Season Of Darkness

October 01, 1991 31 min read

The city has 200 liquor stores and bars and 180 gambling establishments, no movie theater, one chain supermarket, no new-car dealership, few restaurants other than some fast-food places. City blocks are filled with burnt-out buildings. Of the city’s 2,200 public housing units, 500 are boarded up, although there is a three-year waiting list of homeless families. As the city’s aged sewers crumble and collapse, streets cave in, but there are no funds to make repairs.

What is life like for children in this city?

To find some answers, I spent several days in Camden in the early spring of 1990. Because the city has no hotel, teachers in Camden arranged for me to stay nearby in Cherry Hill, a beautiful suburban area of handsome stores and costly homes. The drive from Cherry Hill to Camden takes about five minutes. It is like a journey between different worlds.

On a stretch of land beside the Delaware River in the northern part of Camden, in a neighborhood of factories and many abandoned homes, roughly equidistant from a paper plant, a gelatin factory, and an illegal dump site, stands a school called Pyne Point Junior High.

In the evening, when I drive into the neighborhood to find the school, the air at Pyne Point bears the smell of burning trash. When I return the next day, I am hit with a strong smell of ether, or some kind of glue, that seems to be emitted by the paper factory.

The school is a two-story building, yellow brick, its windows covered with metal grates, the flag on its flagpole motionless above a lawn that has no grass. Some 650 children, 98 percent of whom are black or Latino, are enrolled here.

The school nurse, who walks me through the building while the principal is on the phone, speaks of the emergencies and illnesses that she contends with. “Children come into school with rotting teeth,’' she says. “They sit in class, leaning on their elbows, in discomfort. Many kids have chronic and untreated illnesses. I had a child in here yesterday with diabetes. Her blood-sugar level was over 700. Close to coma level.’'

A number of teachers, says the nurse, who tells me that her children go to school in Cherry Hill, do not have books for half the students in their class. “Black teachers in the building ask me whether I’d put up with this in Cherry Hill. I tell them I would not. But some of the parents here make no demands. They don’t know how much we have in Cherry Hill so they do not know what they’re missing.’'

The typing teacher shows me the typewriters that her students use. “These Olympia machines,’' she says, “should have been thrown out 10 years ago. Most of them were here when I had parents of these children in my class. Some of the children, poor as they are, have better machines at home.’' The typewriters in the room are battered-looking. It is not a modern typing lab but a historical museum of old typewriters. “What I need are new electrics,’' says the teacher. When I ask her, “Why not use computers as they do in other schools?’' she says: “They’d love it! We don’t have the money.’'

I ask her if the children take this class with a career in mind. Are there any offices in Camden where they use typewriters? “I tell them, ‘We are in the age of the computer,’' she replies. “We cannot afford to give you a computer. If you learn on these typewriters, you will find it easier to move on to computers if you ever have one.’ The keyboard, I explain to them, is virtually the same.’'

In a class in basic mathematics skills, an 8th grade student that I meet cannot add five and two. In a 6th grade classroom, brownish clumps of plaster dot the ceiling where there once were sound-absorbing tiles. An 8th grade science class is using workbooks in a laboratory without lab equipment.

In another science class, where half the ceiling tiles are missing and where once again there are no laboratory stations, children are being taught about the way waves are formed. The teacher instructs them to let a drop of water fall into a cup of water and observe the circles that are formed. Following a printed lesson plan, she tells them to drop the water from successive levels--first 6 inches, then 12 inches, then a higher level--and “observe the consequences.’' The answer in her lesson plan is this: “Water forms a circle that spreads out until it reaches the circumference of container.’' When they drop the water from a certain level, they should see the ripples spread out to the edge of the container, then return back toward the center.

The children hold eyedroppers at the levels they are told, and, when the teacher tells them, they release a water drop. “Describe the phenomena,’' the teacher says.

Several children write down in their notebooks: “Water splashes.’'

The teacher insists they try again until they get the answer in her lesson plan. I stand behind a row of children and observe them as they drop the water. The students are right: No ripples can be seen. There is a splash and nothing more.

The problem is that the children do not have the right equipment. In order to see ripples form, they need a saucer with a wide circumference. Instead, as a cost-saving measure, the school system has supplied them with cheap plastic cocktail glasses. There is so little water surface that there is no room for waves to form. The water surface shakes a bit when water drops descend from a low level. When the water-droppers are held higher, there is a faint splash. Doggedly persisting with the lesson plan, the teacher tells the children: “Hold the dropper now at 18 inches. Release one drop. Describe the consequence.’' Students again write “Water splashes’’ or “The water surface shakes.’'

