Decentralization, Decolonization, and the Not So Local Dimensions of Local Control

By Lauren Lefty

Editors' Note: This is part of a roundtable series,“New Histories of Education in New York City.” For an introduction and overview, click here.

In our fourth post, Lauren Lefty asks us what the story of community control looks like from a Puerto Rican perspective. She excavates histories of transnationalism and empire from above and below; elite ideas and policies from the “culture of poverty” to charter schools circulated between island and mainland, while grassroots organizers mobilized transnational networks along a “continual line of self-determination.” When we take empire and decolonization seriously, and see schools as “a key site to engage questions of sovereignty,” “local control” is not so local at all.

In a 1970 issue of Palante!, the Young Lords’ bi-monthly publication, Richie Peréz links the actions at Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem to the anti-imperial struggle being waged in Puerto Rico and the Third World more broadly.

In a 1970 issue of Palante!, the Young Lords’ bi-monthly publication, Richie Peréz links the actions at Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem to the anti-imperial struggle being waged in Puerto Rico and the Third World more broadly.

Four years after the I.S. 201 controversy, and two years after the explosive 1968 teachers strikes, East Harlem’s Benjamin Franklin High School found itself at the center of yet another community control battle. After the transfer of a long-time principal to a nearby high school, community members decided to elect one of the acting deans to assume the vacant position, a former black teacher from the neighborhood who received local parents’ stamp of approval. After the Board of Education denied this request based on claims of inadequate qualification, students staged a walk-out, 4,400 pupils boycotted classes, and students and parent activists eventually occupied the building until their demands were met. The New York Times framed the event as yet another community control dispute in the black-white standoff that now characterized city politics. Yet what the Times reporter failed to mention were the Puerto Rican flags draped from the second floor windows of the brick building on Pleasant Ave., and the unique perspective the hundreds of involved Puerto Rican students, parents, and activists brought to the table. As Richie Perez phrased it in Palante!, the periodical of the Puerto Rican Young Lords, “The issue at Franklin is not just a matter of a principal. It’s a matter of whether of not we have the right to control our own lives…Seize the Schools! Que Viva Puerto Rico libre!”[1]

A number of contributions to this roundtable, as well as important recent published works, have expanded the idea of the 1960s schools crisis to better reflect the demographic diversity of those involved. Rather than just a black vs. white standoff, we are now beginning to see the story of community control—and the story of postwar New York City more broadly—as one influenced by the unique experiences of Caribbean, Chinese, Dominican, South Asian, and various other immigrant groups, in addition to African Americans and whites of various ethnic backgrounds.

Taking the migrant or immigrant experience as a jumping off point urges us to go beyond just adding new voices to the multicultural mix, however. It also calls for a fundamental reframing of the narrative—temporally, geographically, and ideologically—as the previous post demonstrated with Caribbean immigrants and Catholicism. When we add the Puerto Rican voice, for example, a group that represented one in every four New York City public school students in the mid-1960s, and one half of the the infamous I.S. 201 “50% Black, 50% Puerto Rican” integration formula, we must also consider two central aspects of Puerto Rican life, and community control, that often go overlooked: transnationalism and empire.

A long history of border-crossing figures and global political dynamics shaped New York City education politics then, as today. This makes it difficult to fully grasp the complexity of the decentralization campaign when the the narrative bookends begin and end at the the five boroughs, or even the fifty states. Puerto Rican parents, students, teachers, education activists, and government officials drew on connections to the island and its long history of U.S. imperialism to craft their views on community control in New York. And events in New York in turn impacted developments on the island. As what scholars have termed a “transnational colonial population,”[2] Puerto Ricans cannot be severed from their island-based ties and Latin American political, intellectual, and cultural roots, a tradition which for decades critiqued the imperial power of the Colossus to the North, often through the realm of education.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Puerto Rico’s first elected governor, Luís Muñoz Marín, on the cover of the Puerto Rican The Department of Public Instruction’s periodical Educación.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Puerto Rico’s first elected governor, Luís Muñoz Marín, on the cover of the Puerto Rican The Department of Public Instruction’s periodical Educación.

