School Politics

110 Livingston Street: Politics and Bureaucracy in the New York City Schools.
by David Rogers.
Random House. 584 pp. $8.95.

One can scarcely conceive of an issue more important to the future of the cities than the failure of the New York City Board of Education and the political structure of the City of New York to institute an effective desegregation of the city’s schools during the 1960’s. For this was a period in which the Board of Education was the strongest big-city school system in favor of desegregation, and in which New York not only had liberal mayors but was the one large city where liberal opinion was dominant in all the major policy-influencing institutions, as well as among the people of the city at large.

Nor is this subject only of academic interest: to understand failure in one major area of school reform may give us some insight into the agonizing struggle now being waged over decentralization in the New York City schools. Deeply concerned over the issue of desegregation in the New York City schools, I read this book closely and eagerly, with deep involvement and considerable sympathy. In the end, it is a peculiarly disappointing book, which for all its bulk gives little new insight into these complex and incredibly important issues, and confuses a lot of older and still relevant insights.

Let me summarize the argument. In chapter one Mr. Rogers asserts that desegregation in the New York City schools failed. He claims that school administrators, despite all their statements in favor of the program, were actually either against desegregation or not sufficiently committed to it to overcome the opposition of deeply entrenched sections of their bureaucracy, in particular the principals but also various headquarters staffs. He writes, “The standard interpretation of [increasing segregation] is that it reflects a change in the city’s population and the increased housing segregation.” He makes no comment, however, as to whether this standard interpretation is correct, or whether there is indeed a pattern of increasing segregation in housing.

In chapter two Mr. Rogers does review the changes that have taken place in the city’s demographic patterns, showing the steady increase in Negro and Puerto Rican population, and the even greater increase in Negro and Puerto Rican public-school population. Although there is little material here on housing, Mr. Rogers believes that real-estate interests have contributed to the perpetuation of segregated housing. Some of his assertions are not familiar to me from the literature on New York City housing. Thus: “Banks sometimes encourage large lower-class Negro families to move into white residential areas, after denying that opportunity to middle-class Negroes. They later make a big profit by buying out the remaining white residents at a depressed price. . . .” He feels too that the Board of Education likewise “contributed to the tipping of residential areas that had previously been integrated.” It is hard to understand the specific example, involving the zoning of schools in mixed neighborhoods, which he gives in support of this view; on the face of it, it would seem contradictory to his main thesis—that the Board of Education, by not pressing hard for desegregation, kept Negroes in segregated schools. But the actions of the Board of Education—if they were designed to resist desegregation—should have slowed rather than contributed to the tipping process.

In chapter three Mr. Rogers takes up the history of the neighborhood school movements (Parents and Taxpayers associations), which opposed desegregation measures. He himself favors the limited measures for integration which these groups opposed, and further argues for even more extensive measures of pupil redistribution: “There are many commentaries by urban planners and social scientists on the advantages of school consolidation in educational complexes and parks rather than neighborhood schools. . . .” (I for my part believe there is a much larger and more persuasive literature in favor of smaller rather than larger schools, as of small rather than very large hospitals, prisons, etc.)

Mr. Rogers writes perceptively, “One of the things that PAT followers . . . most resented was that the pairing [a program to bring whites to Negro schools, and vice versa] was pushed by a group that clearly intended to leave the neighborhood in the next few years. Neighborhood school advocates . . . resented the fact that upper-middle-class ‘white liberals’ had placed them on the firing line while sending their own children to private schools or while planning to move out.” He quotes one PAT leader as saying the Board of Education could have gone further in desegregation if it had not been so secretive but had included parent and community groups in early discussions. Mr. Rogers feels at the same time that the Board should have vacillated less, should not have experimented, should have imposed large, system-wide changes. He sees no contradiction between the goal of greater and more extended community consultation, with white as well as black communities, and the carrying out of large-scale changes with a strong hand that is unswayed by community protest.