What the science lesson is intended to deliver to the children is an element of scientific process. “Controlling for variables’’ is the description of this lesson in a guide prepared by the New Jersey Board of Education. But, because the children do not have appropriate equipment, there are no variables to be observed. Children in water play in a prekindergarten class would learn as much of scientific process as these 8th grade kids are learning. As I leave, the children are being instructed by the teacher to “review the various phenomena we have observed.’'

Vernon Dover, principal of Pyne Point Junior High, who joins me as I’m heading up the stairs, tells me a student was shot twice in the chest the day before. He says the boy is in a trauma unit at a local hospital.

Two boys race past us as we’re standing on the stairs. They leave the building, and the principal pursues them out the door. “These are older kids who ought to be in high school,’' he explains when I catch up with him outside. The playing field next to the school is bleak and bare. There are no goal posts and no sports equipment. Beyond the field is the illegal dump site. Contractors from the suburbs drive here, sometimes late at night, the principal says, and dump their trash behind the school. A medical lab in Haddon, which is a white suburb, recently deposited a load of waste, including hypodermic needles, in the field. Children then set fire to the trash.

In the principal’s office, a fire inspector is waiting to discuss a recent fire. On the desk, as an exhibit, is a blackened bottle with a torn Budweiser label. The bottle is stuffed with paper that was soaked in kerosene. The inspector says that it was found inside the school. The principal sighs. He says there have been several recent fires. The fire alarm is of no use, he says, because there is a steam leak in the boiler room that sets it off. “This fire alarm has been dysfunctional,’' he says, “for 20 years.

“A boy named Joselito and his brother,’' says the principal, “set the science room on fire. Another boy set fire to the curtains in the auditorium. He had no history of arson. He was doing well in school. It puzzles me. This school may be the safest place in life for many of these children. Why do they set fires? They do these things and, when I ask them, they do not know why.’'

He speaks of the difficulty of retaining teachers. “Salaries are far too low,’' he says. “Some of my teachers have to work two jobs to pay the rent.’' Space, he tells me, is a problem, too. “When we have to hold remedial classes in a wood shop, that’s a problem.’' Up to 20 percent of children in the school, he says, will not go on to high school. “If 650 enter in 6th grade, I will see at least 100 disappear before 9th grade.’'

I ask him if desegregation with adjacent Cherry Hill has ever been proposed. “Desegregation in New Jersey means combining black kids and Hispanics,’' he replies. “Kids in Cherry Hill would never be included. Do you think white people would permit their kids to be exposed to education of this nature? Desegregation? Not with Cherry Hill. It would be easy, a seven-minute ride, but it’s not going to happen.’'

Camden High School, which I visit the next morning, can’t afford facilities for lunch, so 2,000 children leave school daily to obtain lunch elsewhere. Many do not bother to return. Nonattendance and dropout rates, according to the principal, are very high.

In a 12th grade English class, the teacher is presenting a good overview of 19th century history in England. On the blackboard are these words: “Idealism. Industrialization... Exploitation... Laissezfaire...’' The teacher seems competent, but, in this room as almost everywhere in Camden, lack of funds creates a shortage of materials. Half the children in the classroom have no texts.

“What impresses me,’' the teacher says after the class is over, “is that kids get up at all and come to school. They’re old enough to know what they are coming into.’'

I ask: “Is segregation an accepted fact for children here?’'

“You don’t even dare to speak about desegregation now. It doesn’t come up. Impossible. It’s gone.’'

He’s a likable man with horn-rimmed glasses, a mustache, very dark skin, sensitive eyes, a gentle smile. I ask him where he lives.

“I just moved my family out of Camden,’' he replies. “I grew up here, and I pledged in college I’d return here, and I did. Then, a month ago, I was in school when I was told my house was broken into and cleaned out. I packed my bags.

“I’m not angry. What did I expect? Rats packed tight in a cage destroy each other. I got out. I do not plan to be destroyed.’'

“President Bush,’' says Ruthie Green-Brown, principal of Camden High, when we meet later in her office, “speaks of his ‘goals,’ and these sound very fine. He mentions preschool education--early childhood. Where is the money? We have children coming to kindergarten or to 1st grade who are starting out three years delayed in their development. They have had no preschool. Only a minute number of our kids have had a chance at Head Start. This is the most significant thing that you can do to help an urban child if your goal is to include that urban child in America. Do we want that child to be included?

