Déjà Vu All Over Again

Echoes From the '60s Haunt Bloomberg's School Reform

Bloomberg also seems unprepared to build on some of the strengths of decentralization, leaving utterly unclear how he intends to empower parents and communities in any new alternative structure. As quiet as it is kept, the 33.9 percent of kids in decentralized schools who were reading at or above grade level in 1971, the first year of decentralization, rose by 1986 to over 63.7 percent. These scores, more a consequence of manipulation than a gauge of genuine improvement, were re-adjusted in 1989 against new norms and sharply declined, hitting 49.6 percent in 1998, when the board junked them. As untrustworthy as the scores were, decentralized schools no doubt did improve, as measured by the only objective standard that existed.

Decentralization also changed the face of the school system. Though the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district only included eight schools and lasted from 1967 to 1970, it appointed the first Latino and Asian principals in the history of NYC schools, as well as the first black principal of a junior high school. That started the ethnic transformation of the system's supervisory ranks, with 34 percent minority principals and assistant principals running schools today. Only 9 percent of the elementary and intermediate teachers were minorities in 1970, compared with 36 percent of all teachers now. While Ocean Hill's Rhody McCoy was the first black district superintendent, the system itself has had half a dozen minority chancellors and countless district superintendents since. Seventeen thousand mostly minority paraprofessionals now work in the schools as well.

It was John Lindsay, another east-side Republican, who named Ford Foundation president McGeorge Bundy to chair the commission that recommended decentralization. All nine members of the Board of Education were then mayoral appointees, and ironically, decentralization was a direct result of mayoral control. Its demise is not necessarily a loss to public education in New York, but only if the mayor who's shaking up this system also understands what David Rogers and every other savvy observer has always understood: Some of the power to shape it must remain at the grassroots.

Bloomberg: He'll need the same strong will to take real control of the schools from the Union that runs them.
photo: Brian Finke
Bloomberg: He'll need the same strong will to take real control of the schools from the Union that runs them.

Research assistance: Annachiara Danieli, Jen DiMascio, Chris Heaney, Matteen Mokalla

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