In his speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, President Barack Obama cited the “urgent need to expand the promise of education in America,”
“In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity – it is a pre-requisite,” he said.
Unfortunately, America is eons away from realizing its promise to the country’s children-especially to black youth.
Former Rhodes Scholar Jonathan Kozol has been writing about educational inequality for more than 40 years. His first book, the National Book Award-winning Death At An Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools, depicted his experiences teaching in a predominantly black section of Boston. Kozol eventually was fired for teaching the Langston Hughes poem A Dream Deferred, but not before he had gathered sufficient material to write a stinging indictment of what he saw.
Most recently, he has written The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid, which shows the increasing segregation of America’s schools, the ascendence of neo-conserative ideology and the abandonment of any real commitment to meet the promise of an equal education.
Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools came in between these two works. Published in 1991, the book takes a devastating tour through the country, showing repeatedly, as the title suggests, the glaring inequalities between children’s education depending solely on where they lived and the concomitant betrayal of the promise to which Obama referred Tuesday night.
The book opens in East St. Louis, Illinois. One of the best features of Kozol’s work is his ability to create vivid, if depressing portraits of the conditions in which children must learn as well as of the intersection of race, health, education and inequality. In East St. Louis, for instance, he cites the city hazardous environmental conditions that impact students’ learning.
The vast majority of the students in the city’s schools are black.
Of course, the bottom is just one part of the equation. In Savage Inequalities Kozol also shows the contrasting facilities and conditions in which largely white, more affluent children learn. Thus, his chapter on Chicago talks about city schools like Du Sable High School and suburban schools like New Trier High School, which was recently the target of Sen. James Meeks’ opening day boycott to highlight the enduring inequity.
Kozol’s tour through the country’s schools includes stops in Camden, New Jersey, New York City, San Antonio, Boston and Washington, DC. The themes, portraits of children’s betrayal by the educational system, and deep-rooted inequities are depressingly similar. Kozol does note that several of the cities have magnet schools, but also talks about how few children those schools reach compared to the whole school age population.
In addition to the vignettes, Kozol talks at some length about local property tax, which, especially at that time was the major vehicle to fund schools in the majority of states throughout the country. He illustrates both that wealthier districts generate more money than poorer ones, with the result that poorer and blacker districts whose children have greater needs receive far less money per pupil than their wealthier and often whiter counterparts. He includes an appendix that shows the existing and widening gap in per pupil school funding.
Kozol also shows that wealthier districts actually generally have lower property tax rates than their poorer counterparts, with the result that it is essentially impossible for those districts to reach funding equity.
Kozol ends the book with a plea for America to stop the inequality:
‘Surely there is enough for everyone within this country. It is a tragedy that these good things are not more widely shared. All our children ought to be allowed a stake in the enormous richness of America.”
Savage Inequalities, and Kozol’s educational writing more generally, have been a major contribution to advancing public dialogue, if not action, on this issue. His willingness to take a repeated and unflinching look at America’s educational inequities are laudable, while his writing skills are admirable.
At the same time, Savage Inequalities actually understates the system’s brutal inequities through an insufficiently rigorous look at the property tax.
First, Kozol only does a comparison of school funding on a single-year and individual basis. The gaps that he finds grow exponentially when one looks at them over time and for the life of a district. In Illinois, for example, we at The Chicago Reporter found a nearly $160,000 difference between the amount of money spent on a student in Lake Forest’s Rondout district during her K-12 years compared with the amount spent on a child in a downstate district.
Multiplied by a classroom of 20 children, the gap grows to $3.2 million.
For a district of 2000 children, the difference increases to $320 million.
In addition, Kozol did not truly explain the cyclical nature of overreliance on the property as a mechanism for funding schools. While he did note that there are spending gaps between districts and that wealthier districts tend to have lower property tax rates, he did not explore the consequences for business in the communities.
The results showed an even greater gap between the amount of per pupil property value in commerical property than in residential property between districts with low property tax and high property tax levels. This showed that businesses, unsurprisingly, are more likely to choose a wealthy district with lower property taxes to set up shop in compared with a poorer district with higher property tax levels.
It means, in essence, that poor districts can never come close to catching up to their richer counterparts.
Kozol also does not look at the levels of achievement of black children in richer districts. This topic falls outside the focus of his work, but is an important topic to consider because it complicates the dualistic picture he has painted in the book.
Still, nearly 20 years after its publication, and with former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan now heading the Obama adminstration’s effort to meet America’s promise to its children, Savage Inequalities is worth a read. Even if the economic analysis is slightly understated, the inequalities Kozol depicts are savage indeed.