Déjà Vu All Over Again


With city schools on the verge of the most radical structural change in 33 years, Mike Bloomberg might benefit from a history lesson, minus all the shortsighted revisionism. The decentralized system on its way out the door was, much like today’s “reform,” championed by an elite consensus, instigated by a Republican mayor, resisted though ultimately shaped by a powerful teachers union, and widely seen as the only way to jump-start a system simultaneously awash in money and failure.

David Rogers, whose 1968 book 110 Livingston Street was the academic bible of the decentralization movement, concluded that the Board of Ed’s greatest expertise was in promoting a “politics of futility.” Likening the million-pupil system to a punching bag, Livingston argued that “hit in one place, it simply returns to an old equilibrium.”

Rogers even anticipated the demise of his own reform. “Many liberal groups fear that decentralization will simply replace one mammoth bureaucracy with 30 smaller ones, which will become just as rigid and much more costly than the existing system,” he wrote on the eve of the 1969 passage of the decentralization law. “Each district will develop its own constituencies and vested interests, and 10 or 20 years from now, when pressures mount for a new, perhaps more consolidated structure, the decentralized system will have become too entrenched to allow for the change.”

Just as Rogers predicted, the entrenched decentralized system did beat back serious attempts at change in the ’90s, until a genial mayor at a crossroads managed to force concessions. In fact, as early as 1980, when The New York Times published a series on the first decade of decentralization, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education Thomas Minter was quoted as saying, “It took 10 years, but now we know that you need more than structural change.” Education historian Diane Ravitch commented at the time, “The question is not centralization or decentralization. It’s the amount of quality learning in the classroom.”

It is worth remembering, though, that the 1969 law was a betrayal, not the culmination, of the community control movement that spawned it. Written by state legislators as beholden to the United Federation of Teachers as current assembly speaker Shelly Silver is today, the law gave the community boards no direct power over teachers, though that was precisely the issue at the heart of the cataclysmic 1968 confrontation between the union and an experimental minority-run board in Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville section. When the union turned its strike against that board’s efforts to remove a handful of teachers into a black-Jewish issue, public opinion virtually wrote the new law, as its president, Albert Shanker, openly boasted.

After the law went into effect in 1970, the UFT quickly won control of most community school boards, even aligning itself for years with corrupt local politicians who were pillaging their districts. Aided by petitioning and registration requirements in the law that made the city’s boards more a part of the regular political process than any others in the state, the union was able to effectively pick its own employers, electing the boards that named the principals and superintendents who supervised teachers.

In the end, the most important lesson of this now failed reform is that if nothing is done to make teachers more accountable—creating reasonable processes, for example, for the disciplining of nonperforming members of an 80,000-strong teaching staff—little progress will be made in city classrooms. Similarly, if nothing is done to redefine the power relations within a system dominated by an understandably self-serving employee union, mayoral control will be as unsuccessful as decentralization was in materially improving the quality of education.

It is not the form of school governance that matters so much as it is the will to govern. And that means the will to take on an interest group that confounded even Rudy Giuliani, who won the UFT’s tacit re-election support in 1997 by succumbing to collective bargaining giveaways, like an additional free period for teachers already enjoying the shortest workday in the state (36 minutes shorter than the suburban teachers whose salaries the UFT frequently invokes to demand pay hikes). On this front, Bloomberg appears far more willing to bend than he was on the governance issue, moving toward a new contract that will award the largest pay increase in history without any changes in the fine print that shapes the day-to-day culture of failure in our schools.

It is the contract, and restrictive state laws that can only be changed with UFT acquiescence, that explain why as few as 500 teachers, far less than 1 percent, are rated unsatisfactory every year. It is the contract that makes seniority the determinant of everything from salaries to assignments, barring higher pay in shortage areas like math and science, and preventing administrators from matching teaching skills with learning needs. It is the contract that results in fewer teaching hours than almost any other urban system, including subsidized sabbaticals for 1500 teachers a year, a benefit available in only five of the 49 school districts cited in the recent state arbitration-panel decision that supported the UFT’s 15 percent raise.

But Bloomberg is poised to leave all of that in place—though the salary hikes he’s granting make this the moment of maximum leverage—in hopes that he’ll make more substantive advances in the next negotiation, which will occur in 2003 because this contract is so overdue.

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.

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