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Introduction to the Special Issue on Community Control

Stephen Brier
Graduate Center, The City University of New York

The articles in this special issue of Theory, Research, and Action in Urban Education (TRAUE) on community control struggles over education in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s grew out of a semester-long interdisciplinary doctoral research seminar on the topic that I led at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center in the spring of 2013. The seminar was designed to provide the broad historical context of these community control struggles in the city’s K-12 public schools and in its public urban colleges in CUNY and to give doctoral students a chance to immerse themselves in the rich primary and secondary source materials that were available on the important subject. This issue of TRAUE offers the fruits of the students’ intellectual inquiries and work. We were motivated to publish this special issue by a belief that an understanding of community struggles over the control and larger purpose of the city’s public school system and its unique public university, CUNY, in the 1950s and 1960s was an essential step in helping us confront the current crisis in public education in our city and nation.

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The struggle to define the shape and purpose of public education in the United States has continued for nearly two centuries. From the earliest moments of the common school movement in the early 19th century, there has been sharp disagreement about why public schools, supported by public taxation, should exist and whose interests they should serve. Education officials, business leaders, and mainstream politicians have consistently embraced an essentially utilitarian model of public schooling, arguing that public education can only be fully justified (especially the public taxes used to pay for it) if public education provides the necessary skills and training to prepare students for successful entry into an evolving economic order – what we benignly call “the job market.” Education reformers, communities of color, labor unions (sometimes), and progressive organizations and individuals, on the other hand, have argued (though not consistently over time) for a broader, more inclusive notion of public education, one that confronts the racial, cultural, economic, and/or political inequities in American society while providing students with the critical thinking and analytical skills to become well-informed citizens of a democracy.

The 1950s and especially the 1960s were key moments in U.S. history when these differing understandings about public education came into sharp conflict. The successful war to defeat fascism and racialism in Europe and Asia carried over in the United States in the war’s aftermath, spurring several decades of grassroots organizing in opposition to virulent and persistent forms of racism and discrimination that had defined American culture and society since the nation’s founding. These progressive movements, frequently operating on a neighborhood level, were especially active in New York City after 1945. The city, which had long tolerated outright and even official discrimination in its public schools and public housing, was confronted by a series of activist organizations, running the gamut from the socialists, communists, and American Labor Party to community based organizations of parents, tenants, and citizens and increasingly powerful public-sector labor unions. (Biondi, 2003; Freeman, 2000)

The landmark 1954 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education, which ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional and called for desegregation of schools, and its subsequent ruling the following year in Brown v. Board of Education II that required schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed,” further galvanized the anti-racist and anti-discrimination movements and groups. Marie Lily Cerat and Whitney Hollins’s article in this issue, “An Integration Plan That Never Was: Looking for Brown v. Board of Education in the New York City Board of Education’s 1954 Commission on Integration,” explores the New York City Board of Education’s (NYCBOE) initial response to the Brown decision, the formation later that year of its Commission on Integration. Detailing the NYCBOE’s half-hearted efforts and its outright dissembling with respect to ending segregation in city schools, the authors conclude that the 1954 commission report, as well as the many that followed it “were a waste of paper, manpower, time and financial resources, designed to deceive a public hungry for action and change.”

The NYCBOE had exercised rigid authority for decades over who taught in and administered the public schools (through a highly structured examination process, which had resulted by 1965 in an almost all white administrative and K-12 teaching staff).  The NYCBOE also dictated what was taught and what books were used, and set policy for the expenditure of all state and city funds earmarked for public K-12 education. Moreover, with the emergence of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in 1960, the NYCBOE was forced to collectively bargain teacher salaries and fringe benefits, working conditions in the schools, and policies and procedures about teacher transfers and general employee protections.

Parents, community organizers, and political activists repeatedly pushed the entrenched NYCBOE over the dozen years following the Brown decision to integrate the city’s mammoth public school system and to equalize the allocation of its substantial financial resources across the system, which was serving more than one million students by the mid 1960s. The profile of New York City public school students had undergone a radical transformation during the 1950s and 1960s, with an inflow in the school system of hundreds of thousands of students of color (largely African American families migrating from the South and Puerto Rican families leaving their homeland) and a concomitant outflow of white middle-class and working-class students, whose families often relocated to nearby suburbs, even as many breadwinners continued to work in and for the city.

Tired of the NYCBOE’s half-hearted and wholly unsuccessful efforts to desegregate the city’s public school system, poor and working-class parents of color and community activists across the city began after 1966 to shift their focus away from demanding integration of their neighborhood schools toward a fight for community control. Community control advocates argued that the only way schools could be improved and a modicum of equality realized for the system’s growing numbers of black and brown students was for local communities to determine who taught in and administered their neighborhood schools, what subjects were taught, and to monitor the quality of the teaching their children received. With support from the city, several demonstration districts were set up in East Harlem, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill- Brownsville (OH-B).  In 1964, New York city elected a new progressive mayor, John Lindsay, who tried to respond to growing community concerns about a number of pressing issues, including the public schools), in conjunction with powerful philanthropic organizations (especially the Ford Foundation), by embracing the community control idea as a way to lessen racial tensions. These demonstration districts allowed parents to elect representatives to governing boards and those boards to appoint new “unit” administrators. The UFT, representing the city’s K-12 teachers and which had only won its initial contract with the NYCBOE at the end of 1961, at first supported the fledgling movement for community control. But the union soon turned against the experiment. In May 1968, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community control board dismissed nineteen UFT members who taught in OH-B schools. The community board claimed to have transferred the nineteen out of the district for reassignment elsewhere by the NYCBOE, because the largely white group of teachers had undermined community control efforts. In contrast, the UFT claimed the teachers had been fired without cause (Podair, 2002).