Mr. Rogers also writes in this chapter: “PAT leaders in many areas stated publicly that board officials were closing schools for the intellectually gifted, planning to bus white pupils in increasing numbers into predominantly Negro areas, and formulating a city-wide desegregation plan and a timetable for its implementation—none of which was true.” Yet civil-rights leaders were in fact pressing for all these things, and the Board of Education was committed to most of them. Would honest discussions with white neighborhood groups have prepared these groups for more extensive pairing, or simply aroused them to more intense opposition?



In chapter four he describes the tactics and strategies of the civil-rights organizations, Negro, Puerto Rican, and white, grass-roots and national, in attempting to achieve integration through pressure and negotiation. While sympathetic to their efforts, he criticizes them for following a strategy of conflict, and for making impossibly high demands which frightened potential white allies.

In chapter five, he deals with the role of the “white liberals,” and in chapter six with that of the “moderates”—he includes the Jewish defense organizations in the first group, the PTA, NEA, UFT, and the New York Post and New York Times in the second. He points out that the Negro-Jewish conflict developing on many fronts hampered cooperation between these two groups and the civil-rights organizations, even though white liberals and moderates both supported some measures for desegregation. The liberals and moderates were also held back, Rogers suggests, by their (largely Jewish) constituencies, as well as by their own connections with the New York City school establishment; thus, they did not fight forcefully, effectively, or consistently enough for desegregation. In Mr. Rogers’s view, the strategic and tactical weakness of the largely black civil-rights groups was matched by the weakness of those liberals who formally and up to a point were allied with them.

In chapter seven he analyzes the role of the Board of Education and of the Superintendents of Schools (in particular John Theo-bald, Calvin Gross, and Bernard Donovan) during the period under discussion. He emphasizes, as many observers have done, that the Board is too much involved in day-to-day policies, and that the Superintendent’s powers to act are too limited. Hence, neither could be effective in carrying out a program of desegregation, although Mr. Rogers also believes that neither was particularly interested.



Chapter eight, on the professional bureaucracy, pursues this last theme through the rest of the school system, emphasizing the organizational pathology of the New York City school system. Teachers and principals are overcontrolled from the center; not only are they hampered in innovation, they cannot even get the materials and support they need to conduct education without innovation. But if the system as a whole is over-controlled, the center itself is not really in control of the system; it does not know what is going on, it is paralyzed by ineffective means of evaluating school performance, by poor information from the field, and by poor controls over the field. The center is thus both too rigid—which prevents innovation—and too weak—which makes it impossible for decisions made by the center to flow down to the field. At the same time, the different units at the center do not cooperate. Mr. Rogers is aware that the budget-making process is of the greatest importance in evaluating the system, but he does not actually give much detailed attention to it. His argument concerning the budget is that the Board and Superintendent possess too much power in the moving of sums from one part of the budget to another without public hearings—in other words, they possess too much flexibility.

Chapter ten, on community relations, describes the frustration of local advisory school boards in trying to make an impact on the system as it affects their local schools.

Chapter eleven returns to headquarters and describes the use of consultants and expert opinion in the desegregation issue. The point is made that these were used but not taken seriously. They were used, that is, to disarm various proponents of desegregation by demonstrating that the matter was being studied, but Mr. Rogers suggests there was no intention of actually putting these findings into practice—rather, they were part of the game of bureaucratic defense and evasion. Mr. Rogers does not himself evaluate in any detail the proposals made by these consultants, who tended to stress the development of educational parks.

Chapter twelve describes the relations of the school system with other agencies of city and state government—the City Commission on Human Rights, the City Planning Commission, the City Site Selection Board, the Council Against Poverty, the mayor, and state education officials. Here Mr. Rogers argues that the mayor should have more power over the Board of Education and specifically that the Board should be prevented from receiving its money in lump sums, with the consequent freedom to shift money without hearing or review from one program to another. He also argues that the Site Selection Board, which includes the five borough presidents, the director of the budget, the comptroller, the chairman of the City Planning Commission, and the commissioner of real estate, represents too many diverse interests to undertake coherent planning for given ends, such as school desegregation. He urges that other interests—particularly local citizen groups—be more strongly represented in site selection. How this would lead to coherent planning for an overall end such as desegregation, or to reducing the lengthy time taken by the present system of consultations to select sites, is not made clear.



