After last November's School Committee election, almost all political observers agreed that Boston's progressive forces had suffered a stunning setback. The overwhelming winner was Mrs. Louise Day Hicks, archfoe of attempts to correct de facto segregation in the city's schools, the losers were the reform candidates, including the outstanding liberal incumbent Arthur Gartland, who had received the endorsement of the Citizens for Boston Public Schools and other progressive groups.
Ironically, the election's effect has been just the opposite: the prospects for reform are greater now than at any other time during the past four years. Credit for the School Committee's recent achievements belongs primarily to its new chairman--a moderate but aggressive twenty-nine year old lawyer--Thomas S. Eisenstadt.
In the past few weeks, Eisenstadt has pledged compliance with the state's sweeping racial imbalance law, proposed a comprehensive new guidance system, hired a public relations expert to boost the school system's image, and secured adoption of Madison Park as the site for a new campus-type high school. None of these moves would have been possible during the turbulent rule of Chairman Hicks, whose obsession with the shibboleth of the neighborhood school blinded her to almost all channels of progress.
When Eisenstadt was inaugurated as chairman last January, he declared that his primary aim was to soothe the hatred engendered by the racial imbalance controversy, and in so doing free the school committee for more positive action.
"But, most importantly, we shall have thereby generated a climate in which rancor can be displaced by the spirit of charity, bitterness by compassion, fear by understanding; a climate in which good will shall flourish and abide in the hearts of our fellow citizens who have been torn by three stormy years of conflict and turmoil over the issue of racial impalance in our schools."
To achieve this new state of calm deliberation, Eisenstadt has attacked both the racists and the more militant elements of the civil rights movement. In his view Mrs. Hicks and the civil rights leaders were guilty of stirring up the de facto segregation issue for their own selfish, political purposes. He is convinced, for example, that Mrs. Hicks would have been defeated in both the 1963 and 1965 elections had she not been able to capitalize on the fear and hatred that the issue of imbalance created. On the other side, he attributes a good deal of the pressure to the efforts of agitators from outside the city. He blames much of the trouble on Southerners, who have recently come into Boston and brought their old attitudes with them, without any regard for the changed conditions.
Last summer, for instance, he was incensed at the character of the sit-ins held in the School Committee's offices. "I asked the fellow who was trying to keep me from getting to my desk just who he was and what he thought he was doing," Eisenstadt said. "He said he was from Alabama and that he'd only lived in Massachusetts for two days. Now, the only reason that that man was in my office was because he was told to be there. He had no understanding of the issues involved and no business being there."
Eisenstadt's position has won him both friends and enemies. Perhaps his, most influential supporter is Boston's Mayor John Collins. While Collins has never openly endorsed him, the Mayor has given subtle indications of appreciation for Eisenstadt's recent efforts to improve the image of the city's schools. Last month, for example, Collins predicted at a Boston banquet that Eisenstadt would rise to a position of still greater power in city government. This statement could only mean that the Mayor envisions the School Committee's chairman as his likely successor.
Eisenstadt's chief opposition comes from the Hicks-Lee-O'Connor axis of the committee, which has refused to admit either the existence of racial imbalance or the need for constructive action. Many of the more ardent Civil Rights leaders are also hostile to Eisenstadt, regarding him as a political opportunist with no strong convictions. While they may vote for him, they have never trusted him as one of their own.
Eisenstadt is acutely aware of his image problem. He blames both the newspapers and the intransigents for his present difficulties, accusing each of sensationalizing the issues, and thereby exaggerating the positions of the participants. As a result, the man in the middle is ignored by both press and public. He is made to seem weak, inconsistent, and unprincipled. The moderate is mistaken for the opportunist.
This feeling of being misunderstood has led Eisenstadt to preoccupy himself with publicity. Typically, he believes that many of the problems of the school system are rooted in its image and could be corrected without any fundamental changes in structure. One basic difficulty, he insists, is that Boston newspapers are geared to a suburban readership. Their aim is to flatter the suburbanite, and all too often this flattery becomes a destructive comparison of the city with the suburb; criticism of the city becomes a way of justifying the suburbanite's flight from Boston.
"Never have I seen a series in the Boston newspapers of a positive nature," Eisenstadt said. "Never have I seen a series pointing out the magnificent things we've accomplished--pioneer programs, new schools, beautiful classrooms. They've been accentuating the negative because that's what their suburban readers want to hear."
His answer has been to combine the innovations he forced into the previously stagnated system with the imaginative efforts of a new, full-time public relations director. The advantage of this solution--assuming it succeeds in creating a rosier image for the school system--is that the city would be better prepared to enter the highly competitive market for teachers. The disadvantage is that the pressure for correcting the school system's deficiencies would be eased by a false sense of security.
Eisenstadt can hardly be classified as a liberal. He is a pragmatist in the grand tradition of old Boston politics who recognizes that the first duty of the politican is to get elected and who freely admits his driving ambition to achieve more political power. Still, in a few short weeks his chairmanship has resulted in a series of reforms and--more important--in a positive and businesslike atmosphere which will continue to make the Committee receptive to innovation.
The vital question is why this man is succeeding where others have failed so miserably. The answer seems to be that he is not tied down to any limiting political ideology. As a result, he possesses a rare degree of flexibility. In a city whose views on education have become as polarized as those of Boston, progress depends on the ability to compromise, and this in turn depends on a nondoctrinaire approach.
In short, the city is probably not yet ready for the crusading liberal. First its warring factions must be united and the damage of the past four years undone. This is what the new chairman of the School Committee is trying to accomplish.