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The Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ union strike of 1968 is best-remembered as one of the moments when the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association became the most-dominant players in education policy. It showed that teachers unions were willing to mobilize and stop classroom instruction in order to achieve their goal of making teaching the most-lucrative public sector profession. It is also the moment that ended a muscular form of American philanthropy that began earlier in the 20th century with the construction of libraries by Andrew Carnegie; outrage over the role of the Ford Foundation in spurring the school reform effort that led to the AFT strike resulted in the first significant federal regulations over foundations.

But for those studying the history of family engagement in education, Ocean Hill-Brownsville is also a critical moment. The efforts of the AFT and the response of state and New York City school officials to the strike made clear the reality that parents were expected to be seen and not heard. And 41 years later, the lessons for school reformers — and particularly, for parent power advocates — is clear: Those who have influence in education will behave amorally in attempting to keep it (especially if they have legal standing to do so). And it will take mass mobilization, energy and strategic thinking to force parents and families into their rightful role as kings and lead decision-makers in education at every level.

When the AFT began the first of its strikes in May 1968, it was ostensibly over the removal of 13 teachers (along with six administrators) that the mostly-black parent- and community-controlled board Ocean Hill-Brownsville board deemed incompetent and unwilling to go along with the decentralization plan. Even though the teachers were still employed by the New York City Board of Education (and would be allowed to keep their jobs, albeit sitting in offices at the school system’s main offices in Brooklyn), the AFT argued that the teachers were denied due process. The president of the AFT local, future national AFT president Albert Shanker, declared that he would oppose the firing any way he can.

But the strike was just the most-public step in a battle between school reformers of the time such as Ford Foundation — who wanted to give black parents an alternative to the woeful traditional public education system and the ability to be the lead decision-makers in schools — and the AFT, which wanted to ensure that their recently-won influence over school decisions remained intact. The AFT initially supported the effort to carve out Ocean Hill-Brownsville and two other decentralized school systems from the rest of the New York City school district, but then opposed the effort when Ocean Hill-Brownsville and other districts asserted that they had the management right to transfer teachers to and from the district regardless of seniority. Although Ocean Hill-Brownsville was not exactly the place where the mostly-white AFT rank-and-file teachers would want to be, the fact that the district’s board would even dare to assert power just a few years after the AFT won its influence (in an earlier strike) was to the union and its leadership, just too bold to let stand. From where the union sat, its influence (and to a lesser extent, ability to protect teachers from wrongful firings) were more important than the right of parents to actually improve education for their kids by any means necessary.

So when Ocean Hill-Brownsville moved to transfer the 13 teachers most-resistant to the new regime, the AFT demanded their return (the teachers, by the way, refused to even report to work at the Board of Education’s offices). When the community board and district boss Rhody McCoy, refused, the AFT began strikes and litigation to force Ocean Hill-Brownsville to bring the teachers back into their jobs.

Over the next few months, the parent power effort was ground down into ashes. New York City Mayor John Lindsey, who initially backed the creation of the districts, demanded that Ocean Hill-Brownsville reinstate the teachers; the New York City Board of Education’s superintendent, Bernard Donovan, also demanded the same. By June, an independent examiner ruled in favor of the AFT and reinstated the teachers back into the district. Only the refusal by McCoy and the board refused to let the teachers back in prolonged the battle. They had the backing of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community, who naturally (and legitimately) saw both the AFT and the New York City powers that be as being thoroughly opposed to letting black parents actually have a say in running schools. When Ocean Hill-Brownsville shut down three schools where the removed teachers had worked in order to keep them out (a move which was not smart or good for kids), parents improvised by starting their own schools in storefronts and in homes around the area.

By September, New York State’s Education Department stepped in to mediate the dispute, pushing for both Ocean Hill-Brownsville and the AFT to split the proverbial baby. But neither was willing to do so. But the battle was already lost. Ocean Hill-Brownsville and the parents who backed them were opposed not only by the union and city and state officials. The Big Apple’s white (and often union-friendly) residents, already annoyed by efforts to force integration of the schools their kids attended (and angered by the city’s overall decline in quality-of-life), were more than willing to back the AFT (which they saw as force for merit) than black parents (with whom they often didn’t socialize in settings other than work). The fact that these kids had long been denied a high-quality education as defined at the time didn’t factor into the thinking of these adults (or into that of the AFT and the officials backing them).

By November, the state managed to replace the Ocean Hill-Brownsville board with a trustee and brought the teachers back onto the job. Although the AFT didn’t look good to civil rights activists or black families at the time, it didn’t matter because it advanced its growing influence. Besides getting the teachers back on the job, the AFT also wrung out an agreement that bound all the districts to its version of due process. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville effort fizzled into the New York City school bureaucracy and would get trapped in a cycle of incompetence and academic failure that would only begin to cease a decade ago with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s successful takeover of the system.

