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It was a bold, exciting educational venture, and a sensible scheme to bring government to the people, particularly to the blacks who felt victimized by an impacted, intransigent white bureaucracy. In practice, however, it met a multitude of small problems and one gigantic roadblock: the United Federation of Teachers, the nation's largest union local (55,000 members). After years of struggling for power, the union felt endangered. Not only would decentralization break up the school system, many teachers reasoned, it would also break up the union, which would have to negotiate with 33 local school boards. To many teachers and indeed to many members of other unions, the Negroes' demand for community controland the city's limited compliancewas nothing less than union busting.
Complicating the situation still more were the contending aspirations and fears of New York's ethnic groups, whose volatility has been underestimated in recent years. Just as the Irish had claimed the Police Department and the Italians the Sanitation Department, so the Jews now have the school system; two-thirds of the city's teachers are Jewish. If Negro teachers and Negro supervisors took over in decentralized districts, they would almost certainly displace many white teachers and upset a delicate ethnic balance.
Though it must have realized the implications of the experiment, the Central Board, incredibly enough, never told the three experimental boards precisely what powers they had. Thus, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district in Brooklyn felt that it was well within its rights in transferring 19 professionals last spring for supposed "sabotage." Union President Albert Shanker, 40, angrily called his teachers out of the area in protest, and the district hobbled along with a handful of nonstriking teachers and bewildered volunteer helpers for the rest of the academic year. The Negro community vowed that none of the 350 strikers would ever be readmitted. Equally enraged, the teachers felt that their jobs were being sacrificed on the altar of Black Power. It was one of those clas sic situations in which neither side was wholly wrong, nor wholly right.
A Matter of Accountability
A shrewd, ruthless, single-minded leader, Shanker demanded that all the union teachers be let back into Ocean Hill when classes opened last month. He struck to win his point, then struck again when returning teachers were harassed by the black community. Dissatisfied, he said, with the city's guarantees for their safety, he struck yet a third time a fortnight ago. Nothing would end the impasse, he vowed, but the dismissal of the Ocean Hill board and Rhody McCoy, the local administratorin other words, an effective end to the troublesome decentralization experiment. "This strike is not going to be broken," Shanker said last week. "We're going to win." Replied McCoy: "We don't intend to capitulate."
Almost ignored were 1,100,000 students, who are not only losing classroom time but possibly suffering serious psychological damage from the conflict. "The children sense that the order of society is very fragile and unstable," said Dr. Bertram Slaff, a psychiatrist at Manhattan's Mount Sinai Hospital.