Ford Foundation Aid for Inner-city Schools

  • Education
  • 1959

During the 1960s (and after), many liberal reformers became convinced that the best way to improve social outcomes in areas like schooling, crime and safety, employment, and family structure was not to work on specific weaknesses of those sectors, but rather to “rebuild communities” broadly by redistributing income and political power and providing wholly new physical vessels like public housing projects, school campuses, and large “urban renewal” projects. According to this materialistic and utopian view, most of the problems visible in social life would heal and brighten when people were shifted into new structures and social forms engineered by technocrats, via root-and-branch “community redevelopment.”

In 1959 the Ford Foundation launched one of the first major education reforms based on this view—its “Great Cities School Project,” which aimed to turn the test cities of Boston, Oakland, New Haven, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. into laboratories for duplication elsewhere. Almost instantly, the staff decided they couldn’t improve inner-city schools unless they first remade the inner city, so they created new “community action agencies” charged with funneling social-welfare aid in multiple forms into the test cities. Very soon the foundation decided that this too was insufficient. Even more comprehensive “urban renewal” was needed—which led to razing whole city blocks and construction of new “affordable housing” and “planned economic development” projects.

Jane Jacobs and other observers later pointed out that these enormously intrusive interventions only left poor people more disrupted and unsettled. Neither the Great Cities project nor other forms of “urban renewal” produced any positive outcomes or support from the populations affected, in spite of the large sums poured into these efforts by Ford, allied philanthropies, and various levels of government. (Spending in the first few years by the Ford Foundation alone exceeded $200 million in current dollars.)

Tragically, the Johnson administration, in its fervor to launch a “War on Poverty” in the early ’60s, seized on Ford’s model as the handiest available mechanism for trying to remake the world from Washington. The five Ford pilots, started as mere school-improvement plans, were taken over and funded by the federal government’s new Office of Economic Opportunity as the first elements of its “Community Action Program.” Bulldozing of old city blocks, social engineering, and gushing welfare spending spiraled across the country.

Ford Foundation president McGeorge Bundy and the Great Cities architects—who had designed their efforts from the beginning as an “adjunct to government”—felt vindicated, and certain that the much bigger hammer wielded by the feds would bring the success that had eluded them. In inner-city schools and neighborhoods, however, there were almost no positive results. Instead, social and educational indicators would spiral downward over the next three decades in the neighborhoods being “revitalized.”