Diane Ravitch. The Great School Wars: A History of the New York City Public Schools. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000 (originally published in 1974).
In the beginning of the 20th century, the school reform movement sought and brought the centralization of the New York public school system. A decentralized system of schools was seen as being ripe for corruption.
The author sees a common school system paid for by public taxes as an important creation. She notes that have been and will be conflicts, such as over community control of their schools as was demanded by many Catholics in the 1840s versus the Public School Society, which was controlled by Protestants, and by many African Americans in the 1960s. Some issues, such as church versus state, centralization versus decentralization, and how to best educate low income students have been long term issues that continue to the present. It is important to remember, as many social issues revolve around education policies, that the main objective has to be learning.
Public schools have never in their history education virtually every student. That is their mandate, but there appears to be little reason to see how they will accomplish this. Schools have always faced problems imposed by parents with low incomes and by crime. Additional problems have arisen in recent decades with drugs and increased percentages of broken family units. In 1995, 90% of New York high school students were in a school with over 900 students. These problems are enlarging at times when there are fewer job opportunities for unskilled labor, making a good education more of a necessity.
The centralized versus decentralized issue includes who should decide where a student attends school. A belief that a parent should choose the school means one rejects the idea that this is the right of a central bureaucracy to so decide. Some support allowing waivers for students to attend charter schools. In addition, a parent has an option to go the private sector to purchase a private school education if the parent has or can arrange for the ability to afford it.
The battle between the Roman Catholic Church and the Public School Society in the 1840s led to nonsectarian but secular public schools that allowed nondenominational (but mostly Protestant in appearance) Bible study and prayer.
In many school battles, the disagreements often occurred from new arrivals to a community who believed that present values in schools conflicted with their values. Battles were often over such issues as who controls school governance, decentralization versus centralization, and the issue of providing education to children of the poor, all of which issues continue to today,
In 1997, New York public students were 37% Hispanic, 36% African American, 15% white, and 11% Asian American. In 1970, these percentages were 25% Hispanic, 38% white, and 1.5% Asian American.
The rise in Hispanic and Asian students produced a new element to the traditional battles between newcomers and established elite. This time, the newcomers did not have common concerns, as happened more in the past. Asian students tended to do well and wanted schools to advance their social mobility. Hispanic students tended not to do well and were concerned about preventing dropouts. They sought bilingual education.
A 1969 law had the Board of Education being consisted of one appointee of each of the five Borough Presidents and two members appointed by the Mayor. The board appointed a Chancellor to administer the school system. There were also over 30 elected community school boards yet they had little powers as hires and contracts were centralized with the Chancellor. There were relatively few community level decisions. The decentralized boards had problems with corruption. Voter turnout in those elections decreased. Nepotism increased. The teachers union and other interest groups organized and won control of some Boards.
In 2000, the four year high school graduation rates were 70% for whites, 66% for Asian Americans, 42% for African Americans, and 38% for Hispanics. The seven year graduation rate for all was 60%.
Chancellor Frank Macchiarola instituted promotional grades at grades 4 and 8 where a student who was a grade level behind in reading or two years behind in Math was held back. He issued citywide curriculum guides. He resigned in 1983 and his promotional policy was abandoned. Students moved from grade to grade regardless if they mastered the subject.
Charter schools receive public funds and meet certain standards but operate without local school board influence. They offer unique classroom options that attract students. Teachers have more lax standards as long as academic standards are reached.
In the 1990s Chancellor Rudolph Crew approved charter schools, froze principal salaries for four years, and gained the power to fire them while insisting they give up their right to tenure. Many principals and other supervisors left for other districts and many vacancies resulted as few then applied for their positions.
The author observes each school system reorganization came about after a major battle that emerged during a new wave of immigration.
New York education in the 17th century was offered by churches to their members. Some hired tutors. Some private pay schools emerged. The first school that was not religion based was a school for African American children which opened in 1787 by the Manumission Society.
New England states formed schools supported by public taxes in the late 18th century. There were strong Calvinist drives in New England for public education. New York embraced this concept a few decades later.
