Kozol Book Puts Human Face on Fiscal Inequities

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"We have a school in East St. Louis named for Dr. King," the author Jonathan Kozol quotes a 14-year-old girl saying toward the beginning of his new book, Savage Inequalities: Children in Americas Schools. "The school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains. Every student in that school is black. It's like a terrible joke on history."

Such humor is bitter indeed, according to Mr. Kozol. He places most of the blame for such conditions on the "arcane machinery," based heavily on local property taxes, that is used to finance public education.

Drawing on visits to inner-city and suburban classrooms in some 30 neighborhoods around the country, the prominent social activist and former teacher concludes that American schools are more racially and economically segregated today they were at the height of the civil-rights era.

This "dual society seems in general to be unquestioned," he writes in the book, set for release Oct. 15 by Crown Publishers. "The nation, for all practice and intent, has turned its back upon the moral implications, if not yet the legal ramifications, of the Brown [v. Board of Education] decision."

Mr. Kozol established his reputation as an impassioned commentator on inequities in education with his first book, Death at an Early Age, published in 1967. That book was a first-person account of his experience as a 4th-grade teacher in inner-city Boston. Since then, he has written about school desegregation, illiterate Americans, and, most recently, the plight of the homeless.

Savage Inequalities marks a return to the classroom for the 55-year-old writer. His latest, highly personalized reportage comes at a time when school finance has re-emerged as one of the central issues in education. More than 20 suits seeking reform of state systems of financing K-12 education are now pending.

The author's firsthand account describes schools that are 95 percent to 99 percent nonwhite--where "desegregation," as one principal told him, "means combining black kids and Hispanics."

Mr. Kozol depicts buildings that are literally collapsing around children's heads; teachers who only bother to attend school three days a week; principals forced to ration books, crayons, and toilet paper; and programs where little effort is made to teach failing students.

The insult, he maintains, is that such paucity exists within shooting distance of richly endowed public schools attended almost exclusively by the children of the prosperous.

'On Their Side'?

One school the author visited in the South Bronx in New York City operates in a former ice-skating rink, where four kindergarten classes and a 6th-grade class of Spanish-speaking students share a windowless room. The school has no playground; the library contains 700 books.

Minutes away, in Riverdale, a more affluent part of the Bronx, a public school surrounded by dogwoods, two playing fields, and a playground houses a planetarium and a library of almost 8,000 volumes.

In many ways, Mr. Kozol said in an interview last week, the situation has become worse since he left teaching 25 years ago.

"I think it was better in 1965," he said, "because at that point, although the schools were, of course, segregated and unequal, there was at least the conviction among poor black kids that the government was on their side .... and the vast majority of white people were on their side."

"I don't think they feel that any longer," he added. "And I think they're correct."

Mr. Kozol attributes the shift he sees in the attitudes of the public and the federal government toward disadvantaged students to the "powerful effectiveness of Ronald Reagan" and conservative think tanks.

But he identifies the property-tax-based system of paying for schooling as the leading culprit in perpetuating inequalities.

The system enables wealthier districts to raise more money for their schools at a lower tax rate, he points out. At the same time, the richest homeowners get back a substantial portion of their money in the form of federal income-tax deductions that, in effect, subsidize inequality.

In cities like Chicago, such disparities are made worse by the disproportionate number of tax-free institutions that reside in urban areas, and by the large portion of tax revenues that must be spent on such needs as law enforcement and health care.

Total yearly spending in Illinois, Mr. Kozol reports, ranges from $2,100 for a child in the poorest district to above $10,000 in the richest.

When the relative needs of students are factored in, he contends, the disparities in funding are "enormous."

"Equity, after all, does not mean simply equal funding," Mr. Kozol argues. "Equal funding for unequal needs is not equality."

Income-Tax-Based System

In the long run, the author maintains, if Americans are serious about providing a level playing field in education, "we will abolish the property tax altogether as the primary, initial source of school funding in America."