In fact, education served as one of the leading realms of imperial negotiation for Puerto Ricans since the U.S. gained control of the island in 1898, a tradition that carried over to the diaspora during the postwar Puerto Rican Great Migration. A first generation of migrants could claim direct experience with island-based education reforms of the 1950s and early 1960s, when Puerto Rico gained “local control” of its political and educational system from U.S. overseers for the first time in its history. After a transition from a territorial possession to a Commonwealth, a move tied up in the complicated Cold War politics of the day, the school became a preferred tool for the new government to build its economy and forge a Puerto Rican patria despite sustained economic and political dependency as part of the controversial new status agreement.

Under the leadership of the first elected governor, Luís Muñoz Marín, the government rapidly expanded the school system, summarily changed the official language of instruction in schools back to Spanish from English, taught Puerto Rican history and culture for the very first time, and bankrolled an outpouring of new books, films, and music to promote a sense of cultural sovereignty. As one researcher phrased it in a 1955 study of education’s role in the new Commonwealth, “When a society shakes off the lethargy and anguish of its colonialism, when it begins to reshape itself, it also re-examines its educational system, revitalizes it, expands it, reshapes it in line with society’s total human aims.”[3] As a conspicuous symbol and the most quotidian interface with Muñoz Marín’s U.S.-backed development approach, schools also became a prominent realm of protest. Opinions about the island’s status often found voice in educational forums, as debates about what should be taught, who should teach it, and to what end functioned as stand ins for contests over the structure of Puerto Rican society and its postwar trajectory.

New grassroots leaders of the Great Puerto Rican Migration of the late ‘40s to the mid-‘60s likewise turned to schools to negotiate the terms of sovereignty for Puerto Ricans on the mainland. In fact, educational opportunity became arguably the strategy for postwar mainland Puerto Ricans to advance socially and economically, and work out their status issues in a society that defined them as national citizens but treated them as cultural and racial Others. Directly related to experiences on the island and the Cold War political climate, as well as the more often recognized influence of the African American civil rights movement, some of the most prominent twentieth-century New York-based Puerto Rican community organizations focused on issues of educational achievement and cultural pride, filling children’s reading hours with tales of island heroes, and crafting youth club rituals and activities around Puerto Rican history and culture in the service of community uplift. I argue this island-influenced strategy of community self-determination and cultural nationalism, as expressed by Antonia Pantoja’s ASPIRA and Pura Belpre’s work at the New York Public Library, for example, laid some early groundwork for the bicultural, bilingual, ethnic studies demands of the more radical community control movement that came to fruition by the late 60s, alongside longstanding traditions of black nationalism.

A caption from the September 1952 edition of Educación reads: As a symbol of the sovereignty of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the single-starred Puerto Rican flag gracefully waves in the air on the flagpole of the Department of Public Instruction since last July 25th. However, it was illegal under the “Gag Law” for Puerto Rican citizens to own or fly their own flag, sing patriotic songs, or speak of independence until 1957, a prohibition passed by Muñoz’s Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) intended to quell the independence movement.

A caption from the September 1952 edition of Educación reads: As a symbol of the sovereignty of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the single-starred Puerto Rican flag gracefully waves in the air on the flagpole of the Department of Public Instruction since last July 25th. However, it was illegal under the “Gag Law” for Puerto Rican citizens to own or fly their own flag, sing patriotic songs, or speak of independence until 1957, a prohibition passed by Muñoz’s Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) intended to quell the independence movement.

While a second generation of Nuyoricans in the late 1960s and ‘70s couldn’t claim direct experience with island-based education and status politics, they nonetheless drew on visits to the island, political and cultural connections with island-based activists and family members, and a late Cold War internationalist perspective to shape their stances on education politics in New York. And like their parents, the public school system continued to serve as a key site to engage questions of Puerto Rican sovereignty. As Lorrin Thomas notes in her study of Puerto Rican political history in New York throughout the twentieth century, sovereignty was a malleable category, conceived of more literally for some, in the form of political independence from the United States, and more symbolically for others, alluding to more localized expressions of power and control over one’s interiority in an age when Franz Fanon spoke of decolonization of the mind.[4] For others, it meant both. At heart the question of community control was the question of who was fit to govern, which linked to a long history of racialized imperial paternalism on the island and greater Latin America.