In 1795, the New York legislature allocated $50,000 a year for five years in matching funds for local governments to create schools. 1,000 schools with almost 60,000 students emerged. In 1805, the New York state government created a permanent school fund that began awarding funds that began collecting enough money for the schools in 1815.
New York city used these 1795 funds for eleven existing schools (ten church schools and one African Free School). No new schools were created. It was decided it would cost too much to create a citywide school system. 52% of the city’s children attended a school at some time during 1795-96.
Religious groups supported education so men could read the Bible. Religion seen as a means to save souls and reading was therefore considered important.
Te Manumission Society and the Family Society, which was mostly Quaker, advocated and created nonsectarian public education. This upset Catholic clergy who wanted Catholic sectarian public education. There was a large immigration of Catholics, mostly Irish, in the 1820s and 1830s.
The Manumission Society persuaded New York to create public education and gained business support for taxes to support education. There were two education tracks, one for the poor and another for the wealthier. With the growing number of poor being Catholic, large numbers of the poor students were not being served. The Society’s first school opened in 1809 of a cost of $13,000 to build. It included educating 150 girls in a separate classroom as the Female Association’s School.
Bethel Baptist Church began a school for poor children of all faiths in 1820 and began receiving public funds in 1921. The Bethel Baptist Church paid lower teacher salaries and over-reported expenses. This allowed it enough funds to have three free admission schools. The Free School Society sought to have funds also provided to their schools. The Society argued public funds should not support a church’s operations.
The public support for universal education grew in the 1820s and 1830s. Governor William Seward in 1838 supported universal public education.
Some Catholics attacked public schools over reading the King James version of the Bible. Some claimed the textbooks attacked Catholicism. The Public School Society thought the textbooks were the primary school. Textbooks that offended Catholics were removed. Much of the Catholic opposition to public schools remained. In fact, many of the Catholic priests sought to destroy funding for public schools.
In 1841, the Board of Aldermen voted 15-1 that the Catholic schools failed to meet standards to receive public funding. Governor Seward expressed disappointment that New York City was failing to educate Catholic children. Catholics brought their cause before the state legislature. Seward wanted any kind of universal education, either secular or sectarian. The issue was postponed by a Senate committee by a 11-10 vote.
60% of New York City students were in school versus 96% of New York students in the rest of the state.
Catholic organizers proved to Tammany Hall Democrats that they needed Catholic votes to win. Most Democrats then opposed funding the Catholic schools.
An amendment banning teaching any religious doctrine or tenant in any New York City Schools passed the legislature 65-16. Catholic Bishop John Hughes supported this bill. While it was not what Catholic educators wanted, many Catholics were glad that this bill defunded the Public School Society. The State Senate approved the bill and Governor Seward signed it.
A Catholic ticket in the upcoming elections then withdrew and endorsed the Democratic ticket. On election day, rioting in the streets resulted. A group of angry people stoned Bishop Hughes’ residence. The militia was sent to protect St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Mayor Robert Morris was reelected while Whigs won control of Common Council by 9 to 8.
The Board of Education decided Bible reading without teacher commentary was not sectarianism. Many Catholics were upset schools used Protestant Bibles.
In the first central Board of Education, each of the 17 wards operated the schools within their ward. Local school boards chose the courses, books, and made its’ own contracts for supplies. The full Board of Education paid the bills. The Board was composed of two elected Commissioners, five trustees, and two inspectors from each ward.
The Public School Society gave up competing with ward schools and it stopped functioning in 1853.
Financial limits of cost construction costs were removed. This resulted in large construction cost increases.
The Superintendent certified prospective teachers. Local School Board chose who to hire. A main entryway into employment was knowing a trustee. Teachers as young as 16 were hired. It was discovered some positions were sold. An 1864 scandal found one ward’s trustees and some principals extorted money from teachers and contractors. These problems caused the legislature to change the school system into several districts with each distract electing a School Commissioner with a three year terms and a central School Board with 21 members. Ward politics, though, continued to have a dominating influence on school practices.
Tammany Hall Democrats took over the School Board and its contract awarding abilities. Home rule was passed for New York City. The Tammany Hall Democrats grabbed political and financial control of much of city government.
