Public shame

The way America pays for education puts a price tag on our kids’ heads

“The segregation and physical isolation of black and Latino children has returned to public education with a vengeance!” thundered Jonathan Kozol, the educator and social activist who has devoted the past four decades to teaching and writing about inner-city children. “Elemental class and racial justice in public schools is at one of the most perilous and reactionary moments in my adult life,” he declared.

Educator and activist Jonathan Kozol © JOANIE TOBIN

Kozol delivered his comments during the inaugural Social Policy Forum of the Lincoln Filene Center for Community Partnerships, held February 1 at the Cabot Intercultural Center. The Filene Center is a program of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.

The theme of the forum was “Still Separate, Still Unequal: The Continuing Decapitation of Potential in America’s Apartheid Schools.” Following Kozol’s keynote address, two Boston educators—Suzanne Lee, principal of the Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Chinatown, and Danny Wilcox, G01, interim principal and a teacher at the Boston Arts Academy—shared their personal and professional experiences with school integration.

In an emotion-filled speech, his gravelly voice at times rising with outrage or dropping to an almost-tearful whisper, Kozol, the author of 11 books, described what he calls the “post-modern, millennial apartheid” he has witnessed in schools across the country, and the disheartening retreat from the ideals of the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education. He also attacked the current property tax-based method of funding public education in the United States, a system, he said, that fuels these inequalities.

“Because of the unjust, indecent and undemocratic way we finance public schools, little children come with a price tag on their foreheads,” Kozol said.

For his most recent book, Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (Crown, 2005), Kozol visited more than 60 schools in 11 states. He paints a bleak picture of overcrowded, underfunded and ill-equipped urban schools, where America’s poorest children—overwhelmingly black and Latino—receive a fraction of the resources and attention that go into educating their mostly white, suburban peers.

A ‘bitter joke’
The typical inner-city classroom, said Kozol—and he makes a point to distinguish a typical classroom from what he calls “boutique schools,” the special programs that officials in every city like to show off as examples of progress—“the typical inner-city classroom is indistinguishable from those faded photos of classrooms in Mississippi and Alabama in 1925 or 1930. And you never see a white child in any of these schools. “The percentage of black kids attending racially integrated public schools is at its lowest level since 1968, the year Dr. [Martin Luther] King was taken from us,” Kozol said.

“Even within allegedly integrated public schools, there is internal segregation,” Kozol said. White children are funneled into gifted-and-talented, honors or Advanced Placement classes, he said. But, integration is no longer on most educators’ or the public’s agenda, Kozol added. For most, there is a belief that integration is an issue of the past, and there is an unwillingness to confront racial injustice as it exists today.

The “ultimate irony” is revealed in a bitter joke often known among older African-Americans, said Kozol, who is white. In any city, he said, “if you want to find the school with the highest teacher turnover, the lowest scores, the most desperation, ask for the school named for Dr. King.

“Save the name of Dr. King for a school that lives up to his dream,” Kozol said to resounding applause from the audience.

Achievement gap
The effects of segregation are evident in the “achievement gap” between white and minority students, Kozol said. “The greatest gain black and Latino kids made in closing the achievement gap was in the 30 years that the Supreme Court decision was most vigorously enforced. Starting in 1992, the Rehnquist court started to rip apart the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, and it’s almost gone. And the gap is opening up all over again,” he said.

“The typical black and Latino 12th-grade student is reading and computing at the level of a typical 7th-grade white student,” Kozol said. Drop-out rates for “black and Latino kids are up since [the institution of the Bush administration’s] No Child Left Behind” program.

Despite attempts to “equalize the playing field … virtually all segregated schools are savagely unequal to schools that serve the mainstream white community,” Kozol said. In Shame of the Nation, Kozol compares per-pupil spending in six major metropolitan areas around the country, and finds that overwhelmingly white suburban districts spend significantly more than nearby urban districts with black and Latino populations.

To those who ask, “Can you really solve the problem by throwing money at it?” Kozol has an emphatic response: “Yes!”

“I don’t know of a better way to replace trailers and substandard buildings or to replace uninspiring readers with enriching children’s literature,” said Kozol. “I can’t think of a better use of money than to pay teachers to stay in inner-city schools longer than three years.”

Kozol supports a national approach to school funding. “The problem can never be fixed state-by-state. Don’t waste time on local equity suits,” he said, because state legislatures can work around them. (In 45 states, lawsuits have challenged methods of funding public education—such as the McDuffy and Hancock cases in Massachusetts—with varying results.) “The only wholesale change can be at the national level.” He urged support for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing an adequate education for all U.S. children.

“No matter who I anger with my words, and no matter the price, I will keep on speaking of this issue to my dying day,” Kozol said.

Helene Ragovin is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at