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The American Dream Deferred

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Kozol's book is about school finance--one of the more arcane issues in education. School funding is about complex formulas involving property-tax assessments, millage rates, and resource distribution. It is the rubric under which legislators and courts wrangle over the ambiguous (and unkept) promise, expressed in many state constitutions, that every child is entitled to an equal and thorough education.

It all seems very dry and complicated. But Kozol goes beyond the legal technicalities and philosophical abstractions to examine the real implications of the way we fund our public schools--the human costs, the "savage inequalities.''

In 1964-65, as a fledgling teacher, Kozol found devastating poverty and discrimination in an inner-city elementary school in Boston. He poured his outrage into Death at an Early Age, a book published in 1967 that sold 2 million copies, won a National Book Award, and began to awaken America to the decay of its urban schools.

After writing his book, Kozol went to teach in suburban Newton, one of the nation's richest districts. The shocking contrast between schools only a few miles apart has haunted him ever since. Two decades later, in 1988, Kozol embarked on a two-year journey that took him to rich and poor schools in more than 30 urban neighborhoods across the United States. He visited predominantly black and Hispanic schools where sewage backs up into kitchens; where there are no laboratories, textbooks, or playgrounds; where children walk through toxic waste and rotting garbage to reach their classrooms. Not far away, Kozol always found predominantly white schools with the latest in educational technology, fully equipped laboratories, well-stocked libraries, manicured lawns, and happy students in designer clothes. "It is sobering to think,'' he writes, "that apartheid might end in South African schools before it ends in ours.''

The legal battle to close the gap between rich schools and poor schools has raged for decades and is still being fought today in at least 20 states. Invariably, the plaintiffs win in court, but, for the poor children, nothing seems to change.

"These children have done nothing wrong,'' Kozol writes. "They are too young to have offended us in any way at all. One searches for some way to understand why a society so rich would leave them in squalor for so long, and with so little public indig- nation.''

If the lack of indignation is difficult to understand, the resentment and hostility displayed by the more fortunate among us is unforgivable. For example, when several overcrowded predominantly black districts in New Jersey sought to rent facilities in an affluent neighboring white district, they were rejected, according to court documents, on racial grounds. One poor community tried to rent a vacant school in a nearby suburb after its elementary school burned down. The answer was "no.'' And whenever higher taxes are sought to help end the wrenching poverty in some districts, the more affluent reply that money is not the answer.

Asked to describe the worst thing he saw, Kozol replies: "The worst was seeing over and over again the faces and voices of young children in the worst schools, happy and hopeful like kids anywhere. You know their spirit is going to be killed.''

And the best thing? "Teachers,'' he answers, "who refused to give up hope and turned their classrooms into oases.''

Jonathan Kozol was fired from his first teaching job in 1965 for reading a poem by Langston Hughes to his 4th grade class:

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Someday, America may be unlucky enough to learn the answer to that question.
Ronald A. Wolk

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