“These little children cry out to be cared for. Half the population of this city is 20 years old or less. Seven in 10 grow up in poverty.

“I had a little girl stop in to see me yesterday. A little 9th grade girl. ‘It’s my lunch hour. I wanted to visit you,’ she said. There is so much tenderness and shyness in some children. I told her I was glad she came to visit, and I asked her to sit down. We had our sandwiches together. She looked at my desk. ‘I’d like to have an office like this someday.’ I said to her: ‘You can!’ But I was looking at this little girl and thinking to myself: ‘What are the odds?’''

At night, two teachers from the high school meet me at a restaurant in Cherry Hill because, they say, there is no place in Camden to have dinner. At 8 p.m., we drive back into Camden.

As we drive, they speak about the students they are losing. “Six hundred children enter 9th grade,’' says one of the teachers, Linnell Wright, who has been at Camden High School for six years. “By 11th grade, we have about 300. I am the 11th grade adviser so I see the difference. I look out into the auditorium when the freshman class comes in. The room is full. By the time they enter the 11th grade, the same room is half empty. The room is haunted by the presence of the children who are gone.

“This,’' she tells me as we pass an old stone church, “is supposed to be the church attended by Walt Whitman. I don’t know if he cared much for churches, but he did reside in Camden in the last years of his life.’' A sign on the door indicates that it is now a homeless shelter.

A block from the church, we pass two ruined houses with their walls torn out. A few blocks more and we are at the waterfront, next to the Delaware.

“That darkened building is the Campbell’s plant,’' the other teacher, Mrs. Bullard, says. “Campbell’s just announced that they’ll be closing down.’'

On the roof of the shuttered factory is an illuminated soup can: red and white, the Campbell’s logo. Now the company is leaving town. General Electric, Mrs. Bullard tells me, may be leaving, too. Its RCA division had a major operation here for many years, but Mrs. Bullard says that it is virtually shut down. As we pass the RCA plant on the silent waterfront, I see the lighted symbol of that corporation, too: the faithful dog attending to his master’s voice. The plants are closing and the jobs are disappearing, but the old familiar symbols are still there for now.

“The world is leaving us behind in Camden,’' Mrs. Bullard says.

Before us, over the darkened water of the Delaware, are the brightly lighted high-rise office buildings and the new hotels and condominiums of Philadelphia. The bridges that cross the river here in Camden bear the names of Whitman and Ben Franklin. History surrounds the children growing up in Camden, but they do not learn a lot of it in school. Whitman is not read by students in the basic skills curriculum. Few children at Camden High, indeed, have ever heard of him.

Before the announcement of the closing of the Campbell’s plant, says Mrs. Bullard, there had been high hopes for a commercial rebirth on the waterfront of Camden. Plans for a riverfront hotel had been announced. Land had been cleared and several buildings were destroyed. Now, it is an endless parking lot. Mrs. Bullard turns the car around so that the Delaware is just behind us. A turn to the left, and one to the right, and just ahead of us there is a huge, white, modern building. It’s the first new structure I have seen in Camden. Brilliantly illuminated, it resembles a hotel.

“It may be the closest we will come to a hotel in Camden,’' Mrs. Bullard says. “This is the new Camden County Jail.’'

On the street beside the jail, several black women in white gloves are making gestures with their hands to men whose faces can be seen behind the windows. “They are making conversation with their men,’' says Mrs. Bullard. Directly across the street is the two-story wooden house in which Walt Whitman wrote the final manuscript of Leaves of Grass and in which he died in 1892. One block away, the south face of the Camden City Hall bears Whitman’s words: “In a dream I saw a city invincible.’'

The city, Mrs. Bullard tells me, has the highest tax rate in the area. “But,’' she says, “in order to get more businesses to settle here, we have to give them tax relief. The result is that we don’t gain anything in taxes. But, even with that, we can’t attract them.’'

The major industries in Camden are a trash incinerator and a sewage-treatment plant (neither of which pay taxes to the city), scrap yards (there are 10 of them), and two new prisons. A third prison, intended for North Camden near the Pyne Point neighborhood, was halted by the pressures brought by local activists. According to the Rev. Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in North Camden, “55 million gallons of the county’s sewage come into Camden every day. It’s processed at the treatment plant, a stone’s throw from my church. Five blocks south, on the other side, they’re finishing a new incinerator for the county.’' The incinerator tower, some 350 feet in height, rises above the church and soon will add its smoke to air already fouled by the smell of sewage.

