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 the parents to supervise their schools. A confidential report, prepared for the Board of Education and released in the last few weeks, reveals that last spring the Board had quietly agreed to transfer the unwanted teachers out of the neighborhood if the local governing board agreed not to make the firings a matter of principle: in other words, the central Board would get the teachers out of the neighborhood if the local board did not also insist that it was within the right of any community to fire and hire teachers at its own discretion, a right which clearly conflicted with the principles of collective bargaining and job security on which not only the UFT but unionism itself depended.
THE DECISION by the local board to elevate the conflict to the point where the UFT was left with no choice but to intervene on behalf of its general membership was anything but whimsical. The antagonists in the New York school crisis are as wise to each other’s maneuvers as the members of opposing professional football teams. Though spectators may be baffled by the various strategies on the field, the participants make their moves with a practiced grace which imparts to the action a kind of predictable formality. The analogy with football breaks down in only one respect: the ball never changes hands. The parents are always on the offensive, while the teachers try to hold the line. When they fired the nineteen teachers, the Brooklyn parents and their militant leadership decided, at last, to make a rush for the goal, the goal, in this case, being the unequivocal right of the community to hire and fire its own teachers. They did not, however, go so far as to burn down the stadium, an event which is likely to occur if the local governing board is dissolved, as the UFT has urged—and as some members of the central bureaucracy would like.
There have been attempts by the press to discredit the governing board on the grounds that while it was legitimately elected by a significant majority, fewer than 25 percent of the eligible parents bothered to vote. On the other hand this is a greater proportion of voters than participates in primary elections in the same neighborhood. It has also been argued that when the cases of the nineteen teachers had been submitted to a retired Negro judge, the judge found the charges against them to be insubstantial. The governing board has ignored these findings on the grounds that the judge refused to hear important evidence and that the right to decide who should teach in the district belongs to the governing board and not to a retired judge. As this is being written, State Commissioner of Education James Allen has agreed to suspend the governing board temporarily and the UFT has agreed to the temporary transfer of the teachers, provided the governing board is not restored until the ten teachers are returned to their schools. The danger here is that the temporary vacuum in the district will be filled by genuine extremists whose actions are likely to be unpredictable.1
TO UNDERSTAND the situation concretely one must try to identify with the individuals concerned: with the teachers who have invested perhaps ten or twenty years in their jobs and who are now totally dependent on them, underpaid, and for the most part unemployable in other capacities; and with the parents, particularly those from the ghetto, whose affection for their children and whose hopes for their futures may be assumed to be like those of parents generally but who are continually exposed to the humiliation and failure to which their children are subjected in the public schools. It is inconceivable that any but the most callous parent would agree with the teachers that his child is ineducable. The more likely, indeed the more rational, expectation is that the parents will find the school at fault and will, in the manner of oppressed groups generally, support leaders who will take matters into their own hands.
The justice of such an expedient is not, of course, lost on the members of New York’s upper middle class whose members, because they can afford it and have the right social connections, almost without exception send their children to private schools, partly out of clannishness but increasingly because they too recognize the incompetence of the public schools. There has thus arisen within the city an imperfect but significant alignment between, on the one hand, this class and the racial minorities and, on the other, a rather more deliberate coalition of unionists, civil servants, and their political representatives.
Mayor Lindsay, reflecting the interests of his class but probably at the expense of his interests as a politician, has taken the side of the former group and has, in the last few weeks, reconstructed the Board of Education accordingly. With the reluctant agreement of the state legislature which is ultimately responsible for the city’s schools and which, last spring, voted to expand the Board from nine to thirteen members, Lindsay has shifted the balance on the Board so that its majority can no longer be expected to support the interests of the entrenched teachers and supervisors as it had routinely done for years. The aim of Lindsay’s new board is to decentralize the system; in other words to shift the power within the system from its central administration to the various communities within the city such as the one in Brooklyn which summarily dismissed the nineteen teachers and precipitated the present strike.
Events, however, have considerably exceeded the Mayor’s expectations for in firing the nineteen teachers the Brooklyn group had obviously decided not to await the orderly transfer of power which the new board promised, a decision which somewhat recalls the case in Russia when the soviets chose not to stay put for the deliberations of the provisional government. As this is being written it seems unlikely that the contested teachers, of whom only ten are still on the scene, the others having discreetly withdrawn, will be permitted to re-enter their schools; nor are the police in this case likely to figure as a counter-revolutionary force, for while some school supervisors have been heard to suggest that what New York needs in the present emergency is a more aggressive Mayor than John Lindsay, it is hard to imagine that Lindsay will permit the police to drag the parents, who have so far prevented the teachers from entering their classrooms, away from the schoolhouse door.2
When the strike was first announced, however, Mayor Lindsay did briefly seem to have persuaded or forced the local governing board to let the teachers return to their classes. He did this, presumably, by threatening to dissolve the local board, and call for new elections, but the board’s agreement under this pressure included the implied threat that it could not speak for other leaders in the neighborhood or for the more militant residents. Nevertheless Lindsay’s assurances that the local board had given in were sufficient for the union to agree to call off its strike, provided also that the central Board agree that the rights of teachers throughout the city would be protected as the system decentralized.
