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Decentralization and the Oceanhill Brownsville Crisis

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Decentralization and the Oceanhill Brownsville Crisis


            In 1968 a series of three teacher strikes enacted by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) occurred in opposition to the firing of ten Jewish school teachers by the newly predominantly black Oceanhill Brownsville, Brooklyn community school board. The community board was made possible by the policy of decentralization. Local school boards had been present in the school district of New York long before the Oceanhill Brownsville crisis, but the roles were advisory and only slightly administrative under the New York City board of education.

            1968 the New York City school district was being restructured from central to decentralized. This legislature was seen as innovative and was aimed to give the outside community awareness and participation in the schools. The legislature created “educational policy units” other wise known as community based school boards. It was an opportunity for the community to be more active and participate in schools and the development of educational policy reflective of the needs of the community.  Over thirty six community boards were established.

            In Kenneth McGrail’s detailed history of decentralization in New York, he states “the New York state constitution mandates that the legislature shall provide for the management and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated” (McGrail, 242) The local school boards were created to remedy the problems the public schools were facing. By the early 1960’s the conditions in the schools concerned the legislature and prompted action. There were “irregularities in the school construction program, serious hazards due to inadequate maintenance, improper repairs, and corruption among employees, as well as administrative complexities.  The New York schools were in crisis and the solution made by the governor was decentralization.

            At a Oceanhill Brownsville parent meeting parents expressed their frustration and experience with the state of the schools and their desire for community control of the Oceanhill Brownsville schools. One woman stated her desire for change to better the education of children in black communities:


 “[changes] in personnel, physical control, the same kinds of control that the board of education has that we feel can be designated to the community so that they can then make educational achievement for their children…we here, in Oceanhill Brownsville, are more desperate for some of these powers than the other two groups.”


Another woman’s desires reflect the poor conditions in the school that the legislature was concerned with:


 “We only want to control our schools in our area … our main concern is for the legislature to support our guidelines. All we want is better education for our children. We don’t want black power or any of those things that they claim. If the legislature would come down and see the schools that our children go to school in, they wouldn’t be so interested in what kind of power we wanted. They would see that our children are under conditions, that it doesn’t even seem that it could be possible.”


This decision resulted in dividing the school district into local school board districts and to give those school boards the power to “appoint and remove at its pleasure, a local school board for each local school board district”. This was Official as of April 19th 1967 as an experiment of community involvement. In section one of the legislative act it states “ creation of the educational policy for the public schools within such district…[would] afford members of the community with an opportunity to take a more active and meaningful role in the development of educational policy closely related to the diverse needs and aspirations of the community.” 1968 the legislature went on to detail a plan that would directly affect black students called “maximum local involvement” which pushed for a “detailed program for decentralization [to] be formulated ‘by the board of education of the city of New York against the background of urban educational problems in the city” (McGrail, 246) the aim was to take into account the educational needs of the community and it’s children, the special needs of areas with low academic achievement, the community’s ability to take initiative and assume responsibility, and transportation and facilities of the school. The plan gave three districts community control over the schools with local boards. The places this legislature was implemented were the East Harlem Triangle, the Three Bridges neighborhood in lower Manhattan, and Oceanhill Brownsville, Brooklyn.

            The Oceanhill Brownsville crisis is noted as the “most racially divisive” event in New York City history since draft riots of civil war. The UFT-comprised of a majority of Jewish teachers, and the ATA, the African American Teacher’s Association were in disagreement. Previously both parties had been allies and worked together to include black history in the curriculum of New York schools, however the issue of community control changed that allegiance.  As the Local school board, the black community had diversified its administration by firing a total of 83 workers from the district. Black teachers supported community control and saw UFT as a detriment to black leadership.

The black community leaders wanted to promote classrooms that would support black students, and this created tension between the black community and the UFT. Another issue at the forefront that contributed to blacks wanting community control was the way white teachers were disciplining black students. Dr. Martin Luther King went so far as to write UFT President Albert Shanker about ceasing to handle black student misbehavior by way of police force.

            The clash between UFT and ATA became racialized when Shanker claimed the UFT teachers were let go due to Anti Semitism and claimed ATA was promoting black power. Shanker’s Anti-Semitism remarks were not proven due to the black community’s hiring of Jewish teachers with the Oceanhill Brownsville community. The cuts that the Oceanhill Brownsville local school board made were not the first involuntary transfers were made in the district, and the UFT had not challenged the decision before. Normally the cuts were based on poor performance, not to support community control i.e black teachers and administrators. The ATA’s aim was not to undermine a union, or fire teachers, or deny due process for teachers; they were embraced to help black children and take responsibility for the children. When decentralization went through, middle class whites feared and disliked “the messages they would promote.”

Shanker continued to fight decentralization arguing the UFT teachers were let go without due process and that it was an injustice.

            In late May the majority of the UFT teachers (close to 58,000) went on strike and vowed not to return until the UFT teachers were given their jobs back. New York public schools were closed for 36 days while Brownsville schools stayed open and test scores got better. The end to the strike came on November 17th 1968 when the New York Education commissioner took control over Oceanhill Brownesvile, reinstated the teachers and transferred three principals. The reentry of the white teachers boiled tension between UFT and Black activists.

            UFT’s ideology was shifty. They resisted the image of being white supremacist and claimed to be for integration, and civil rights. For the UFT the claim was that the strikes where about workers rights and merit and claimed the same actions would be taken if the UFT was predominantly black. This positioned as taking a Marxist stance while accusing the ATA as being black nationalists. The UFT had the opportunity to support a previous boycott in 1966 but did not because of fear of the board, however when the board became black they launched the longest strike in the history of New York.

            Afterthe Oceanhill Brownsville crisis UFT and ATA, and the black community never quite reconciled. The backlash from whites about the Oceanhill Brownsville community board led to the disposition of UFT teachers from civil rights allies to align with neo conservatives and neo liberal whites, rather than blacks. Teachers entered into this elite white community only to be laid off by the thousands. Ever since those 20,000 people got laid off the UFT has made little progress in the rights of teachers. The UFT’s opposition of black needs, and their cuts made by white elites isolated them. Blacks and poor whites particularly in the labor force have a long history animosity towards each other, often because they are eligible for the same jobs and each feel entitled to privileges that they have long been denied. The end of the Oceanhill Brownville crisis was a case of working whites and working blacks being pinned against each other to fill the pockets of the white elite, and in cases like this only the elite win.



Works Cited

"Little Known Black History Fact: Ocean Hill Brownsville School Conflict." Black America Web RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.

McGrail, Kenneth R. "New York City School Decentralization:The Respective Powers of The City Board of Education and the Community School Boards." Fordham Urban Law Journal, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.

"Ocean Hill-Brownsville Reexamined - Jewish Currents." Jewish Currents. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.

"The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis." Socialism and Democracy. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.