Savage Inequalities

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Many school reformers in the 1980’s and early 1990’s have argued that American schools are of low quality compared with those abroad; Jonathan Kozol, on the other hand, argues that American schools are of good quality except for those that serve the children of the poor. As a young man, Kozol first assailed racial inequalities in education in 1967 with Death at an Early Age, his stirring attack on the Boston public school system (for which he had briefly worked as a substitute teacher) for miseducating black schoolchildren. Somewhat older in 1991, but no less passionate in his views, the author sees little progress since 1967 toward the goal of equal education for all. Black and Hispanic children in Northern cities, he argues, are as isolated from whites in the schools in the early 1990’s as black children were in the schools of the South in the years before the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation. Kozol sees inner-city pupils as doomed to a future of menial jobs at best (for those who stay in school) and of crime and dependency at worst; he concludes that only equalization of the amounts of public money spent on education, and the elimination of the disparities in spending between rich suburban and poor urban school districts, can give poor children an equal chance to rise in the world. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools, which points to funding by the property tax as the main source of inequity, is a powerful but one-sided indictment; the reader interested in the problems of primary and secondary education in poor and inner-city areas must complement this muckraking report by reading other works on both education and urban poverty.

The author’s research has been prodigious. Traveling throughout the country, he has looked at elementary and secondary schools in poor and inner-city areas of East St. Louis, Illinois; Camden and other cities in New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; the Bronx in New York City; San Antonio, Texas; and Cincinnati, Ohio. For purposes of comparison, Kozol also visited schools in suburbs and other affluent white areas, such as Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Rye, New York; Winnetka, Illinois; and Riverdale in the Bronx. The inner-city schoolchildren Kozol saw in Camden and in the Bronx were blacks and hispanics; those he observed in Cincinnati were poor Appalachian whites; those in San Antonio were Mexican Americans; and those Kozol visited in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and East St. Louis were blacks. Kozol has observed and talked to students; gleaned insights and information not only from teachers and administrators, but also from a variety of other informants, including a priest, a nun, a college professor, and a newspaper reporter; and made diligent use of the local press.

A master of descriptive prose, Kozol, reciting one horror story after another, paints a sad picture of dreary schoolrooms; of overcrowded classrooms, and of classes held in closets and lavatories; of leaky roofs and (in East St. Louis) backed-up sewage; of too few and often mutilated textbooks; of buildings either too hot or too cold; of inadequate science laboratories; and of a general shortage of aids to learning, from computers to encyclopedias to dictionaries. Kozol will surprise many readers with his demonstration of just how high are the obstacles to learning arising from inadequate school funding. Treated by a lesser writer, the subject of school finance would make the reader’s eyes glaze over; Kozol, however, deftly translates the abstract notion of funding inequity into the gritty details of bare-bones classroom austerity, showing the reader through countless individual examples how this austerity contrasts with the bounty of choices available to the student in the affluent suburb. Again and again, the reader marvels at Kozol’s keen powers of observation: He conveys to the reader the sights, sounds, and smells of a ghetto school.

Kozol’s word portraits of teachers and administrators are as finely drawn as his descriptions of the schools. The reader learns the names of seven teachers, nine school principals, and one district superintendent with whom Kozol spoke; other teachers and administrators whose words Kozol repeats clearly preferred to remain anonymous. In Death at an Early Age, Kozol castigated his former fellow teachers as white racists; in 1991, by contrast, he finds conscientious, caring professionals among both whites and blacks, as well as some teachers who are either contemptuous of their pupils or who barely earn their pay. Kozol singles out for praise the Chicago elementary-school teacher Corla Hawkins, who pays out of her own pocket for learning aids for her pupils at Mary McLeod Bethune School, and Jack Forman, an English teacher at Morris High School in the South Bronx, who tries to impart to his inner-city pupils a love for good literature and the theater. Kozol warns the reader, however, not to rely on the occasional outstanding individual teacher to cure the ills of inner-city schools. Relatively low teacher salaries, Kozol notes, often prevent inner-city schools from hiring the better teachers or from doing without ill-prepared substitute teachers.

Although Kozol, whose exposition of the fine points of educational finance is marvelously lucid, aims most of his fire at the heavy reliance of school financing on local property taxes, he also criticizes other aspects of education. School 24 in Riverdale, an affluent white neighborhood in the Bronx, cannot keep all of Riverdale’s property tax revenue to itself, since its school district includes schools in poorer...

(The entire section is 2286 words.)