To many advocates of decentralization such an undertaking on the part of the central Board seemed to ignore the fundamental condition of decentralization itself: that parents should be free to decide who should educate their children. Thus two of Lindsay’s new appointees to the central Board voted against the agreement. These were Hector Vasquez, a Puerto Rican businessman, and Milton Galamison, a militant and highly sophisticated black leader who had opposed the school system for years and who recognized that in accepting the Union’s terms, the Board would effectively foreclose the possibility of genuine decentralization, the very purpose for which it had been reconstituted by Mayor Lindsay. Nevertheless a majority of Board members, including two other Lindsay appointees, voted for the agreement, though John Lotz, a holdover from the pre-Lindsay Board but himself a strong advocate of decentralization, cast his vote under protest. Presumably he, like the Mayor, wanted to end the strike and hoped that the new Board could manage, despite the self-defeating deal with the union, to turn control over to the neighborhoods by some sort of future compromise.
As it turned out, none of this made any difference. When the ten teachers attempted to return to their classes their way was blocked by an angry demonstration. Only armed force could have got them safely into the school. Furthermore, their places had been taken by new teachers recruited by the local board. Amid accusations that Lindsay had gone back on his word, the union resumed its strike. The union’s accusations, however, were gratuitous. There was nothing that Lindsay or anyone else could do. The Brooklyn board had rebelled and the conventional remedies—the police and the withdrawal of public funds from the ghetto schools—were obviously unthinkable.
THUS, THE CRISIS in New York has been elevated to a conflict of opposing principles reflecting powerful and apparently irreconcilable class interests: the interest of the excluded class in improving its position through the education of its children; and the interest of an established, if largely ineffective, professional group in maintaining the prerogatives which it had won through bitter struggles of its own, even though this group now seems to stand in the way of the legitimate ambitions of the emerging class boiling up just beneath it. In such circumstances a satisfactory political compromise is hard to imagine. Nor, of course, can the conflict be arbitrated as if it were a conventional dispute between labor and management, for in this case labor and management are on the same side, confronting an angry and deeply disaffected clientele. It is also unlikely that Mayor Lindsay’s new board can keep abreast of the crisis, for even if the present strike is settled the result will offer only a temporary solution. The issue will inevitably erupt again and again as one neighborhood after another supports leaders who will claim the right to decide who shall educate its children.
Yet it is premature and, in any case, frivolous to conclude that the apocalypse is at hand, for out of such crises as this there often arise solutions which previously had remained invisible or seemed unspeakable. For instance, decentralization is already a fact in three New York neighborhoods: the Two Bridges district in Lower Manhattan, a district in central Harlem surrounding the by now famous I.S. 201, and, for better or worse, the currently disputed district in Brooklyn. While nearly all the schools in New York have been closed by the present strike, the schools in these districts have functioned normally under their locally appointed leadership and, according to reports in the press and from other observers, the teaching in them, largely by non-union faculties, has been livelier than is generally the case in New York schools.
The outcome of the present conflict will probably, or so one hopes, encourage a variety of educational experiments, perhaps some of them along the lines suggested some years ago by Milton Friedman, the conservative economist at the University of Chicago. Friedman’s idea was that parents of school age children be given vouchers worth a year’s schooling, to be redeemed in any legitimate institution they might choose. Thus all parents could enjoy a version of the privilege which the parents of private school children had long since claimed for themselves.
The advantage in Professor Friedman’s proposal and the reason that it arises from his generally conservative outlook is that it promises to restore the principle of competition to a marketplace which is currently monopolized by a single, overpowering institution and which, since it has no competitors, except for the handful of private schools, can remain as complacent as it likes. The effect of the impasse in New York City is that the monopolistic system is now incapable of performing even the minimal functions which have routinely been expected of it. It cannot be trusted to keep the children off the streets and out of their parents’ way nor can it continue to pretend that it is performing an educational service at all. In such circumstances, since the lives of their children are at stake, one would expect the parents to begin contriving educational alternatives of their own.
Professor Friedman’s system of vouchers is, of course, unworldly and was evidently suggested for polemical purposes. Nevertheless, the proposed decentralization of the New York school system implies, at least in theory, a similar strategy. While blank checks would not be handed out to individual parents, they would, in a genuinely decentralized system, be given to individual school districts to spend as the parents, represented by their community boards, saw fit. To many of the paternalistic proprietors of the present system, such an expedient must seem not only a threat to their personal security, but evidence of insanity, for the unspoken assumption of the liberal majority which has traditionally dominated public education in New York is that the poor, particularly the blacks, are not only rather hard to educate but they are constitutionally incapable of running their own institutions. Thus last month when it was a matter of electing a new Board President, Lloyd Garrison, a distinguished lawyer, an impeccable liberal, and a former Board President, placed in nomination the name of Rose Shapiro, a holdover from the pre-Lindsay board, whose advocacy of decentralization has been, to say the least, disingenuous, and whose singlehearted project as a Board member has been to preserve the existing institution from any change whatever.
