny must know that they are disingenuous when they write that the UFT supports decentralization. The Marchi Bill, for which Mr. Shanker lobbied last spring, provided mainly that the legal basis for decentralization be held in abeyance for another year. That year will soon be up and, under the Marchi Bill, the Central Board of Education is now about to submit to the legislature proposals for permanent decentralization. In supporting last year’s Marchi Bill Mr. Shanker was, in effect, rejecting, for as long as he could, a permanent decentralization plan, perhaps in the hope that the strike he was planning for this fall would discourage the legislature from accepting decentralization in any form.

It is unlikely that Mr. Shanker has abandoned his opposition to genuine decentralization, especially a version of decentralization which would lead to community control of the schools. It is even less likely that the membership of the UFT would let him abandon his opposition even if he wanted to. On the other hand, Ocean Hill has clearly survived the UFT’s fall and winter offensive and probably cannot be stormed hereafter by any of the means at Mr. Shanker’s disposal, though like any outpost it can always collapse for internal reasons. Ocean Hill may therefore become the model for school decentralization throughout the city and perhaps in other cities as well. The Washington D.C. branch of the American Federation of Teachers, for example, supports Ocean Hill and would like to see the Washington system decentralized along similar lines. There have been signs in the past few weeks that Mr. Shanker (despite his advocacy of “guerrilla tactics”), if not his more militant followers, may be ready to capitulate to reality and work, no matter how reluctantly, with the legislature, the mayor, the Board of Education, and the leaders of the affected communities to provide a reasonable legal basis for decentralization when the legislature meets early in the year.

At the moment Mr. Shanker has, predictably, criticized the decentralization plan drawn up by the Central Board for submission to the State legislature. It remains to be seen whether Shanker will now come up with a plausible modification or whether he will do as he did last year and, in the spirit of nihilism, block the Central Board, the Board of Regents, and the more enlightened members of legislature in their attempt to save public education in New York City.

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