The Puerto Rican Young Lords and other radical activists, for example, understood themselves as Third World citizens of both internal colonies on the mainland and an island colony in the Caribbean. Control of institutions such as schools stood at the heart of their struggle, an anti-colonial and anti-capitalist campaign waged against the United States. As one Young Lord noted in relation to a reading group that incorporated works on Latin American history and anti-colonial theory, “Our whole history was one continual line of struggle for self-determination” —- a struggle that extended to “community control of land and institutions,” including schools.[5]

For less overtly radical activists, such as those involved with ASPIRA and the United Bronx Parents, community control was still wrapped up in the nationalism question on the island, as well as the civil rights-inspired organizing that is more often recognized in the community control literature. Though deemed the more mainstream of the Puerto Rican activist groups, ASPIRA clubs named high school chapters after the famed independence leader Pedro Albizu Campos, and passionately denounced U.S. colonialism in their student publications. Evelina Lopez Antonetty, founder of the United Bronx Parents and one of the leading Puerto Rican voices on educational justice and community control, wrote in a 1971 pamphlet, “Just as Puerto Rico has suffered from years of “injusticia colonial,” so the Puerto Rican child suffers in New York City...we don’t want to have a ‘Grito de Nueva York,’ But if we have to, we will,” making overt reference to the Grito de Lares, the celebrated nineteenth century cry for Puerto Rican independence.[6]

This image from Palante! visualizes the conceptualization of the links between Puerto Ricans on the island and mainland

This image from Palante! visualizes the conceptualization of the links between Puerto Ricans on the island and mainland

While not all Nuyoricans agreed with the more radical claims of the Young Lords and independentistas, tying control of schools to island independence, this did not signal a denial of American empire or a localized myopia. Rather, stances regarding issues like community control often mirrored the complex, strategic negotiations with American power that played out on the island in relation to the status issue, which did and still produces a myriad of viewpoints on the nature of Puerto Rican sovereignty.

The transnational, imperial dimensions of the decentralization campaign also existed at the high rungs of policy, as well as the grassroots. As liberal establishment icons set out to solve the city’s so called “Black and Puerto Rican problem” from the polished offices of the Ford Foundation, City Hall, and the city’s leading universities, they often drew on ideologies formulated through interactions with developing nations to craft their policies for what they deemed the domestic underdeveloped at home. In 1964 the Representative from New York, and future mayor, John Lindsay expressed a common belief when he stated, “Harlem has many of the features of underdeveloped countries…” Journalist I.F. Stone agreed when he wrote in 1968, “In an age of decolonization, it may be fruitful to regard the problem of the American Negro as a unique case of colonialism, an instance of internal imperialism, an underdeveloped people in our very midst.”[7] And because a large percentage of those living in the “urban ghetto colonies” alongside African Americans came from an island neo-colony that had been used as a Cold War laboratory for American-style development for the past two decades, they naturally turned there for inspiration to solve problems of racialized poverty and increasingly emboldened black nationalism in New York.

McGeorge Bundy of the Bundy Panel on School Decentralization, here pictured with President Lyndon Johnson, played a key role in the I.S. 201 crisis and the decentralization of the NYC Department of Education as President of the Ford Foundation. Yet as Johnson’s former National Security Advisor and an influential advocate of intervention in Vietnam, he likewise brought his foreign policy experience and ideas about modernization theory, development aid, and quelling anti-imperial nationalist movements to the community control battles of New York.

McGeorge Bundy of the Bundy Panel on School Decentralization, here pictured with President Lyndon Johnson, played a key role in the I.S. 201 crisis and the decentralization of the NYC Department of Education as President of the Ford Foundation. Yet as Johnson’s former National Security Advisor and an influential advocate of intervention in Vietnam, he likewise brought his foreign policy experience and ideas about modernization theory, development aid, and quelling anti-imperial nationalist movements to the community control battles of New York.

