Still separate and unequal

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Article Social Justice
Jonathan Kozol, a fourth grade public school teacher in Boston who had devoted himself to issues of education and social justice in America. Kozol discusses his new book, "Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope," misconceptions in the school policy debate, and vouchers for private schools.

During the civil rights campaigns of the early 1960s, Jonathan Kozol moved from Harvard University to a poor black neighborhood of Boston to become a fourth-grade public school teacher. In the subsequent three decades he has devoted himself to issues of education and social justice in America, condemning the vicious inequalities in our nation, especially the "separate but unequal" conditions of many urban school districts.

His books-including Rachel and Her Children (1988), Savage Inequalities (1991), and Amazing Grace (1995)-have won awards, sold millions, and become standard texts for those interested in the just distribution of educational resources.

In his latest book, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope (Crown, 2000), Kozol revisits the South Bronx neighborhood that was the setting for Amazing Grace and describes the committed teachers of Public School 30 and the after-school program of St. Ann's Episcopal Church. "I don't think I'll ever have the strength to walk the streets like this again and wander with young children through the fascinating details of their daily lives," Kozol, now 64, says. "If I didn't use these years to do it now, I'd never have the chance again."

You wrote that it is important to look at the children you describe in your book with a "narrow lens." Why is that?

I have spent a great deal of my life looking at issues pertaining to children from two points of view, the specific aspect of children and the larger aspect of policy, decision-making, and sociology. But in recent years I have had the feeling that our society has tended toward the big picture at the expense of the small; dealt with the general-the big conclusions-far more than it has been willing to look at children themselves. At this point in my life I wanted to try my hardest to look at children themselves, as they are, not trying to classify them and force them into categories.

I tried to learn from Fred Rogers-"Mr. Rogers" of the children's television program. Mr. Rogers probably knows more about young children than almost anybody alive in the United States today. When he came to the South Bronx he was so sensitive in the observations he made about the children. I noticed the extreme caution with which he held back from making any sweeping categorical statements about them. He spoke solely of individuals. When I heard Mr. Rogers and one of the kids speaking, it reminded me of someone walking in the woods and being careful not to step on anything that lives.

I very much dislike generalizations about urban children because they are consistently off-target, be they assertions about inner-city kids as precocious criminals, premature adults, or-in the worst phrase I've heard-predators and super-predators, or the reverse clich, which is to describe them as if they're all little angels.

I hear public policy debates today about how we have to drill inner-city kids for the next exam, and if their grades aren't good enough, put them in summer school and don't worry about whether it's going to make much difference. If they don't pass the next exam, don't promote them to the next grade. I'm not opposed to these specific programs if they're handled with a degree of gentleness.

It's just that the collective body of discussion about urban children now has a vaguely punitive, almost adversarial tone-as though our young people, especially young people of color, are the enemy.

Why are people so punitive?

I see the issue in terms of our willingness to spend huge amounts of money for juvenile incarceration and then for young adult incarceration while we're still so stingy on the essentials for elementary schools.

In New York at this moment, they're spending about $5,000 a year per pupil if you bracket out special-education costs; but they spend $64,000 a year to keep someone, who might be only 18 years old, at the Riker's Island prison. Even worse is the new reform school they've just built in the neighborhood, eight blocks from St. Ann's Church, which spends $93,000 a year on a child. They have a class size of 12, wonderful new computers and software, and an ultramodern building. There hasn't been a new high school built in the Bronx since the 1970s, but this building takes up almost a whole block.

I was just in California where I was told that prison guards on the average are paid more than classroom teachers. That doesn't make sense in a good country, and I think this is a good country. Everywhere I go I'm always struck by how many generous and enlightened people there are. None of these people would prefer to build prisons rather than schools, so what's happened? Why is it that our politicians don't seem to reflect the decency in our country? Education is the one area of public spending that seems utterly benign. It's money so obviously well spent, and the little ones themselves are so irresistibly appealing that it would seem to be the easiest thing our politicians could do.

Could you spell out some of the misconceptions that are floating around in school policy debates?

One familiar view is that all children who do not have traditional two-parent families are inherently doomed. Sure, I'd like to see every child have a mom and dad at home and have Thanksgiving dinner with all their grandparents-all the traditional things.

At the same time, although many of the fathers of kids in the South Bronx are not present-because about a quarter of the fathers are in the criminal justice system, either on probation or in detox or prison-most of the children do have two parents: usually their mom and grandmother. Although that's an unconventional family arrangement by traditional American standards, some of the grandmothers are marvelous, strong people.

I also think there's a tendency to assume that if the children have serious problems in the home, that situation preestablishes the futility of anything we do in school. I don't agree with thateven in the cases where there is no strong grandmother or dad or healthy mother. Even in those cases where the family is truly chaotic or the mother is emotionally unwell, I still think a wonderful school makes a difference.

