Published Online: March 26, 1997

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Tensions of the Shanker Era: Departed Foes on Decentralization

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Albert Shanker was as frustrated with the school system's ponderous bureaucracy as parents and community leaders were.

Within six months of each other, the leading adversaries in the bitter struggle over New York City school decentralization in 1968McGeorge Bundy and Albert Shanker--have died. Between the two deaths, the New York State legislature sharply rolled back the plan that 20 years ago was intended to reform the city's public schools. ("Crew Packs Arsenal of New Powers in N.Y.C.," Jan. 15, 1996, and "The End of an Era," March 5, 1997.)

Perhaps their passing offers an opportunity to better understand how two men of goodwill clashed in pursuit of what each believed to be the path to improvement of the education of New York's schoolchildren. Mr. Bundy, after the trauma of White House duty during the escalation of the Vietnam War, had been the president of the Ford Foundation for a year when Mayor John V. Lindsay asked him to chair a blue-ribbon panel to devise a plan to decentralize the schools. Lost in the embers of the ensuing conflagration is the fact that in return for more state financial aid to the schools, the legislature required that the system be reorganized. Mr. Shanker, of course, was the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the local teachers' union, whose confidence was at an all-time high with a strong new contract. The UFT, which had broken away from a Communist-dominated teachers' union in the mid-1930s, had been recognized as the bargaining agent for the city's teachers only in 1961.

Their backgrounds could not have been more different, but they shared certain values. McGeorge Bundy was a Boston Brahmin, educated in private schools and at Yale University. Albert Shanker, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, attended New York public schools and graduated from the University of Illinois. Mr. Bundy had majored in mathematics, and Mr. Shanker began his professional life as a math teacher. Mr. Shanker was an ally of the civil rights movement, and Mr. Bundy, as soon as he arrived at the Ford Foundation, greatly expanded its engagement in civil rights programs.

Albert Shanker was as frustrated with the school system's ponderous bureaucracy--symbolized by its headquarters at 110 Livingston St. in Brooklyn--as parents and community leaders, especially in ghetto neighborhoods, were. The Ford Foundation had already assisted three legislatively approved neighborhood experiments in greater parental participation when Mr. Bundy's panel took on the task of drafting a citywide decentralization blueprint. Before they could finish, tensions were mounting in the experimental districts as the local boards sought to stretch their powers. The union charged violation of due process in the reassignment of teachers. Black-Jewish relations worsened (90 percent of the teachers were Jewish). The issue boiled over in a 36-day strike by the UFT in the fall of 1968.

Shanker warned that "...decentralization will be a movement toward apartheid, bringing forth extremists and the creation of a huge community pork barrel."

The UFT (and associations representing principals and other administrators) bitterly opposed the panel's plan. Although the union had earlier supported the decentralization concept, Mr. Shanker declared, "Without a strong central authority (and safeguards), decentralization will be a movement toward apartheid, bringing forth extremists (black and white) and the creation of a huge community pork barrel."

Under the pressure of extraordinary lobbying by the UFT, the legislature watered down the Bundy plan, including the critical deleted element of the eligibility to vote in community school board elections. The Bundy panel recommended that only parents of public school students should be permitted to vote, but the final legislation opened the franchise to all residents of a district. One can only speculate whether a school-parent-only system would have prevented community school boards from being controlled by politicians and special interests, malfeasance, and corruption.

So vehement was Mr. Shanker over the Ford Foundation's role in providing start-up funds for the experimental districts (and Mr. Bundy's part on the mayor's panel) that he went on a nationwide speaking tour to warn teacher organizations of the threat posed by "irresponsible intervention" by philanthropic organizations. Mr. Bundy took no part in the legislative battle over the decentralization plan or the conflict between community groups and the union (the black-Jewish conflict pained him; not only had he greatly increased the foundation's civil rights grants, he had--as a Yale undergraduate--written an editorial critical of quotas against Jewish students in the Ivy League).

Commenting on the foundation's concern with educational governance, Mr. Bundy wrote: "From the beginning, we have insisted that no new framework of control could be a panacea in itself; the crisis of the schools is at least as much economic as political. Moreover, we have believed that in the extreme form of total 'community control,' decentralization in New York is not likely to prove successful. But what we also believe is that a substantial reform of the government of our urban school systems is now indispensable to effective big-city education, and that one element in such a reform must be a major increase in serious participation by local communities, particularly parents, in setting basic policy for their schools."

As Mr. Shanker increasingly earned a reputation as an educational statesman, his view of foundations softened, at least to the extent of accepting membership on the boards of two of them (the Spencer Foundation and the Twentieth Century Fund), one of only a handful of labor leaders to serve as a foundation trustee.


Richard Magat, a visiting fellow at Yale University, served on the staff of the Mayor's Committee on Decentralization of the New York City Schools--the Bundy panel. He is writing a book on the history of union-foundation relations.


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