In this chapter, Mr. Rogers chooses to devote most of his space to agencies that most observers agree are rather weak—the Human Rights Commission, the City Planning Commission, the Council on Poverty. In view of his main topic of concern, he would have done better to go into the relations which exist (if they do exist) between the Board of Education and the City Housing Authority. He contents himself with the general point that there should be more coordination—all in all a safe proposal, and one frequently advanced by all sides to any dispute. He fails, however, to analyze adequately the reasons why such coordination has not been effected, especially in an administration that has constantly spoken of the need for it.

In his final chapter, Mr. Rogers takes up alternative strategies for reform, emphasizing decentralization, the setting up of competing and alternative school systems, and metropolitanization (relating inner-city school systems to suburban school systems for the purpose of exchanging students and cooperating in other ways to overcome the deficiencies of inner-city schooling). He urges a new and larger political coalition to institute these strategies of reform, all of which have merit in his eyes.



I have suggested in this account many things that are wrong with 110 Livingston Street, and others that are not. But what is basically wrong is that a number of huge and unresolved contradictions run through the entire work.

The first and major contradiction: the failure of desegregation is linked by Mr. Rogers in a direct causal relation to the inadequacy of the school system as a whole and in particular to the system’s ineffectiveness as an institution to act in any direction for any reform.

Now, it is true in my opinion that desegregation failed, and it is also true that the New York City Board of Education is an outrageously inadequate organization when it comes to carrying out given assignments and adapting to changing realities. But I do not think that desegregation failed because the Board of Education was inadequate. There is a large middle term in the equation that Mr. Rogers persistently tries to ignore or to shove under the table. Yes, he will admit, the New York City school system has a majority of black and Puerto Rican children—but that shouldn’t have prevented the success of desegregation. Yes, there was enormous resistance from white parents who feared for their children and developed a powerful political movement to oppose desegregation—but that resistance could have been overcome, according to Mr. Rogers, by effective strategies. In other words, as I have pointed out earlier, he seems to suggest both acting rapidly and decisively in the face of white opposition, and undertaking sustained efforts at gaining the cooperation of white neighborhood groups by discussing proposed desegregation measures in advance. He appears to be unaware that the two strategies are in conflict, and that he has contributed little by proposing both, while attacking New York City school officials for doing neither.

Similarly, Rogers will admit in passing that Negro and Puerto Rican parents also opposed measures of desegregation that involved sending their children long distances to other neighborhoods—but he proposes no strategy that the Board might have adopted to deal with this opposition. He will point out, all too casually, that principals resisted losing their better students to Open Enrollment (the chief desegregation program which permitted children to go to other schools)—but then ignores the question whether this resistance demonstrated opposition to desegregation as such, or a concern for better education in their own schools. Most of his discourse suggests the first, rather than the second, to be the case.



The proposition that desegregation failed, then, and the proposition that the New York City school system is grossly inadequate and needs major and drastic reforms, are not really related in the way Mr. Rogers thinks. His own evidence—everything I have reported above is drawn from his book—would tend rather to suggest a middle term made up of such features as powerful demographic movements, the resistance of white and in some cases Puerto Rican and black parents to desegregation measures, and the effects of certain desegregation measures on educational processes. The complex and uncertain problem of determining whether desegregation could actually do something to improve school achievement, also to my mind played a major role in this story. For if the demographic and political forces opposing desegregation were as powerful as Mr. Rogers shows them to be, then certainly administrators would have wanted to have powerful convictions that the great battles necessary to insure desegregation would achieve something. Here Mr. Rogers is more than casual. It is hardly permissible for a sociologist to say at this point, as he does, that “There is increasing evidence from the Coleman Report, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Report, and studies of the effect of school desegregation in such communities as White Plains, Evanston, and Berkeley, confirming the argument that desegregated education does not necessarily hamper the achievement of white middle-class pupils and does substantially upgrade that of black pupils from the ghetto.” The evidence is far more ambiguous than that, and in any case, most of it became available only after the high point of the controversy over school desegregation had been reached in New York City.



