Discussing the Great School Wars with Journalist Owen Davis

Early twentieth-century public schools performed no miracles for first- and second- generation children of European descent, but did facilitate enough mobility to succor the myth of omnipotence.

-Diane Ravitch, The Great School Wars, 1974

Education politics is messy. It’s hard to find any solid theoretical ground to stand on when we talk about segregation, accountability, school choice – things that often cut across established left-right positions.

That’s why we recently read Diane Ravitch’s Great School Wars, a thorough, if at-times flawed account of New York City educational battles across two centuries.

In 1967, a young Ravitch was contracted by the Carnegie Foundation to research a school decentralization effort that eventually led to one of the biggest teacher’s strikes in U.S. history. A single district in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn sought to run its schools independently, pushing “community control” apart from the central bureaucracy of the city’s Department of Education.

She found it to be a common conviction of the black residents of Brooklyn that for generations the New York City schools had single-handedly lifted the poor residents of the city out of poverty. European immigrants of the 1800s and early 1900s had ascended into the middle-class, and education was always credited as being responsible for this social mobility.

But as she continued her research, which would become this book, Ravitch found that our faith in the schools as “an institution capable of individual and group salvation” is largely mythical, and has been used as cannon fodder for social and political battles since the very first years of New York City’s public schools. She concluded that schools are best understood not in and of themselves, but as a battleground for larger political and social conflicts. These conflicts lead to reforms that either centralize or decentralize power in the district.

It’s not hard to see how these themes apply to today. The 20-year push for charter schools and school choice is in large part an effort to decentralize the traditional public school district, placing greater power in the hands of charter school administrators and parents.

These dynamics are complicated by the social context. Today, that context is the interplay of segregation and gentrification. In the 1960s, with whites fleeing the city for the suburbs, black communities began seeking greater control of their schools, particularly regarding what would be taught and by whom. Today, gentrifying white families use their existing cultural and political capital to place their children in a dwindling number of coveted seats in “high-quality” schools.

In this post we outline Ravitch’s framework and attempt to map it on today’s educational landscape. What do past school wars tell us about what’s to come in NYC? 

Wars on Wars on Wars

OD: Having just read GSW, what’s your big takeaway?

SB: Ravitch wants the reader to understand that in order to grasp the politics involved in school conflicts, one must understand the broader cultural context for each battle at hand. 

OD: That sounds pretty straightforward. How does this actually play out through history?

SB: Well, take the battle for community control in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood in the late 1960s. The black residents had no faith in the centralized system of the DOE, and as a result, sought to decentralize the system. They created their own advisory boards, through which they intended to control hiring, curriculum, and administration. But the roots of this conflict were much deeper. The DOE and the UFT were majority white, and the black activists behind the community control movement saw those institutions as agents of a racist, white establishment.

And so, we see a racial conflict finding it’s battleground in the schools. The people of Ocean-Hill-Brownsville saw the the failure of the schools in their neighborhood as another manifestation of institutional racism. The vast school system was controlled by one (majority white) centralized office, and so it felt like no mystery as to why their schools were being deprived. They felt that the DOE was neglectful, and that this was discriminatory and racist. They wanted schools that reflected their community, that taught curriculum that was relevant to their history, and that had staff that was interested in black issues. A centralized bureaucracy could never meet the specific needs of every distinct community in the city. And so their solution was to decentralize the system, whereby control would be distributed amongst the neighborhoods, each neighborhood being allowed absolute control over its schools.

So, to understand the school politics of this community control battle, we are required to look outward. The racial politics precede the conflict in the schools; and thinking only about the machinations of the DOE and the demands of the district would put us at a huge loss.

OD: But it makes intuitive sense that societal context would define these battles, right? How could it not? So I guess my question is: what deeper significance is there in all these instances of conflict and reform?