A great many people will say to me, "Jonathan, is it really worth investing in the education of these kids? Doesn't it all start in the home?" What I always say is, first of all, you really can't turn back the clock and recreate conditions so that people could have grown up to be effective parents. You can't change the makeup of parents who themselves frequently were cheated of a decent education when they were kids, when they went to the same separate and unequal schools or were denied good health care themselves.

When people make this argument, it's almost as though they turn away from something we could do and place the burden of responsibility in an area that we can't change.

What can we do for the parents?

We could give them adult literacy instruction. We could give them good mental health care so there's more stability at home. We could generate jobs so they could work. In the South Bronx, many of the mothers work but many of the fathers can't get jobs-there's 75 percent unemployment in this specific neighborhood among men. We could do all of these things, but mostly what we do is castigate the parents.

This country is still wealthy and wise enough to give every one of those kids a full day of wonderful developmental preschool starting when they're 2112 years old, which is what wealthy people do. It would probably cost the nation about $10 billion to give that to all the 3year-olds and then another $10 billion to give it to all the 2 1/2-year-olds.

How do we change people's attitudes toward funding better education for poor children?

If I could figure out the dynamics of persuading the most privileged people, whose kids go to school in places like Great Neck, New York or Winnetka, Illinois, of the need for greater funding in these areas, I would run for the U.S. Senate.

The stumbling block for even the most egalitarian wealthy people I know finally comes down to selfish interests and to their own daughter's chance of getting into Vassar. At that point, they no longer seem to believe in level playing fields. These same people will look at me and say, "Jonathan, I agree with everything you've said, but is money honestly the answer?" And I'll say, "Well, it seems to work for your child, doesn't it?"

There's an affluent town on Long Island called Fishers Island that is spending $24,000 per pupil. Great Neck, another typical suburb, is up around $18,000. Amagansett, also very wealthy, spends $20,000. How can people who live in towns like these look at me and ask me whether money really matters?

At the same time I'm very much aware of the contradictions in my own life. We all live with contradictions; there's no real way to avoid them. For example, when I go from Massachusetts to New York to see the kids at St. Ann's, if I want to have the maximum amount of time with them I don't drive because that can take me six hours. Instead I fly on the shuttle, and that costs as much money as most of those kids would get in food stamps in two months.

Is the system of funding education through property taxes at the heart of the problem?

It is. The solution is ultimately to abolish the property tax system-the primary means of financing public education in America-as it now stands and replace it with national resources raised primarily from income tax (or even some form of property tax if you pool all property tax money) and then use it in an equitable way for all children.

The fact is that the local school district has no standing in law. State constitutions empower the states in one way or another to provide a school system for all the children in a state. Historically the state has delegated this responsibility to local school districts, but the local school district with its local property tax base is simply an invention.

I don't know of another Western nation that has this peculiar piecemeal system of basing education on local wealth. I know that Germany, France, Great Britain, and Japan all finance the education of their students from national resources.

The children in Tunica, Mississippi-a town famous for being one of the poorest places in the Mississippi Delta-don't swear the Pledge of Allegiance to Tunica, Mississippi. They swear the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States, and I think we can honorably argue that the flag to which we ask them to pledge allegiance ought to be the flag that protects them. Some people point to Catholic schools as alternatives because they seem to be providing quality education without spending a lot of money.

I know good Catholic schools that don't spend much money, but for a number of reasons their existence doesn't provide a rationale for accepting the argument that good schools in general don't need a lot of money.

First, some of the religious schools are inevitably selective in some ways. They try to be democratic, but they understand that there's no way they can escape selectivity because, for example, they don't usually have facilities for special needs. They're also self-selective even when the tuition is very small by our standards. Even small tuition is a lot of money if all you make is $10,000 a year.

The inherent dilemma here is that the vast majority of the kids who have the greatest need are going to be left behind in public school.

What about vouchers for private schools?

If the only recipients of public vouchers were the Catholic schools that I visit or a handful of Montessori schools, I would not have so great a problem with vouchers. They might drain a little bit from the public system, it might seem unfair to the public school teachers, but overall the effect might not be calamitous.

The problem is that vouchers could also go to a David Duke-type of school, a Patrick Buchanan-type of school, or a Louis Farrakhan-type of school. This has the potential to tear apart the social fabric of this country. It's terrifying to think of what might happen if every small, sectarian, ethnic, or ideological group and subgroup were in a position to indoctrinate children in their own unique set of beliefs, likes, and dislikes with public money. That's where I get very scared.

This article appeared in the October 2000 issue of U.S. Catholic magazine (Vol. 65, No. 10, pages 18-21).