But there is another distressing aspect to Mr. Rogers’s book. Quite aside from the larger question that concerns Mr. Rogers, why desegregation failed, the reader is entitled to a clear and persuasive argument demonstrating that it did fail, and such an argument is conspicuously absent from Mr. Rogers’s book. The major step taken to achieve desegregation in New York City was the Open Enrollment plan, under which some schools, predominantly Negro and Puerto Rican, were designated as “sending schools,” and others, predominantly white and with available space, were designated as “receiving schools”; transportation was made available from one to the other for those children whose parents wished it. We are never given any clear statement as to how many children were eligible for this program, which grades these children were in, how many enrolled in the program, how long they stayed, how many children dropped out, to what extent the remaining white children in Negro-Puerto Rican schools took advantage of the program, etc., etc. Leaving aside a simple statistical account, we are given very little information as to how the program actually worked, and with what effects. Almost all of Mr. Rogers’s quotations—which are his chief body of data—come from partisans of desegregation. It would have been interesting to parallel them with some accounts from school principals—why didn’t they publicize the program, as Mr. Rogers’s informants charge they did not? How did the program affect their schools? How did the children do? If the Board of Education’s research branch was too weak to evaluate the program, or the Board of Education too timid to release the evaluations, at least Mr. Rogers himself might have resorted to his own research technique—interviews—to establish the full story. Here, as elsewhere in the book, one has only a shadowy sense of what really happened—one group of partisans is quoted at length, others hardly at all. And yet it would be interesting to know what those who were responsible for carrying out the program thought they were doing.



Mr. Rogers could have told us more if more of his interviews had been conducted with principals and school officials. But there were other techniques of analysis he could have drawn on as well. There are scarcely any statistics here on the distribution of children in the New York City public schools by race, by level of school, or by grade. There are no statistics as to the budget of the New York City school system, nor any breakdown of that budget. There is discussion as to whether more money or less money is being spent on children in slum schools and on predominantly Negro and Puerto Rican schools, but no figures are given. Martin Mayer is quoted from the New York Times Magazine to the effect that nothing can be derived from the mass of data kept by the Board of Education on the effects of open enrollment on academic achievement. But one would have expected a sociologist to follow up on this matter more intensively.

Many times Mr. Rogers goes into details of conflicts over the zoning of schools, yet there is not a single map or analysis of demographic data to help clarify these conflicts. Indeed, his discussions of zoning are so confusing that the reader might justifiably conclude that the main interest of the school authorities was to maintain a level of integration that would keep some white children in the schools, rather than, as Mr. Rogers insists, one of confining Negro and Puerto Rican children to all-Negro and Puerto Rican schools. Vague assertions by one set of partisans are left to stand as proof that the Board of Education or its staff was dragging its heels or sabotaging integration. Perhaps so, in every case. But the evidence is almost consistently unsatisfying.



On the key issue of the failure of integration, Mr. Rogers’s offhand way with statistics again makes it impossible to find out what truly happened. First he writes: “Fewer than 3 per cent of the pupils to whom the plan was applicable in the first years of its operation (1960-1964) actually transferred.” Later: “By May 1966, the total number of pupil transfers under the plan was roughly 22,300—14,440 in elementary grades and 7,860 in the seventh grade.” And he quotes Dr. Jacob Landers, who was in charge of integration activities, as saying, “the percentage of applications has consistently been below 5 per cent of the eligibles.” Now these figures are absolutely mystifying. According to Sheldon and Glazier’s Pupils and Schools in New York City, to which I resort in the absence of any figures in Mr. Rogers’s book, there were 590,000 children in the New York City elementary schools in 1964-1965, and 210,000 in the junior high schools. About half were Negro and Puerto Rican, about half of these not in segregated schools. That would come to about 150,000 children in elementary segregated schools, 10 per cent of whom were taking advantage of Open Enrollment. (If we exclude first and second graders, who were probably not taking advantage of Open Enrollment in any large numbers, the figure would rise to 15 per cent.) There were perhaps 70,000 children altogether in the seventh grade, of whom, again by these calculations, 18,000 were Negro and Puerto Rican children in segregated schools. Mr. Rogers cites figures indicating that roughly 8,000 of these were taking advantage of Open Enrollment, or 44 per cent.