SB: Well, maybe we could ask this another way: why does the school keep coming back as a battleground every few decades? Cultural conflicts find their theater in the school system four times in New York City history. Each battle ends with essentially the same meaningless result:  the city reorganizes the system to be either centralized in one office, or decentralized into various community boards. Ravitch doesn’t find any evidence that these changes solve anything. Why do political conflicts keep getting played out inside the school system?

The schools are especially attractive to the hopes of reformers because of their mythic appeal. Schools take on a symbolic significance for political factions, and their meaning as a place of reform is compounded because they are thought of as a “shaper of destinies” and “capable of group and individual salvation.” They are where the children develop, where the future is cultivated, and so their societal import is instinctively grokked and impossible to ignore.

OD: So, you’re saying that school politics really has been more of a symbolic conflict?

SB: Well, not exactly a symbolic conflict–that feels too dismissive of what has been at stake. But, perhaps unwittingly, the involved parties have always bought into a belief about the power of schools that isn’t supported by historical facts. And perhaps our conviction in education is better understood as a kind of cultural American myth.

Ravitch reveals that, in terms of social mobility for the masses of New York City, schools have only ever played a limited role. For the Irish of the early 1800s, and the Eastern European and Italians of the 1900s, the growth of the manufacturing industries and expanding political machines enabled social mobility far more than education ever did. The black population of the 1960s settled a city in economic decline, and while the appeal of the school was still strong for them, unfortunately the abilities of public education as an institution for social mobility was more mythic than factual.

Ravitch puts it best in her section describing the hopes of the neglected minorities, from the Irish to the Italians to the African Americans:

The public school was the very symbol of the melting pot, the great cauldron of Americanization and assimilation. Once again the school would be the agency which socialized and absorbed an alien culture. This hope was based on the popular myth  that the public schools have single-handedly transformed immigrant children into achieving citizens. The myth began with the the progressive faith that the schools could accomplish this miracle if they willed it, and grew with school officials’ self-congratulatory justifications of continued public support for their programs. This view of the school as an institution capable of individual and group salvation took no account of the other factors that contributed to the assimilation of European immigrants or of the large number of immigrant children who were not successful in school. Early twentieth-century public schools performed no miracles for first- and second- generation children of European descent, but did facilitate enough mobility to succor the myth of omnipotence. The curriculum was rigid and irrelevant to children’s lives, the classes were over-crowded, and the teachers (many of them second- or third-generation Irish or Germans) had no special affection for the immigrant children or for their parent’s strange culture. But the ladder was there from “the gutter to the university,” and for those stalwart enough to ascend it, the schools were a boon  and a path out of poverty. The majority of immigrant children, who did not get to a university or even, in the first generation, through high school, owed as much or more to the nation’s rapidly developing economy and to their own personal, familial and cultural resources, than to the school. Difficulty in school was not uncommon for children from poor, rural backgrounds, whether they were white and southern European in 1910 or black and southern American in 1960. (p. 244)

OD: So the social context is that different social groups pursue their interests through the schools, which they view as vehicles of uplift and salvation. But GSW is about more than how people talked about education. Ravitch gets into the nitty-gritty. What’s the practical result of all this tussling?

SB: Well, what Ravitch finds is that the the end game of the cultural conflict of 1968 is remarkably similar to the first school war of 1840s. In the early 1800s, you had a WASP establishment that wanted to control public education, and an Irish minority that wanted their Catholic schools to receive funding while functioning autonomously. The WASP establishment was seen as xenophobic, and wished to impose their protestant cultural mores. The Militant Bishop Hughes provoked riots to assert their demands for reorganizing the school system; not unlike the riots of the 1960s for Black community control. In both cases, an newly-settled minority fought the established powers, demanding reorganization of the system.

But, 50 years after a deal is brokered between the Irish and the WASP powers, a new cultural movement takes hold, and the schools are reorganized again. Then, 50 years later, another cultural conflict, and outsiders demand a redistribution of power, and the schools are reorganized again. This back-and-forth, centralization, decentralization, centralization, decentralization, never achieves any true amelioration of the schools because it was barely about the schools to begin with, other than the fact that education always seem so important to the future of american children. But these conflicts are really about outsiders asserting power, and the school system became an example of that power.