Beginning with the opening of the school term in early September 1968 and extending for more than ten weeks through mid-November, the UFT strike put some 50,000 public school teachers on picket lines in opposition to community control; hundreds of thousands of students and their parents were forced to deal with the fact that their schools were on lockdown.

Several articles and reviews in this special issue of TRAUE tell part of this story.  Caroline Loomis, in “‘As far as I’m concerned, they’re on strike because they’re against me’: Children’s Voices in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Community Control Struggle, 1968-69,” argues that the strike can and should be seen through the eyes and heard through the voices of school children, many of whom (at least in the demonstration districts) had to cross hostile picket lines of their striking teachers to attend classes that were offered in a transformed pedagogical environment by a mix of newly recruited and longstanding teachers who had refused to participate in the UFT strike. Loomis concludes that we cannot fully understand the true meaning of this epochal conflict without adopting “a comprehensive, student-centered” focus that will “expand our understanding beyond the structural understanding of the impact of the strike and the community control experiment, illuminating the long-term pedagogical impact of the struggle.”

The ten-week long UFT strike in Fall 1968 against community control engendered deep political, racial, religious, intellectual, and psychological wounds across the city, wounds, both individual and collective, that have still not fully healed more than 45 years later (Brier, 2014). AnaMaria Correa in “1968. Ocean-Hill Brownsville: A One-Act Play,” inspired by historian Jerald Podair’s 2002 book on the strike, The strike that changed New York: Blacks, whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis,uses the dramatic form to reveal these deeply felt and expressed attitudes and beliefs on both sides of the 1968 conflict. Her eleven-actor play had a well-received reading at the Graduate Center in May 2014, photographs from which accompany the reprinting of Correa’s play in this issue.

The New York City public schools were not the only sites of educational struggle in the city in the 1960s. The City University of New York (CUNY) system was also wracked by protests over its admission and tuition policies. The city’s unique municipal college system, which had begun in 1847, totaled four senior colleges by the outbreak of World War II (City, Hunter, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges), providing tuition-free instruction to successive waves of new immigrants to the city (especially the city’s more than one million Jewish residents) in search of upward mobility and intellectual training and engagement. Despite opening two additional campuses by 1955, skyrocketing demand pushed city leaders, encouraged by New York State political officials interested in expanding the state’s nascent public higher education system, the State University of New York (SUNY), to found the unified City University of New York (CUNY) in 1961. The creation of CUNY in that year, as the struggle for integration had in the New York City public schools the decade before, unleashed a series of economic, political, and ideological demands on the system that pushed CUNY officials to find the financial means and political will to dramatically expand the system in response to the city’s changing demographics. In his article entitled “Free Tuition and Expansion in New York Public Higher Education,” Tahir Butt examines the city’s more than century-long commitment to free tuition in its tax-supported municipal colleges in the context of the very real material, educational, and political pressures on the newly consolidated CUNY system to expand in the 1960s. The pressure to expand CUNY came from several major sources, including growing demands by the Black and Puerto Rican communities to gain greater access to CUNY as well as from state political leaders (notably Governor Nelson Rockefeller), who were offering to trade increased state aid to CUNY for an end to the city’s tuition-free policy. Butt explores the complex political and ideological dynamics that played out in CUNY in the mid-1960s, several years before the tensions between the minority communities’ demand for opening up CUNY and its tuition-free policy exploded in the 1969 student uprisings that led to the open admissions experiment begun the following year.

Rounding out this special issue are reviews of two important new books on the community control struggles in the New York City public schools. Audra Watson and Sharon Hardy review Charles Isaacs’s Inside Ocean Hill-Brownville: A teacher’s education, 1968-69 (2014).  Isaacs, who was recruited in 1968 to teach in a Brooklyn junior high school operated under community control during the UFT strike, provides an insider’s view of the educational and political struggles that fractured the city during and in the aftermath of the strike. Next, Vandeen Campbell reviews Heather Lewis’s New York city public schools from Brownsville to Bloomberg: Community control and its legacy (2013), which explores the long-term pedagogical and institutional impact of community control in the several decades following the defeat of the community schooling forces after 1969.

References

Biondi, M. (2003). Stand and fight: The struggle for civil rights in postwar New York City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brier, S. (2014). The ideological and organizational origins of the United Federation of Teachers’ opposition to the Community Control Movement in the New York City Public Schools, 1960-1968. Labour/Le Travail, 73, 179-93.

Freeman, J. (2000). Working-class New York: Life and labor since World War II. New York: The New Press.

Podair, J. (2002). The strike that changed New York: Black, whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.