Instead, Mr. Kozol proposes that three-quarters of public-school funding come from the state in the form of a steeply graduated income tax. The remaining one-quarter would come from the federal government.

"That should be our peace dividend, at long last, at the end of the Cold War," he added last week.

But the book is not primarily about public policy, according to its author. "I was never a political person," he said.

'I went to Harvard in the 1950's," Mr. Kozol said. 'I studied English literature. It was about as apolitical as it could be .... I went into the Boston schools because I liked children."

Rather, the book is a stark depiction of the lives of children affected by what public policy has wrought.

The problem is that [most people] don't see that child," Mr. Kozol said. q want to put that child in front of them and say, took, this child is as precious as your child. And if you believe that, then fight for some decent policies.'"

"[W]hat struck me most, apart from the inequity and racial isolation [in inner-city schools]," he said, "is that most of these kids are having such rotten lives in these schools, that schools are so unhappy."

A 'Killing Combination'

Mr. Kozol suggests that a special kind of despair characterizes the education of inner-city youngsters.

The proximity of urban districts to some of the wealthiest school systems, he writes, "adds a heightened bitterness to the experience of children. The ugliness of racial segregation adds its special injuries as well."

"It is this killing combination, I believe," he continues, "that renders life within these urban schools not merely grim but also desperate and often pathological."

"Kids see an unmistakable message in the degree that white people and affluent people have fled their school systems," he added in an interview. "In the inner city, the children suffer not only the injury of caste, which is primarily an economic injury, but they also have the visceral experience of being shunned, of feeling themselves the object of despisal."

In such bleak and destitute environments, Mr. Kozol maintains, it is not surprising that students drop out.

What is frightening, he argues, is that so many black school administrators appear to have accepted the idea of separate and not-quite-equal education.

"It is the promise of American public education that no matter what other factors exist in a child's life, the school can make a difference," Mr. Kozol said last week.

But, he writes, "[d]enial of the 'means of competition' is perhaps the single most consistent outcome of the education offered to poor children in the schools of our large cities."

'Two Separate Schools'

Even in "integrated" schools, the author found, there was little integration in classrooms. At P.S. 24, the school in Riverdale, for example, the vast majority of black and Hispanic students were in classes for the educable or trainable mentally retarded.

There were, in effect, "two separate schools," he writes, "one of about 130 children, most of whom are poor, Hispanic, black, assigned to one of the 12 special classes; the other of some 700 mainstream students, almost all of whom are white or Asian." Rooms for the former group of students were half the size of mainstream classrooms and equipped with far fewer materials.

Mr. Kozol sharply disputes the argument that money makes no difference in education.

"There is no doubt in my mind that a good teacher with 20 children is twice as good as a good teacher with 40 children," he said last week. "There's absolutely no question that, regardless of what happens in the home or in the streets, a school that has a French teacher teaches more French than a school that can't afford a French teacher."

The author is also highly critical of school-choice proposals, which he maintains will widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

People "can only choose the things they think they have a right to and the things they have some reason to believe they will receive," he writes. "What reason have the black and poor to lend their credence to a market system that has proved so obdurate and so resistant to their pleas at every turn?"

And while Mr. Kozol is not against "restructuring" public education, he questions the efficacy of such efforts. "What are they trying to do?" he asked in the interview. "A restructured ghetto school? A ghetto school with more participation by ghetto parents?"

What is saddest, Mr. Kozol argues, is that America has the wealth to "give a wonderful childhood to every child, and the great pity is that we don't believe this."

"It was a despairing experience for me to find that all those years of work had come to nothing," he said about researching the book.

"I do feel that this book was written less in anger than in sorrow," he said. "There's a very black feeling in the book, and it does not end with any real hope. It ends with longing."

Vol. 11, Issue 04, Pages 1, 11

Published in Print: September 25, 1991, as Kozol Book Puts Human Face on Fiscal Inequities
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