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An Interpretive Report

By David Blumenthal

Mayor White's intercession last week seems to have quieted Boston's school crisis, but the relief is likely to be only temporary. Like most mayors across the country, Kevin White is fighting disruptions in two interlocking revolutions--one in race relations, the other in techniques of administration--and his power to deal with the problems is distinctly limited.

The school upheaval started when blacks at Dorchester's English High School demanded permission to form an all black Afro-American Club and to wear African dashikis instead of the customary coats and ties. English's headmaster granted the dress request, but the School Department refused to allow the blacks to form their own club. The blacks walked out, and were joined by white students protesting the coat and tie rule.

White involvement faded however, as black parents joined their demonstrating children and the protests spread throughout the city. Encouraged by community groups, parents started chanting for community control of school; before long, demonstrations became near-riots and the School Committee was crying for the national guard. Only after Mayor White intervened, promising an investigation of community grievances against the school system, did the schools regain a facade of normality.

As the demonstrations got out of hand, and the number of actors on the scene multiplied, the issues in the crisis became increasingly confused. The demonstrators' demands, however, boiled down to two distinct requests for decentralizing the authority of the school department.

The first demand came from students looking for more control over their school lives. The crisis was in large part a spontaneous cry for student power, and it was to some degree successful. Students won the power to make their own dress codes, and in at least one case--Boston Latin--they actually voted to retain the coat and tie rule.

Stifling School Committee

The second demand for decentralization came from parents asking control of their children's schools. Though phrased in administrative terms, the issue of community control in education is essentially racial in character. Frustrated by the failures of core city school systems and their unresponsiveness to demands for change, black parents no longer regard central school authorities as legitimate. The School Committee got an undiluted taste of the explosiveness of the issue in early September when blacks boycotted the Gibson elementary school in Dorchester. The boycott cut attendance in half for ten days when many black students attended a "liberation school" in a nearby neighborhood center.

Mayor White responded to these demands by forming a six-man committee to investigate reforms in the Boston Schools. But for a number of reasons the device seems unlikely either to stimulate real reform or to convince blacks that their grievances are getting adequate hearing.

When the committee eventually makes its recommendations, the mayor will still have a hard time pushing them through Boston's obstinate School Committee. The mayor's only direct lever in school affairs is his power to veto increases in the School budget each year. That is hardly a sufficient weapon to convince the School Committee to approve broad-reaching reforms. The mayor is counting therefore on using indirect political pressure on the Committee. Any proposal, of course, will have his authority behind it. It will also be backed by the authority of the six-man committee--a group whose members, including two Negroes and a Monseigneur, have been carefully chosen to represent a broad spectrum of Boston politics. Whether this combined authority will bring the Committee around is far from clear.

Not Satisfactory

More basically it is unlikely that the Mayor's Committee will come up with anything that will satisfy blacks or students. While the mayor is "moving toward community involvement," as one aide to White puts it, he still opposes community control in the extreme form which most community people seek.

Equally important, the community has failed in its most immediate and critical task: convincing all the parties in the controversy that someone is really listening to their case. Mayor White appointed the two black members of the Committee, a power which community leaders insist should have been left to Roxbury's Black United Front. Students are also pointing out that they have no representatives on the mayor's group.

The Mayor's action has given the city some time, but it promises no instant solutions to the crisis. The controversy will probably be out on the streets again before very long

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