It’s easy to just blame the AFT. But the union didn’t act alone. The school decentralization concept was flawed from the get-go, largely because the central school system never really let go of its power; the teachers were still employees of the system, and the powers to transfer teachers were never really clarified in any way. The better move would have been to essentially pursue what would be now called the creation of charter schools, which would sever the bureaucracy from the operation of schools, forcing those who operate them to actually serve parents and kids. But that idea was not one that would have come to mind at the time. And given the unwillingness of all the players in education decision-making to hand real power to parents, it was a miracle that Ocean Hill-Brownsville even got a chance to exist.

More than four decades later, Ocean Hill-Brownsville still remain as relevant as ever, largely because the same battles fought then are happening now.

Even before Ocean Hill-Brownsville, teachers unions, school boards, superintendents and administrators considered parents and the groups that represented them to be little more than tools for their co-opting. As Temple University Professor William W. Cutler III noted in Parents and Schools: The 150-year struggle for control in American education, parents groups such as the United Parents Association in New York City were often enlisted as partners to further their goals and little else. Giving parents real power — especially the Virginia Walden Fords, Malkin Dares and other noisy parent power activists — was never in their plans. The fact that many of the early groups that arose to represent parents were run by middle-class women whose desire to improve the lot of poor kids were mixed in with their own disdain for their parents also played a part in this co-opting.

By the time of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a generation of what we would now call Parent Power activists realized that they were getting the short end of the stick in education policy and practice. But at that time, there were few tools available to wage a strong fight. Thanks to the emergence of charter schools, vouchers and the efforts to hold schools and teachers accountable for performance through the modern school reform movement, Parent Power can now become a reality. So has the re-emergence of muscular philanthropy, this in the form of the efforts of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. None of this is music to the ears of those currently holding court at decision-making tables.

The opposition of the AFT and NEA to the expansion of charter schools — the most-successful form of school choice, family engagement and Parent Power currently in existence — is as much about the ability of the two unions to maintain their now-dwindling influence over education decisions as it is about the fact that the schools have largely avoided thorough unionization. School vouchers are even less beloved by the unions. For their allies among education traditionalists — including suburban districts and supposed civil rights activists such as Richard D. Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation — the idea that parents should even have some modicum of influence over instruction and curriculum, much less full power, is an anathema to their limited, often wrong-headed vision of what American public education should be.

As parents in Compton, Calif., attempting to use the state’s Parent Trigger law to force out the school district’s control of McKinley Elementary School have also found out, the battles will not be easy. Beside the combined resources of the district and its AFT local, there is the reality that state laws and regulations governing education often act as much protection for the status quo. As seen in other school reform debates — including over the use of reverse seniority layoff rules — it doesn’t matter that kids are hurt by keeping bad policies in place. This isn’t to say that defenders of traditional public education practices don’t care about children; you have to take people at their word and besides, I think many of them do. But the choices and the policies they support belie their convictions.

Let’s be plain and clear: The efforts to deny parents power in education is absolutely shameful. After all, traditionalists often demand parents to be fully engaged in education, yet are so unwilling to let them play roles beyond staffing field trips and working with kids on homework. It is wrong from both a civil rights and systemic reform of education perspective. If education is the greatest civil rights and human rights issue of our generation, we can’t improve the system without bringing parents and families on board as leading players; from a systems theory perspective, you also need parents in order to make things happen.

Most importantly, from a religious and ethical humanist perspective, denying parent power in education is purely immoral and unethical. Parents and families are charged with being the nurturers and caretakers of their children; arguing that this role doesn’t extend into actual decision-making in education (even as they are bashed by status quo defenders for a lack of engagement) violates every tenet in every religious and ethical text on the planet. And considering that this denial of parent power hurts children from poor and minority families — the ones subjected to the worst public education offers — worst of all, it is means that these kids are being sentenced to poverty and prison.

As Dropout Nation declared in this Sunday’s podcast, our kids get one shot every day to get the high-quality education they need to write their own stories. Their parents cannot on the sidelines waiting for so-called experts to spur reform. They must exercise power in education. And there is no basis, moral or otherwise, to deny it to them.

For parents and other grassroots school reformers, along with reformers in the Beltway and running charter schools, they have the moral right (along with the right as taxpayers) to reform American public education. But they must heed the lessons from Ocean Hill-Brownsville to be successful: They must be as masterful in understanding and shaping the legislative and rule-making processes as they are at getting signatures for petitions. They must fully educate parents about what high-quality education should look like and how to expand influence. It is as important to play the public relations game as it is to pursue what is right. And it is critical to hold politicians accountable for school reform; those who oppose reform should be voted out swiftly.

It is high time for parents to be seen, heard and felt in education. We can’t wait for traditionalists to open doors. It’s time to blast them open. And it is important to take the lessons of Ocean Hill-Brownsville and use them to build Parent Power.

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