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Marilyn Gittell

The Past and Future of NYC Public Schools

n the past year, the New York City public school system has undergone an historical and seismic shift—with the blessings of Albany and the Department of Justice, schools are once again under mayoral control and the locally elected school boards have been disbanded with no clear provision for community involvement at this time. But amidst the debate about returning to centralized control, it’s important to recall how schools initially became the focal point for communities’ demand for democratic political change.

Marilyn Gittell is a well-known figure in NYC political movements. A professor of Political Science at CUNY’s Graduate Center and director of the Howard Samuel’s State Management and Policy Center, she has been studying the politics of education for over 40 years. Her seminal work Participants and Participation: a study of school policy in New York City (1967) exposed the Board of Education’s closed-door decision-making practices. Adding to the momentum of the civil rights struggle of the early 1960s, the work helped spur the fight for community control of the city’s schools and usher in an era of decentralization.

Julie Thompson Keane (Rail): What led up to the struggle for a decentralization movement in the Sixties?

Marilyn Gittell: At the time, the Board of Education was made up of mayoral appointees. But actually, they were quite independent. The mayor historically didn’t want anything to do with education, especially when it became quite ideological on the issue of race. In fact, I wrote at that time that mayors were avoiding education, and that education should be under the mayor. What’s happened recently is kind of a déjà vu for me.
The position I had taken was that there should be stronger community and parental participation at the school and district level. That was the decentralization that I was supporting: community participation and stronger central support in the mayor’s office. After all, the mayor is elected by the whole city. He should be responsible for education.

The major problem was the bureaucracy, as was true of many governmental services; but education was in the forefront. There had been a history of bureaucratic development in cities around the country where centralization and bureaucratization led to a lack of responsive policies to the new populations in the cities, which were largely African-American or Afro-Caribbean and Latino. So there was no local democracy to speak of because there was no participation of parents or communities. This was all a bureaucratic structure. Kids were failing and there was nowhere you could go to get any response.

Rail: Can you give us a brief history of what happened in the decentralization struggle?

Gittell: The backdrop of all this is the civil rights movement. The early movement was to desegregate the schools but it was a total failure all over the country because institutionalized racism wasn’t going to permit any integration in these schools. So a community control movement evolved out of the failure of school integration. People who were battling all over the city for school integration finally gave up. They threw their hands up in despair and said "this is never going to happen and we want to have some say in what goes on in our schools." There needed to be a solution to that problem and decentralization offered an opportunity to somehow engage the public again. I mean the whole concept of democratic theory was participation, you were supposed to have a transparent decision-making process, you were supposed to have public access to information—all these things didn’t exist.

Rail: How were public schools representative of this closed political system?

Gittell: The civil rights movement and the integration movement in the city called for changing the way things were done. Based on observations in my book about the education system in New York, it was clear there was a closed political system in a wide range of decisions, including the selection of a new superintendent, a plan for school integration, the budget for the school system, and the curriculum. All these decisions were made by a small group of people. The system had to be opened up and there had to be more response to the new populations. The whole process should be participatory. My interest was in enhancing the democratic system, so I talked about decentralization as a way to distribute power politically to local districts or communities, in order to make it more transparent.

Rail: Can you give me an example?

Gittell: I don’t think people realized that parents were not permitted to go into the school except if there was a problem with their child. I’m talking about low-income families. On the whole, contact with the school was a negative experience and your kids had a negative experience. When Adam Clayton Powell became chair of the education committee in the Congress, it was the first time test scores were released to the community so that we could even know what was going on. Nobody knew. We knew the kids weren’t learning anything but we didn’t know officially what the situation was. It’s very ironic that now test scores are being used against the same population.

Rail: So it seems like a number of events were converging that supported this move for community control.

Gittell: Yes. By this time, the Ford Foundation had created three experimental districts—Ocean Hill-Brownsville, East Harlem, and the Lower East Side—to engage parents and communities in the process of developing a more responsive school system. People kind of put together this drive for decentralization. In addition, the Bundy Commission, a statewide panel that Mayor Lindsay requested from Governor Rockefeller to try to decentralize the entire school system, also contributed to this movement for community control. It just was accidental history these all happened one right after the other.

Rail: That’s interesting because what people hear about most is the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district. It was the site of one of the city’s most contentious, controversial and racially charged union strikes.

Gittell: Initially, in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the union and the community joined forces together because the schools were so bad, and agreed to create the demonstration district. The only thing the Ford Foundation, the community and the city didn’t count on was the union and its president—Al Shanker’s strength and his ability to control the legislature.

Rail: So that’s interesting that the community and the union sort of joined forces to create this demonstration district. Where does that fall apart?

Gittell: It falls apart immediately because the community was more together than the union anticipated. They thought they could control that district but there were many activist groups in that community. They had an agenda and they were very well informed and I think the union didn’t realize this was not going to be totally under their control. The very first summer the district was created, activists immediately moved to take control of an election to appoint their own community superintendent, which had never been done. The union never expected it to happen and wanted to figure out a way not to let that happen.

Rail: The demonstration districts created the position of the community superintendent? So where did the community school boards come from?

Gittell: It was more a delegation of power, which is what you need to have community control. You have to delegate power in decision-making. Those few elites [at the Board] were no longer making those decisions in areas of personnel. The community wanted everything and the Board of Ed wanted no change at all. The Board thought they could create the demonstration districts, get money from the Ford Foundation and no changes would be made in the overall decision-making structure.