“The stench is tremendous,’' says Lou Esola, an environmentalist who lives in neighboring Pensauken. “Sacred Heart is in the midst of it. I went down to talk with Father Doyle. I stepped out of my car and saw the houses and the children, and I wondered: ‘How can people live here?’ They would never dare to put these things in Cherry Hill. It simply would not happen.’'

“Anything that would reduce the property values of a town like Cherry Hill,’' says Father Doyle, “is sited here in Camden.’' In this way, he notes, the tax base for the schools of Cherry Hill remains protected while the tax base for the schools of Camden is diminished even more. Property values in the city are so low today that abandoned houses in North Camden can be purchased for as little as $1,000.

Camden, he says, once had more industry per capita than any city in the world. “The record industry had its start here. Enrico Caruso first recorded here in Camden. Now, we have to settle for scrap metal, sewagetreatment, and incinerators. When you’re on your knees, you take whatever happens to come by.’'

Everyone who could leave, he says, has now departed. “What is left are all the ones with broken wings. I can’t tell you what it does to children to grow up amidst this filth and ugliness. The toxic dangers aren’t the worst. It is the aesthetic consequences that may be most damaging in the long run. What is the message that it gives to children to grow up surrounded by trash burners, dump sites, and enormous prisons? Kids I know have told me they’re ashamed to say they come from Camden.

‘Still, there is this longing, this persistent hunger. People look for beauty even in the midst of ugliness. ‘It rains on my city,’ said an 8-year-old I know, ‘but I see rainbows in the puddles.’ It moved me very much to hear that from a child. But you have to ask yourself: How long will this child look for rainbows?’'

What does money buy for children New Jersey? For high school students in East Orange, where the track team has no field and therefore has to do its running in the hallways of the school, it buys a minimum of exercise but a good deal of pent-up energy and anger. In mostly upper-middle-income Montclair, on the other hand, it buys two recreation fields, four gyms, a dance room, a wrestling room, a weight room with a universal gym, tennis courts, a track, and indoor areas for fencing. It also buys 13 full-time physical education teachers for its 1,900 high school students. East Orange High School, by comparison, has four physical education teachers for 2,000 students, 99.9 percent of whom are black.

A physical education expert, asked to visit a grade school in East Orange, is astonished to be told that jump ropes are in short supply and that the children therefore have to jump “in groups.’' Basketball courts, however, “are in abundance’’ in these schools, the visitor says, because the game involves “little expense.’'

Defendants in a recent suit brought by the parents of schoolchildren in New Jersey’s poorest districts claimed that differences like these, far from being offensive, should be honored as the consequence of “local choice’'--the inference being that local choice in urban schools elects to let black children gravitate to basketball. But this “choice’'-- which feeds one of the most intransigent myths about black teenage boys--is determined by the lack of other choices. Children in East Orange cannot choose to play lacrosse or soccer, or to practice modern dance, on fields or in dance studios they do not have; nor can they keep their bodies clean in showers that their schools cannot afford. Little children in East Orange do not choose to wait for 15 minutes for a chance to hold a jump rope.

In suburban Millburn, where per-pupil spending is some $1,500 more than in East Orange although the tax rate in East Orange is three times as high, 14 different Advanced Placement courses are available to high school students; the athletic program offers fencing, golf, ice hockey, and lacrosse; and music instruction means 10 music teachers and a music supervisor for six schools, music rooms in every elementary school, a “music suite’’ in high school, and an “honors music program’’ that enables children to work one-on-one with music teachers. Meanwhile, in an elementary school in Jersey City, 17th poorest city in America, where the schools are 85 percent non-white, only 30 of 680 children can participate in instrumental music. The school provides no instruments--the children have to rent them--and the classes take place not in “music suites’’ but in the lunchroom or the basement of the school. Art instruction is also meager in the Jersey City schools. The entire budget for art education comes to $2.62 per child for one year--less than the price of a pad of drawing paper at a K mart store. Computer classes take place in a storage closet. This may be compared to Princeton, where the high school students work in comfortable computer areas equipped with some 200 IBMs, as well as with a hookup to Dow Jones to study stock transactions. These kinds of things are unknown to kids in Jersey City.