The School Board members awarded contracts to politically connected firms. It was never shown the Board members enriched themselves. School expenses rose rapidly ever as student attendance fell.
The Superintendent or assistants in the 1850s through 1890s visited every classroom at least once annually to exam the students. The scores from the exams were used by local Trustees for promotions or lowering salaries. Teachers were not provided their scores so they did not know how their students were doing in each subject.
Female teachers were paid half what males earned. A female teacher was discharged upon marring until courts ruled this invalid in 1904.
Psychologists helped bring an education reform movement that sought to mold character as part of education. It was hoped this would get poor students to ultimately overcome poverty.
School budgets were often insufficient for their expenses in the 1890s. Per capita school costs fell from 1890 to 1895. The public and press reported the deterioration of most school buildings. A common complaint was the school bureaucracy left no one accountable to fix the problems.
Nicholas Murray Butler organized a school reform movement seeking to hire more education experts and new laypeople in education. He also opposed local control of schools. The legislature, with several Republicans seeking to hurt Tammany Hall Democrats, passed school reform measures. Mayor William Strong decided to agree with the reform movement for centralized control of education over local control. Centralized control then meant shifting power from local School Board to a Board of Superintendents.
Teacher salaries created controversies. In 1898, New York City formed by combining with nearby counties. The Manhattan and Bronx Board attempted to have teacher pay increases contingent on passing exams. The teachers helped in persuading the legislature to instead set salary increases according to years of experience teaching.
As universal education was adopted, schools had to adjust to teaching students who previously were unexposed to education. Many lacked English skills, especially children of immigrants. Trade and industrial schools were created, primarily for African Americans and children of recent immigrants.
New York created standard curriculum to be used in all schools. New York spent $100 million on building new schools from1898 to 1915. Still, overcrowded schools remained an issue as immigration into New York flourished.
New York implemented using the entirety of school facilities, with half of students’ time in class and half at play, laboratories, auditoriums, etc. Half the students would be in class and then switch with the other half in the other school facilities. Thus, all school facilities were used the entire school day. After school, the facilities were open for community use. Some parents felt more time should be spent in the classroom. Some students objected. At one school, about 1,000 students rioted and broke windows. It was claimed they were expressing their dissatisfaction with the new system. Rioting spread to other schools under the new system over ten days. 5,000 students marched against the new system. It was alleged the plan was devised by many elites to prepare for economic servitude. The next elected Mayor, John Hylan, ran on a campaign that included promising to eliminate this system. He delivered on that promise.
Mayor Hylan continued expanding schools. $300 million was spent to educate an additional 475,000 children. Still, 50,000 students could only enroll on a part time basis in 1930.
Science entered into education. Intelligence testing led to ending mass instruction of teaching at different levels. This allowed every student to graduate, even though they graduated to different levels of instruction at the same grade. In 1940, there were 20,000 students enrolled on a part time basis. Graduation rates were almost 100%. The average number of students per class was 34.
In New York City, the African American population was 150,000 in 1920, 328,000 in 1930, and almost 750,000 in 1950. The Puerto Rican population in 1950 was 250,000. Most African Americans and Puerto Ricans lived in segregated parts of the city. Most had low paying employment. It was believed that education alone had been the reasons previous immigrants had achieved economic gains, which the author labels a “myth”. African Americans and Puerto Ricans moved in New York in hopes of economic success. They found segregated housing and neighborhood schools that were also segregated. Segregation was illegal, but existed in fact.
The official response was to view everyone as equal. Racial information was removed from school forms. Yet, this equal treatment under neighborhood schools resulted in segregated schools. Dr. Kenneth Clark gained much notice by observing that African Americans were given provided less of an education than other received. Mayor Robert Wagner felt school issues should not be politicized, which meant elected officials were not going to act. The School Board developed an integration plan. The plan declared that education is slum neighborhoods were lacking. This helped many whites to presume that integration African Americans into their schools would deteriorate their children’s education.
Demonstrations supporting and opposing school integration arose. A combination of racism, worries, and economic fears drove much of the opposition. More funds were provided to African American schools while the subject of integration was little addressed. Large numbers of what students left the public school system. Enrollments were opened to attract public integration, but only a few entered. Only under 50 of eligible African Americans chose to switch to a predominately white school.