OD: So whatever the result, whether decentralization or re-centralization, what we get is a bureaucratic reorganization that promises to solve specific problems brought up by reformers or social interest groups. But it can’t, since the causes to those problems usually lie outside the school system.

Looking Forward

SB: So how is all this relevant to New York City schools today?

OD: If anything, the mythic appeal of the schools is more alive today than ever. The pop-culture reference point for thinking about urban education is called “Waiting for Superman.” The idea that equitable quality education can act as a lever of social uplift for entire populations is taken as gospel by Democrats and Republicans alike.

The battles we see playing out in NYC today hinge on the mythic appeal. To simplify the city’s education politics, we can look at the rivalry between Success Academy’s Eva Moskowitz and Mayor Bill De Blasio. Moskowitz presents her network of charter schools as the only passport out of poverty for millions of students. She has fought the city tooth and nail for control over her schools, going so far as to sue over the city’s pre-k contract, which she refused to sign.

Success gets a lot of its philanthropic funding from hedge fund managers and other financiers, much like other major charter networks. In that way the current reform movement echoes that of a century ago, when Rockefeller sponsored the largest educational nonprofit efforts. And just like at that time, pedagogical and disciplinary methods center around businesslike efficiency and order.

SB: Yes, charter networks like Success are explicit in wanting to re-make schools in the image of corporations–I was struck by how similar this idea is to the reformers of the early 20th century, such as the proponents of Taylorism. And yet, we live in a different New York now.

OD: The societal context has changed, even reversed in some ways. We’re still segregated and unequal. But living standards aren’t accelerating like they were in previous eras — in fact, poverty is becoming more concentrated and wages for the poorest are falling. And instead of immigrants and African Americans coming into the city, whites are gentrifying it, replacing communities of color as real estate interests pump capital into neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, Harlem and Crown Heights.

The conflicts today are minor compared to the mass boycotts and disruptions of the ‘60s or before. But skirmishes are flaring up. White parents — as always — use their social and political capital to claim and maintain privileged spaces, as in Dumbo and Park Slope, which saw bitter zoning battles this past year.

SB: We hear so often how gentrification creates such potential for integration, but as Nikole Hannah-Jones has recently warned, it’s so much more complicated. There are so many ways in which the privileged powers of the city can advance the fate of their own children, and leave those without access to power or money to fend for themselves.

OD: Yeah, and that’s what’s really interesting to me. We’ve seen hints of gentrification school wars, but I think we still have much bigger battles in store. Right now, the means that white parents are using to ensure the best spots for their children aren’t systemic, so far as I know. They’re more piecemeal — they’re not pushing for a total reorganization. Instead they’re doing what they’ve done for the last 40 years, playing a system that has always had secret backdoors for whoever had the time and resources to seek them out.

It’ll be interesting to see whether that starts to change in the next 10 or 20 years. We’re in a hybrid centralized-decentralized system, where charters sit alongside (and sometimes directly conflict with) public schools, but the system is still under mayoral control. As the current crop of gentrifier 20-somethings settle down and have babies — and as legacy white schools max out their enrollments — will these families send their kids to majority-black public schools that hardly resemble the suburban oases where they grew up? Or will they try for some institutional or systemic change that gives them control of new schools? Will they push for new charters that cater to the things white parents like, that have high bars for enrollment?

SB: It seems appropriate to quote Dr. Ravitch quoting The Who, as she often does: “The new boss… same as the old boss.” As New York City changes again, the interests of the new residents will inevitably lead to drama in the schools. Let’s hope someday we can put an end to the cycles The Great School Wars depicts, where cultural battles end by reorganizing the bureaucracy in lieu of addressing the root problems at play.

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