Federal Opinion

Confronting the Inequality Juggernaut: A Q&A With Jonathan Kozol

By Anthony Cody — July 18, 2011 7 min read
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Jonathan Kozol has been a tireless advocate for civil rights in education for the past five decades. His book, Savage Inequalities, was a call to conscience for the nation. He will be among the speakers at the Save Our Schools March and Rally in Washington, DC, on Saturday, July 30th. I asked him to explain his reasons for marching this summer.

You published Savage Inequalities back in 1992. What has happened to the level of inequity in our schools in the two decades since then?

The inequalities are greater now than in ‘92. Some states have equalized per-pupil spending but they set the “equal level” very low, so that wealthy districts simply raise extra money privately. And, even within a single urban district, parents in rich neighborhoods cluster together at a single school, then hold fund-raisers for that school, using celebrities to pull out a wealthy crowd, and raise as much as half-a-million dollars in a single night. No one forces them to share this money with the schools for poor kids that might be just three blocks away. The system is more savage now than ever.

Our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is fond of saying that “Education is the civil rights issue of our time.” Is he right about that?

Arne Duncan is recycling exactly the same slogan George W. Bush invented. On its face, it sounds benign. But, in reality, Duncan’s policies run directly counter to the purposes of civil rights. He doesn’t lift a finger to address the glaring fact that public schools for black and Latino kids from coast to coast are now more wildly and shamefully segregated than in any year since 1968. I walk into high schools, with as many as 3,000 students, from Chicago to Los Angeles, from Dallas to Miami, from Denver to New York, and in an entire day I might see ten white students. It’s like the bull in the China shop. Duncan pretends it isn’t there. But, by his passivity, he’s hammering the final nails into the coffin of Brown vs. Board of Education. Meanwhile, he’s eagerly doing “Plessy v. Ferguson,” pretending he knows how to make separate and unequal schools into bastions of success by relentless testing and humiliation of the teachers.

Separate and unequal didn’t work 100 years ago. It will not work today. And anyone like Duncan who attempts to tell us otherwise is guilty of historical myopia.

How do you see the rise of charter schools affecting racial and economic segregation in our schools?

Charter schools are far more segregated than most other public schools. This was pretty much predictable. Charter schools with names like those I see repeatedly -- “Black Success Academy,” “African-American Academy for Leadership and Enterprise” -- are not likely to attract too many Irish or Italian kids. On the opposite side, trendy new white charter schools with upper-class, vaguely artsy innuendo in their names -- I call them “the woodsy Walden schools” -- are obviously targeted at children of a social/racial category that does not include the kids of immigrants from Mexico or Ethiopia.

The “niche” effect of charter schools guarantees a swift and vicious deepening of class and racial separation. President Obama -- who was educated in very good and integrated schools and sends his children to an integrated and exclusive private school -- is now acting on the belief that consciously and unashamedly segregated charter schools represent the answer to the race-gap in America.

The president wouldn’t send his own kids to these kinds of schools. Why does he think they’re good enough for black and Latino kids whose parents did not go to Harvard Law School?

A related point: The testing agenda that Duncan is perpetuating is segregative and divisive in yet another sense. In inner-city schools, where principals are working with a sword of threats and punishments above their heads -- for fear that they’ll be fired if they cannot “pump the scores” -- they inevitably strip down the curriculum to those specific items that are going to be tested, often devoting two-thirds of the year to prepping children for exams. There’s no time for arts or music or even for authentic children’s books like the joyful works that rich kids still enjoy. No time for Pooh and Eeyore and The Hungry Caterpillar. “What help would lovely books like these be on their standardized exams?” Instead, the kids get pit-pat readers keyed to the next miserable tests that they’ll be taking.

So culture is starved. Aesthetics are gone. Joy in learning is regarded as a bothersome distraction. “These kids don’t have time for joy, or whim, or charm, or inquiry! Leave whim and happiness to the children of the privileged. Poor kids can’t afford that luxury.” Even good and idealistic inner-city principals tell me that they feel they have no choice.

So NCLB, in itself, adds a whole new level of division on the basis of a child’s economic class or race. An apartheid of the intellect. One class enjoys the treasures of the earth and also learns to ask demanding and irreverent and insightful questions. The other class is trained to spit up predigested answers.

It’s not surprising that so many corporations are driving this agenda. It helps to guard their interests. Their tacitly admitted goal is to see the inner-city schools produce the kind of narrowly skilled but basically conformist grown-ups who have few critical abilities and will fill their bottom-level job-slots. Meanwhile, the children of the C.E.O.s get to frame the questions that will shape the future.

Why have you decided to participate in the Save Our Schools March on July 30th?

I’ll be in Washington for S.O.S. because I’m sick of begging members of the Senate, even those among them who have been my friends for years, to move two inches in the right direction. I’m tired of complaining. And I’m too old to bite my tongue and mute my words out of politeness and respectfulness for politicians who tell me in private that they share my views about the practices and policies that demean our teachers and threaten the survival of our public schools, but then refuse to stand up and denounce these policies in public.

I think, like many of my oldest friends and youngest allies who will be at S.O.S., it’s time for us to get up off our knees in front of this enormous juggernaut and stop bargaining for crumbs. I’ve begun to see a movement of resistance growing now for several years. I’ve seen courageous teachers speaking up and reaching out to others. And I’ve seen the tide of activism start to rise, and surge, among our students and the parents of those students.

I think a moment of critical energy has suddenly emerged. But moments like this come and go unless we seize them at their height.

What do you hope will come out of the march and conference?

Energy! A willingness, in myself and others of my generation, to listen to the younger teacher-activists who’ve been out in there in the trenches for a while now -- the gutsy teachers from L.A. and Brooklyn, and El Paso and Detroit, to give a few examples. I’d also like to see us shaping new, inventive strategies and broader coalitions. I’d like to see the stirrings of a dynamic movement like the one that changed my life in 1965 when I walked out of my classroom in the last week of the year to join my students and their angry parents in a protest struggle that led us to the streets (and, in my own case, into jail) -- a tiny portion of the fight for civil rights that shook this nation to its core.

Do I think we need that kind of struggle once again? In honesty, I do. And I hope that I will live long enough to be a part of it.

What is one thing you would do to improve education for all students?

Teachers always ask me that. But I learned in 1968, when I first met Paulo Freire, literally on a mountainside in Mexico, not to think I always know the answer. What I tend to do these days is to urge these teachers to look to older and more seasoned teachers like my good friends at Rethinking Schools. “Ask Stan Karp. Ask Bob Peterson. They know more that I do. They’re still in the classroom.”

Anyway, they’ll all be there at S.O.S. And Debbie Meier. And Linda and Diane. And Matt Damon, a morally relentless man whom I tremendously admire. And so many young folks who will carry on this struggle as long as it takes to save our schools and spare us from the mania of testing. This will be a gathering like no other we have seen in many, many years. I hope a tidal wave of advocates and teachers join us.

-- Jonathan Kozol

What do you think of Jonathan Kozol’s reasons for marching? Are you with him?

Image by Jonathan Kozol, used by permission.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.