In 1961, student test scores declined. School officials generally declined to mention that the migration of new students mostly form racial minority groups was a primary cause. Ignoring the problem meant not resolving it.
A scandal over financial irregularities in school construction funds led to new Board of Education members in 1961. That same year, the 43,500 New York teachers voted to unionize with the United Federation of Teachers.
The State Education Commissioner declared no school in New York State could have more than 50% of its students from racial minorities. Outside New York City, this was easily obtained. Yet this ignored that in 1963, African Americans and Puerto Ricans made 40% of the New York City public population, including 52% of first graders.
African Americans threatened to boycott these officially declared inferior schools. Some noted integration went for only one direction, moving African Americans into predominately white schools. White students were not moved into predominately African American schools. White parent sued to prevent having white students placed in predominately African American schools, and the courts agreed with the parents.
Some whites agreed with the goals of integration. A group EQUAL, composed mostly of whites, was more militant in its advocacy for integration than some predominately African American pro-integration groups.
Dr. Kenneth Clark spoke out against bussing students long distances to other schools, calling that “unrealistic”. While he believed integrated schools were better than desegregated schools, he argued that it was more important for teachers to believe that students from the slums could be taught. He argued for more effective teaching.
Bayard Rustin, with support of many community groups and churches existing in the ghettos, organized a boycott of African American students refusing to attend the schools. The boycott lost some allied support with white liberals. A second boycott was organized, only this time without Rustin’s support. Rustin feared a white backlash could set the movement backwards. A third boycott was held. A state court ruled that integration was not required by law.
A Board of Education report issued in 1964 declared that desegregation was achievable. Calls for integration were revitalized. The plan called for keeping neighborhood schools at the elementary level, and thus these schools would be segregated, while junior high and high schools would be desegregated. New construction of high schools to met demand from the emerging proportion of racial minorities as students occurred in predominately white neighborhoods. An administrator would oversee a cluster of an integrated middle school and several segregated elementary schools whose students would graduate to that middle school.
New schools were built in the ghettos. Still, there were no plans for actual integration of these schools.
Community action poverty programs often resembled the patronage organizations that Tammany Hall and other groups used previously to organize immigrants.
Martin Mayer, a journalist, observed no large city spent over 70% per pupil what New York spent. Yet the schools were not improving. He also noted the absence of a sizeable African American middle class in New York City.
The author notes similarities between African Americans in the New York public schools in the 20th century and Catholics in the 19th century. Both groups immigrated in large numbers to New York City and found a school system that did not address their unique needs. Assimilation by these groups was fought by existing society.
Dr. Kenneth Clark’s research increased the belief that there was an institutional problem that was failing to properly educate African American students. This led activist groups to charge that racism was deliberately trying to keep African Americans “subservient”.
Whereas prior beliefs kept elected politics out of School Board actions, Mayor John Lindsay felt he had to become involved. He asked for a decentralization plan. A plan creating more community control was developed.
A report criticized the school bureaucracy for not responding to integration of schools. It called for more public participation. Yet, with strong opposition to integration, it is doubtful that would have led to integration. Neither Mayors Wagner nor Lindsay endorsed integration, leaving the job to a Board of Education that lacked the power to create integration. The School Board issued a report calling for more community control, ignoring the previous historical evidence that education reform is less apt to happen when education control is decentralized. Mayor Lindsay submitted a decentralization plan for elementary schools.
In 1968, almost 54,000 of 57,000 teachers engaged in a strike. It lasted two days. The teachers were given more protections from local boards. The strike was declared illegal but the agreement made with the teachers was declared legal. Yet some teachers were denied positions that were won in the agreement. A second strike was called. A second agreement provided protection so returning teacher s could go to work while passing angry crowds.
Disagreements continued between local school district leaders and the teachers unions. Another strike shut down about 85% of schools. This led to the creation of groups calling for community control and resistance to the teachers union. The union ultimately was able to have the displaced teachers returned to their positions.
The legislature eventually agreed to create more local autonomy in education decisions while giving more protections to teachers.
The author notes that common schools allow basic values to be taught to all.