Academic failure rates and dropout rates are very high in Jersey City’s public schools compared, for example, to the schools of Princeton. Moreover, as a judge has noted in New Jersey, the students listed as dropouts by most urban districts “tend to be only those who tell the school that they are leaving.’' Statistics offered by the schools, therefore, “greatly understate the problem,’' says the judge. But, even with more accurate reporting, the percentile differences in failure rates would still obscure the full dimensions of the inequalities at stake. In Jersey City, 45 percent of 3rd grade children fail their basic-skills exams, compared to only 10 percent in Princeton. But Jersey City’s 45 percentage points translate to the failure of 800 children; in Princeton, where the student population is much smaller, 10 percentage points translate to only 19 children. Again, the high school dropout rate of Jersey City, 52 percent, translates to failure for some 2,500 children every four years. The corresponding rate in Princeton, less than 6 percent, translates to only 40 children. Behind the good statistics of the richest districts lies the triumph of a few. Behind the saddening statistics of the poorest cities lies the misery of many.

The class-action suit that brought these issues to the notice of the public was filed in 1981 by parents of schoolchildren in East Orange, Camden, Irvington, and Jersey City. The findings of the trial judge, which run for some 600 pages, are evocative and saddening.

In finding in favor of the plaintiffs, in a ruling handed down in August 1988, Judge Stephen L. Lefelt takes notice of the plaintiffs’ claim that New Jersey operates two separate and unequal public education systems, then makes this observation: The state “did not dispute the existence of disparities’’ but argued that “different types of programs are the result of local choice and needs.’' According to the state, “each district is free to address the educational needs of its children in any manner it sees fit. To the extent that program choices exercised by local districts are deemed inappropriate, defendants claim that they are caused by local mismanagement.’'

However, asks the court, “is it local control that permits suburban wealthy districts to have schools located on spacious campuses surrounded by grass, trees, and playing fields’’ while “urban district schools [are] cramped by deserted buildings, litter-strewn vacant lots, and blacktop parking lots?’' Is it local control, continues the court, that permits Paterson to offer its 5,000 non-white high school students no other music options than a gospel choir “while South Brunswick offers 990 students a concert choir, a women’s ensemble, and a madrigal group?’' Is it local control “that results in some urban districts conducting science instruction in science rooms where water is not running’’ while suburban districts offer genuine science programs in elaborate laboratories?

The court notes that the highest-spending districts have “twice as many art, music, and foreign-language teachers, 75 percent more physical education teachers, 50 percent more nurses, school librarians, guidance counselors, and psychologists, and 60 percent more personnel in school administration than the low-spending districts.’'

Noting a statewide mandate for school libraries with at least 6,000 volumes in each school, the court points to the Washington Elementary School in Irvington, which has only 300 books. “Why should not all districts have similar library facilities?’' asks the court.

Wealthy districts downgrade the importance of these inequalities, the court observes. But, when one of the wealthy suburbs asked the state’s permission to back out of a cross-busing plan with a poor district, it cited the district’s “old and dilapidated buildings, lack of adequate equipment and materials, [and] lack of science programs.’'

Why, asks the court, “should urban students not have microscopes?’' Why are classes “larger in urban elementary schools than in suburban schools? Why are there more teaching staff per pupil in [rich] districts?’' If “local differences’’ are genuinely the issue, asks the court, why are there fewer early-intervention programs in the urban districts where the need is most acute?

Again and again, the court poses the question: “Why is this so?’'

The court asks the superintendent of affluent South Brunswick to assess the impact on his district, were it to be funded at the level of low-income Trenton. The superintendent tells the court that such a cut would be an “absolute disaster.’' He says that he “would quit’’ before he would accept it. If such a cut were made, he says, class size would increase about 17 percent; nursing, custodial, and other staff would have to be reduced; the district would stop purchasing computers and new software; it would be unable to paint the high school, would cut back sports, drop Latin and German, and reduce supplies to every school. “We would have a school district,’' he says, “that is as mediocre as some that exist, that don’t have money enough to spend for some of the things I just eliminated. And our kids would get shortchanged, as these kids in these cities are getting shortchanged. And I’m convinced that they’re shortchanged.’'

The New Jersey constitution, says the court in its decision, requires that all students be provided with “an opportunity to compete fairly for a place in our society. Pole vaulters using bamboo poles even with the greatest effort cannot compete with pole vaulters using aluminum poles.’'