Rail: So what you’re saying is that both the Board and the union, each with their own agenda but on the same side of the power structure, wanted to maintain the status quo?

Gittell: Yes. So when Ocean Hill-Brownsville leadership immediately appointed their own superintendent to the district and grabbed control, the union didn’t want to be part of that so-called experiment. Only three days on the heels of the superintendent’s appointment, the newly formed community board announced there were 17 teachers who were not qualified to be in the district any longer and asked them to either be fired or transferred. In 25 years maybe 10 teachers had been fired. You know, you couldn’t fire a teacher in New York City. It was impossible. The community was saying, "send these teachers away! They’re fired! They don’t belong here! They’re not qualified!" And that was a complete change in the power of the community. I mean, it was profound when you think of it. And they did it right away, which is the only time they really could have. Well, the union reacted immediately, pulled out of the district, and had a 6-week strike.

Rail: The strike also had racial and racist implications given that the teachers and the union were predominantly white and that the community largely consisted of African-Americans who felt that the staff didn’t represent the interests of their kids. In fact, kids were failing in these classrooms. The community wanted more of a say in their education and saw this struggle in the context of civil rights. They wanted quality teachers. So how does the strike finally resolve?

Gittell: Well, the Board of Education asserted itself and immediately the power of those community demonstrations was challenged and there was a movement to get rid of them. In less than two years a lot of power was taken away from these districts. The experiment never really happened because the union came down hard on it and the Board of Education no longer supported it. The strike just tore everything apart and everybody was losing sight of the fact that this was a struggle for opening the system. Obviously, the people in power were going to fight and resist opening the system. Ultimately, the courts resolved the strike. The union argued this was a violation of due process for the teachers. So there was a much deeper political struggle and race was very much a factor, more than anybody wanted to admit on either side.

Rail: In 1969, even with all of this conflict, decentralization was put into law. Did that legislation represent the community control movement?

Gittell: None of these groups in the three demonstration districts supported that legislation. It was a product of a well-intentioned Bundy panel but nobody could ever get Al Shanker or the people who were in power to relinquish anything. So that 1969 legislation reflected the union’s position, not the community’s position, and the only power left in there was the selection of the community superintendent and the creation of those local boards.

There was no real transfer of power. And the election process made these community boards more reflective of the politics of NYC than anything else. I mean there’s corruption in NYC’s politics, so why wouldn’t there be corruption in these boards? Those local school board elections became extensions of the Democratic Party local clubhouses. The boards became political fodder and the people elected to those boards were very political. I will say this, though, the 1969 decentralization law still did accomplish a lot.

Rail: Recently James Traub, the main education writer for the New York Times, called decentralization "a textbook tragedy." What do you make of Traub’s argument?

Gittell: The main problem is that Traub chooses to focus on the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district in which the community board that was elected was politically motivated.

Rail: It seems that his depiction of the struggle is much more simplified than yours, in that decentralization for him was only about race and not also about the politics and history of democratic participation or community control efforts.

Gittell: Traub’s article misses the whole boat. I mean he’s saying he has no evidence of any good coming out of the community school movement, except he chooses the most negative evidence to prove that decentralization never worked, and that it never would be a good idea. The fact is that politics are key. If you don’t change the governance it doesn’t change who’s making the decisions and the people in power are not going to change the way the schools are run.

One of the things that Traub forgets is that the demonstration districts were created prior to statewide decentralization, which was in 1969. The strike actually occurred in 1967 but he put this together to say they both happened at the same time. I can’t imagine he didn’t know. I think he was just saving space somehow but he does distort the whole picture of what happened.

Rail: How can that be?

Gittell: I don’t know how it could be, either. But you see he’s attributed everything to this concept of decentralization, which he thinks is such a negative thing. When you’re trying to reform a political system, you can’t reform it except to open it up and that’s what democracy’s about.

Rail: So what worked? What good lessons have come from decentralization?

Gittell: Let’s look at District 4. That district immediately appointed Tony Alvarado, who was committed to schools of choice, small schools, and alternative schools, and elected a Puerto Rican-controlled community school board. They also brought in Debby Meier, who was the leading educator in the country. All those changes took place in District 4 as a result of being able to decentralize to the community level. That’s how that community became so activist. They changed the board, they chose a superintendent who was innovative and they created an environment for alternative schools. People who are involved in the alternative school movement do not remember that without that 1969 decentralization, those changes would never have occurred. Traub never makes that connection because he was intent on telling a different kind of story. I did not support the 1969 legislation, but it did prove that decentralization potentially could accomplish exactly what we said it could, which was to allow communities to control their districts and create innovation in the school system.

Rail: What factors are contributing to the dismantling of the community school boards and to recentralization?

Gittell: Well, I think that there was resistance to it always. The union never supported it and tried to control the boards, and then there were various provisions passed that didn’t allow teachers to be on the boards. I mean, Democracy’s tough. But look, you have to abide by what the public does, if it is participating. School board elections shouldn’t be the only way to participate on community boards, but I think there was never the kind of support and understanding of decentralization that you had in the ’60s as a result of movement politics. Reasserting mayoral control is now a national movement, and it has been gaining support over the last ten years. New York is coming a little late into it. There is a lot of writing now that says mayoral control doesn’t make any difference. I only see mayoral control working with community control. The two together can happen at the same time and that’s what you need.


Julie Thompson Keane

Thompson Keane is a project director at the Center for Children and Technology.


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