Just what was going on? What had failed? And how does one define success? To my mind, a program which involved more than 20,000 children, even in a system of 800,000 (only half of whom are Negro and Puerto Rican, and only half of these in segregated schools), is an enormous success—if, that is, we are to measure success by the numbers and proportions of children moved. The Open Enrollment plan came to an end recently. This is reported by Mr. Rogers almost in passing. Why? Did the children stop going? Did the parents lose interest? Did the militant groups begin to oppose it? In a 584-page book devoted to just this question, Mr. Rogers has nothing to say.



I have suggested that other contradictions run through this book as well, and these are relevant to the troubled question of how we can reform the schools. Thus, Mr. Rogers believes in forceful administration. He believes that a powerful Superintendent or Board of Education (the two should not be in conflict), backed by a strong coalition of liberal and Negro forces, could have carried through successfully a far greater measure of desegregation than what was actually achieved. At the same time, he wants to limit the power of the Board and the Superintendent by giving a much larger voice to community forces on such questions as site selection and school programs. He believes that the present Board has been able to evade concerned community groups because it has apparently great power over its budget, which has shifted from a line to a lump-sum budget. Mr. Rogers seems to prefer a line budget, under the strong control of the Mayor. But he does not appear to realize that such an arrangement would in effect reduce the power of the Superintendent (which he wishes to increase), and at the same time limit the Superintendent’s ability to act flexibly and responsively. Mr. Rogers is strongly committed to very large educational complexes—he comments a number of times that schools of 1,800 are “too small” to carry out desegregation—but he also wants to see the people and the local communities consulted on matters of site location. The creation of large educational complexes would involve very large sites. Who is to be consulted on them? The people in the neighborhood affected by the complex? The people in the areas to be integrated? The people of the larger area that is to gain from a measure of integration?—in which case we might well get back to the borough level, and what happens to community consultation there?

Mr. Rogers would like to see closer coordination among agencies of city government, and presumably some cooperation with state and federal government. Yet he also complains that it takes too much time to institute and introduce programs and he must know that every new agency involved in the coordinating effort means an addition of time (unless the coordination is to be purely formal). Mr. Rogers feels that site-selection officials are evading the issue when they argue that by the time they try to build in an integrated area, the area itself has changed its demographic character. And yet the non-white and Puerto Rican school population is still increasing rapidly, consultation is time-consuming, and the matter cannot be settled by the simple assertion that we can have both speed and consultation.



I am not arguing that these problems are insoluble. I am arguing that any solution, once it begins to be implemented, involves human and financial costs which prevent us from trying out another solution. If we want schools fast, the procedure of Superintendent Willis of Chicago is one way of getting them. If we want flexibility in administration, then we will have to limit community control and consultation. And so on. I have my own choices, and I don’t know whether Mr. Rogers would agree with them. But in 110 Livingston Street we do not have a closely reasoned, well-supported argument for any one particular course of action—let us say, decentralization and community control, which I believe is the course Mr. Rogers would now opt for, and which I would choose too. In short, Mr. Rogers’s book is an example of a genre that is all too common—one in which the complexity of social problems is downgraded in order to mount an indictment against special interests and an inflexible bureaucracy. New York City does have both these things, alas, and they render change enormously difficult. What we now need are better analyses of the problem than the one Mr. Rogers has provided, and better arguments for the kinds of programs we must try to work for and put into practice.

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