Puerto Rico became a vaunted “showcase for democracy” and Cold War public relations gem in the 1950s and 1960s. Its postwar development program, Operation Bootstrap (not so subtly invoking the safe for capitalism dogma of individualized self-help), served as a model for American-style development within a culturally Hispanic “traditional society” setting that also successfully managed to quell an anti-imperial independence movement. Thousands of visitors from across the world visited the island to witness these reforms, and its architects helped craft what later became the U.S.’s leading Cold War development program in Latin America, the Alliance for Progress. Yet Bootstrap and Alliance for Progress programs, including its education policies, also became a source of inspiration for domestic development programs by the mid and late 1960s, when many Cold Warriors returned home to work on President Johnson’s Great Society and issues involving race relations. [8]

These policy-level transnational connections should not be overlooked in the story of community control. A number of education researchers who would later become involved in New York’s community control debates conducted studies in Puerto Rico, went there on exchange trips throughout the 1950s and 1960s, or were involved in Cold War international development work in some other form. Prior to becoming an influential player in NYC decentralization politics, the Ford Foundation and its President McGeorge Bundy (of the Bundy Panel on school decentralization and Lyndon Johnson’s former National Security Advisor), supported many community development and education projects in the Global South, and was an active funder of Puerto Rico’s “community-based” but pro-American community education initiatives. In fact, Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Instruction, which maintained close ties with influential New York-based figures, had actually advanced a program of community education since 1949, and began decentralizing its school system by the mid 1960s, a few years before New York. Oscar Lewis’ influential tome La Vida, which helped advance the culture of poverty thesis that shaped much of the Johnson Era’s educational programming and the discourse on decentralization politics, was also written in San Juan and based on a family living between the poor urban barrios of New York’s East Harlem and San Juan’s La Perla.

While establishment support for decentralization may not have carried such a radical anti-imperial impulse—arguably the opposite, its eventual compliance with greater levels of community control nonetheless arose from strategically managed, anti-communist and anti-nationalist community development experiences in Puerto Rico and the newly termed Third World, where sovereignty was daily being negotiated on the Cold War battlefield.

Support for decentralization therefore grew from a variety of impulses emanating from both the top-down and bottom-up, from Black Nationalism as well as Latin American anti-imperialism, and from oft-forgotten Cold War connections with the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the newly decolonized Third World. While histories of I.S. 201, the 1968 teachers strike and decentralization often focus on race and the politics of the late civil rights movement -- no doubt central to these battles, they often obscure the equally crucial and intertwined issues of sovereignty and empire during a period of significant U.S. intervention abroad, particularly in Latin America. In that way the eventual embrace of local control grew not only from the racial politics of the postwar city and the failures of integration, but also from the collision of Cold War and global decolonization politics, and a massive wave of Latin American and Caribbean migration to the city that brought these imperial politics home. The contours of local control, then, were not so local at all.

The Past as Present

On his recent visit to Cuba, President Barack Obama declared that it’s high time to bury the Cold War. It’s hard to disagree. Yet many of that era’s underlying themes are still relevant to New York’s education politics today, and encourage us to consider the dynamics of transnationalism and empire as we work toward educational justice, in intersection with the more commonly discussed (and highly related) issues of race and ethnicity.

Education continues to serve as a site to engage broader global ideological battles of our time, as well as negotiate the terms of sovereignty for the historically powerless. We may have moved beyond postwar capitalism vs. communism, but neoliberalism, for example -- a faith in markets, competition, and a small state, is the current guiding ideology behind American empire and the education reform movement that has reshaped New York’s school system -- as well as many school systems across Latin America. Recent massive protests in Mexico City against teacher evaluations, in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo against school closings, and in Chile and Argentina against efforts at privatization, demonstrate the grassroots opposition to these policies and their overt engagement with the ideology of neoliberalism and American power.

Latin American immigrants and Puerto Rican migrants also continue to move to the U.S. in large numbers, reflected in the rising number of Latino students in the NYC school system -- 40% according to 2015 DOE statistics. These families bring with them specific histories and experiences which educators should take into account, including experiences with American intervention and and its dominant ideologies, such as neoliberal education reform. And just like the 1960s and 70s, these views intermingle with longstanding U.S.-based traditions of self-determination and critiques of capitalism and empire, or negotiation with and embrace of American ideas.

Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, Puerto Rico still embodies these hemispheric dynamics. The recent Puerto Rican debt crisis brought the fact of American empire once again to the fore, as the island’s inability to declare chapter nine bankruptcy highlighted the colonial aspects of the Commonwealth status for mainland audiences. Puerto Ricans themselves needed no reminder. And education has again become a key battleground to engage the nature of American power and its guiding capitalist ideology, as U.S.-based policymakers and a recently approved fiscal control board (with clear imperial overtones) recommend the continued closing of schools, the firing of teachers, and greater privatization of one of the largest school systems serving American citizens today. Over 140 schools have already closed on the island since 2014, much to the dismay of teachers, parents, and students that haven taken to the streets to contest these policies, linking them to larger issues of the island’s political status, the influence of American hedge funds, and the politics of neoliberal austerity. And thousands of citizens leave for the mainland per month—84,000 in 2014 alone—with recent experiences of these island-based politics.

Puerto Rican educators march in the streets of Old San Juan protesting Project 1456, which allows the fast-tracking of school closures and the requirement to open new charter-type schools. Their signs read “We demand respect for school autonomy” and carry a sign of an imperial Uncle Sam.

Puerto Rican educators march in the streets of Old San Juan protesting Project 1456, which allows the fast-tracking of school closures and the requirement to open new charter-type schools. Their signs read “We demand respect for school autonomy” and carry a sign of an imperial Uncle Sam.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with neoliberal education reform, charter schools or no charter schools, independence, statehood, or commonwealth status, is not the point here -- many Puerto Ricans themselves disagree. The point is that these education policies and attitudes towards them develop in a global, border-defying context, heightened by the presence of transnational Latino communities living in the U.S. that bring the politics of American empire home.

Those involved in New York City education politics today would do well to consider the ways in which the policies coming from Tweed are part of a larger global phenomenon, and the ways in which its centralized power is tied up with questions of sovereignty for minority and immigrant populations. They should also recognize the opportunities for solidarity with communities across the Americas, and across the ages, if they disagree.

Puerto Rican protestors march in the streets of New York holding signs that read, “The worst virus is colonialism” and “Saying no to the fiscal board is saying no to colonialism”

Puerto Rican protestors march in the streets of New York holding signs that read, “The worst virus is colonialism” and “Saying no to the fiscal board is saying no to colonialism”

Lauren Lefty is a doctoral candidate in History of Education at New York University. She is the recipient of the 2016 National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship for her thesis, "Seize the Schools, Que Viva Puerto Rico Libre: Cold War Education Politics in New York City and San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1948-1975." Prior to her doctoral studies, she taught middle and high school, and worked with policy planning for the New York City Department of Education.


[1] Handler, M.S. “Boycott Staged at Franklin H.S.: Dispute Over Principal Cuts Attendance Sharply,” The New York Times, October 6, 1970, and Richie Perez, “H.S. Revolt!” Palante, October 1970.

[2] Jorge Duany, Blurred Borders: Transnational Migration between the Hispanic Caribbean and the United States (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[3] Earl Parker Hanson, Transformation: The Story of Modern Puerto Rico (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955), 317.

[4] Lorrin Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York
City. (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2014), 243.

[5] Pablo Guzman, “The Not So Young Lords” in Darrel Enck-Wazer, ed. The Young Lords: A Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

[6] Pamphlet, “Title I,” Box 2, unmarked folder, Ellen Lurie Papers, Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Hunter College Library, City University of New York.

[7] Patricia Zavella, "The Barrio as Colony: Chicano Contributions to Social Theory," Mexicans in California: Transformation and Challenges (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009) and Ramón Gutiérez, “Internal Colonialism: An American Theory of Race,” DuBois Review 1 (2004): 282.

[8] For more on the relationship between domestic Great Society poverty programs and international aid and development work, see Daniel Immerwahr, Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015) and Karen Ferguson, Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).