YET, in the past three years a group of Harlem street-workers, many of whom are themselves school dropouts, have managed, with the help of the Urban League of Greater New York, to establish a series of store-front schools whose success has been exemplary. These schools have recruited, largely from East Harlem’s Benjamin Franklin High School, several hundred incipient drop-outs and have, in the last two years, sent more than a hundred of them on to college. These Street Academies, as they are called are staffed mostly by teachers who are not licensed by the City of New York. Though they are all college graduates and many of them are experienced teachers, most of them have not passed the ritual examinations which New York City teachers are required to pass and few of them have been trained in teachers’ colleges. They are, by the standards of the city schools, unprofessional. Yet these amateurs, several of whom are former members of the Peace Corps, have clearly succeeded where their professional counterparts have failed.
They have, in effect, contrived out of the wreckage of the Harlem public schools, a system of demonstrably successful private schools which suggest not only that the idea of professionalism in education is of dubious validity but that the ghetto can perfectly well, if left to its own devices, create and manage its own institutions without the help of a centralized authority. These schools were financed originally by the Ford Foundation and have been supported since by several private corporations. If the decentralization of the public schools is to have any meaning at all, public funds should now be made available for similar undertakings, and not in the ghettos alone. For the retreat from the public schools is evident throughout the city and one hears nearly every week of groups of parents who have decided to set up schools of their own.
Professor Friedman’s voucher system derives from his conservative bias against monopolistic public institutions, but there is nothing in his scheme to contradict more recent notions of participatory democracy, which follow from traditions of community anarchism and radical populism. What we seem to be under-going, not simply in the public schools but in the country generally, is a spontaneous and apparently irresistible surge of democratic fundamentalism, arising from a revulsion toward established social and political institutions. As Professor Friedman’s conservatism comes full circle to emerge as a version of anarchism, so the advocates of law and order with their implication of frontier justice and their hatred of the Supreme Court are the ideological poor relations of the Yippies with their universal disdain for social institutions of every kind. While it should be obvious that these forces will remain bitterly opposed to each other, they nevertheless indicate a tendency against which the fortunes of the public school bureaucracies in New York and the other great American cities seem even less promising than those of Hubert Humphrey and his residual New Deal liberalism.
Who can say what political structures, if any, will emerge from such chaos? But in the isolated case of the New York City public schools there are provisional grounds for hope. It was Dewey’s idea that the world itself is a sufficient school for most purposes. One learns by taking part in the world’s work: to exclude experience from the process of learning is to exclude learning itself. It was Dewey’s misfortune, and ours, that he submitted his proposals at the very moment when the schoolteachers were insisting that they had become a professional class, that education was a process which began on weekday mornings at eight and ended at three, and that unsupervised events outside the school room were not only incapable of offering illumination but were actually distractions from the pedagogical process.
In the present collapse of the New York City schools there is some hope, if there are individuals to seize the opportunity, that the discredited professionalism, which public education has claimed for itself, may now begin to give way to an unpredictable variety of educational enterprises arising from the trials and errors of the various communities within the city. Obviously there are plenty of hazards to be encountered in these experiments, including the real danger, especially in the poorer neighborhoods, that the ambitions of the parents for their children’s success will lead to an authoritarian and abstract academicism, contrary to Dewey’s notions. But it is also reasonable to expect parents—especially those who have fought so bitterly against the present system—to learn from their errors, as the professional educators have seemed unable to do, what is likely to be in the best interest of their children. At any rate, there must, at this moment, be thousands of young students in New York who are learning more, from their everyday experience, about the nature of political systems and the complex meanings of democracy than they could ever learn if they were back in their classrooms reading the official myths of American history.
October 10, 1968
While the original issue in the strike had been the decision of the local board to fire the ten teachers, the local board had also, over the summer, hired some 200 additional teachers, many black but the majority white, to replace members of the regular staff who, for various reasons, did not satisfy the governing board. The local board now insists on firing 100 of these regular teachers whose places have been taken by the new appointees, most of whom are not union members and many of whom are recent college graduates who presumably have not satisfied the city’s licensing requirements for teachers. Thus, while the State Commissioner has attempted to side-step the issue by agreeing to transfer the ten teachers temporarily out of the district, the governing board, which has also been temporarily dismissed by the State Commissioner but which refuses to accept the Commissioner’s authority, has escalated the conflict by demanding that the 100 teachers be sent out of the district too. Meanwhile the central bureaucracy has stupidly made matters worse by demanding that the governing board dismiss the teachers it had hired over the summer. ↩
For further insight into the mentality of the New York City School supervisors, see the extensive interview between Walter Degnan, the President of the Supervisors Association, and the Ocean Hill administrator, Rhody McCoy, in the opening issue of The New York Advocate, a journal of New York affairs that will appear later this month. ↩