In our contemporary society, the court goes on, “money purchases almost everything. Children in high-wealth communities enjoy high levels of expenditures and other educational inputs, and children in low-wealth communities receive low levels of school expenditures and inputs. This pattern is not related to the educational characteristics of the children in these districts. In fact, given the characteristics of student bodies in urban and suburban districts, one would expect expenditure rates to be exactly opposite to what they are.’'

The state’s justification for these disparate conditions, says the court, “can be characterized as the need to protect against further diminishment of local control.’' But the court notes that local control is “already seriously diminished’’ in a number of ways--for example, by the state’s assumption of the right to take control of local districts which it judges to be poorly managed, an action that the state has taken several times, most recently in Paterson and Jersey City.

Defendants also argue, says the court, that, until the urban districts show that they can “wisely use the vast sums they now receive, no additional funds should be provided.’' No testimony, however, says the court, has been provided to affirm “that high-spending districts are spending [money] wisely.’' Under the defendants’ argument, “wealthy districts can continue to spend as much money as they wish. Poor districts will go on pretty much as they have. If money is inadequate to improve education, the residents of poor districts should at least have an equal opportunity to be disappointed by its failure.’'

Equal protection, in any case, the court observes, does not require efficiency but substantial comparability. “The record demonstrates that poor urban school districts are unable to achieve comparability because of defects in the funding system.’' Therefore, says the court, “I conclude that the defendants’ local control, associational rights, and efficiency justifications are outweighed by the educational rights of children residing in poor urban districts. There is sufficient proof in this record to find that plaintiffs have also proved a violation of the equal protection clause of the New Jersey Constitution.’'

In his final words, the judge asks how we may discern the benefits that might be gained from a more equitable system. “How do you evaluate [the benefit of] retaining a few students who would have dropped out? How do you weight the one student who becomes a successful artist and creates works that provide enjoyment for thousands of people? How do you cost-out the student who learns to enjoy reading and thereby adds excitement to what otherwise would be a rather ordinary existence? How important to society are flexible, imaginative, and inventive citizens? I cannot even guess. Suffice it to say that I opt for providing equal opportunity to all our children, no matter where they may live.’'

Two years after these words were written, a high court in New Jersey affirmed the lower court’s decision. In its ruling, the Supreme Court of New Jersey noted the defendants’ argument that “education currently offered in these poorer districts is tailored to the students’ present need’’ and that “these students simply cannot now benefit from the kind of vastly superior course offerings found in the richer districts.’' If, said the court, the argument here is that “these students simply cannot make it, the constitutional answer is, give them a chance. The constitution does not tell them that since money will not help, we will give them less; that because their needs cannot be fully met, they will not be met at all. It does not tell them they will get the minimum, because that is all they can benefit from.’' There would, said the court, “be little short of a revolution in the suburban districts’’ if the course of study in those districts were as barren as the course of study found in these poor cities.

Noting that the equalizing formula for state assistance to the local districts had, in fact, been “counterequalizing’’ and had widened the disparities between the rich and poor, the Supreme Court said, “The failure has gone on too long the remedy must be systemic.’'

The sweeping nature of the court’s decision led the press to speculate that efforts might at last be undertaken to apportion educational resources in more equitable ways, and a newly elected Democratic governor, Jim Florio, appeared to favor a substantial transformation of the funding scheme. Opposition, however, surfaced rapidly and murmurs of a tax revolt have now been heard across the state. Newspapers have been flooded with the letters of suburban residents protesting the redistribution of resources. Taking state money from the towns that have high property values to prop up the urban schools, says one letterwriter, will “bring mediocrity to every classroom in the state.’' Putting more money into the poor districts, says another letter-writer, “won’t change anything.

Money is not the answer. It has to begin in the home.’' A letter-writer from affluent Fair Lawn compares the plan for fiscal equity to Eastern European communism. “Everything in a free society,’' says another man, who calls himself a former liberal, “is not supposed to be equal.’' An assemblyman from a suburban district doubts that giving Camden extra money will improve its schools. “How about providing values instead?’' he asks.

The Wall Street Journal applauds the thousands of New Jersey residents who have jammed the streets of the state capital in protest of the threatened plan, and the Journal hopefully anticipates “a California-style tax revolt.’' Popular talk-show hosts take up the cause. Phone calls aired on several radio stations voice a raw contempt for the capacities of urban children (“money will not help these children’’) but predict the imminent demise of education in the richer districts if their funding is cut back. Money, the message seems to be, is absolutely crucial to rich districts but will be of little difference to the poor.

Whatever the next step that may be taken in New Jersey, no one believes that people in Princeton, Millburn, Cherry Hill, and Summit are prepared to sacrifice the extra edge their children now receive. The notion that every child in New Jersey might someday be given what the kids in Princeton now enjoy is not even entertained as a legitimate scenario. In the recent litigation, the defendants went so far as to deride attempts to judge one district by the other’s standards. Comparing what was offered in the poorest districts to the academic offerings in Princeton was unfair, they charged, because, they said, the programs offered in the schools of Princeton were “extraordinary.’'

The state’s defense, in essence, was that Princeton is so far beyond the range of what poor children have the right to hope for that it ought to be left out of the discussion. Princeton’s excellence, according to this reasoning, positions it in a unique location outside questions of injustice. The court dismissed this logic without comment; but the fact that such an argument could actually be made by educated people is profoundly troubling.

For children who were plaintiffs in the case, meanwhile, it is too late to hope for vindication. None of them are still in school, and many have already paid a high price for the long delay in litigation.

“It took a judge seven years and 607 pages,’' notes The Philadelphia Inquirer, “to explain why children in New Jersey’s poor cities deserve the same basic education as kids in the state’s affluent suburbs.’' But the Camden boy who was lead plaintiff in the case, the paper adds, “would have a hard time reading the decision.’' Raymond Abbott, whose name is affixed to the decision, is today a 19-yearold high school dropout with the reading skills of children in the 7th grade. A learningdisabled student who spent eight years in the Camden public schools, his problems were never diagnosed, and he was mechanically passed on each year from grade to grade. During the years in which he was in school, says the Inquirer, Camden “was unable to afford science, art, music, or physical education’’ for the children in its elementary schools and lacked the staff to deal with learning disabilities. On the day that the decision came down from the court, Abbott, now a cocaine addict, heard the news of his belated vindication from a small cell in the Camden County Jail.

What may be learned from the rebuttals made by the defendants in New Jersey and from the protests that were sparked by the decision of the court? Much of the resistance, it appears, derives from a conservative anxiety that equity equates to “leveling.’' The fear that comes across in many of the letters and the editorials in the New Jersey press is that democratizing opportunity will undermine diversity and even elegance in our society and that the best schools will be dragged down to a sullen norm, a mediocre middle ground of uniformity. References to Eastern European socialism keep appearing in these letters. Visions of Prague and Moscow come to mind: Equity means shortages of toilet tissue for all students, not just for the black kids in New Jersey or in Mississippi. An impoverished vision of America seems to prevail in these scenarios.

In this respect, the advocates of fiscal equity seem to be more confident about America than their adversaries are. “America,’' they say, “is wealthy, wise, ingenious. We can give terrific schools to all our children. The nation is vast. There is sufficient air for everyone to draw into their lungs. There is plenty of space. No child needs to use a closet for a classroom. There is enough money. No one needs to ration crayons, books, or toilet paper.’' If they speak of leveling at all, they speak of “leveling up.’' Their adver- saries call it “leveling down.’' They look at equity for all and see it spelling excellence for none.

This, then, is the dread that seems to lie beneath the fear of equalizing. Equity is seen as dispossession. Local autonomy is seen as liberty-- even if the poverty of those in nearby cities robs them of all meaningful autonomy by narrowing their choices to the meanest and the shabbiest of options. In this way, defendants in these cases seem to polarize two of the principles that lie close to the origins of this republic. Liberty and equity are seen as antibodies to each other.

Again there is this stunted image of our nation as a land that can afford one of two dreams--liberty or equity--but cannot manage both. There is some irony in this as well. Conservatives are generally the ones who speak more passionately of patriotic values. They are often the first to rise up to protest an insult to the flag. But, in this instance, they reduce America to something rather tight and mean and sour, and they make the flag less beautiful than it should be. They soil the flag in telling us to fly it over ruined children’s heads in ugly segregated schools. Flags in these schools hang motionless and gather dust, often in airless rooms, and they are frequently no cleaner than the schools themselves. Children in a dirty school are asked to pledge a dirtied flag. What they learn of patriotism is not clear.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Season Of Darkness