If We Really Want to Change Our Schools…

By Jonathan Kozol

The most elemental question is presented here: Do we value our lives equally in the U.S.? Do we place the fragile body of a poor, black woman in Chicago on the same scale as a child or grandchild of the president or senator or member of Congress?

Clearly we don’t.

I’m fearful that this crime is going to come back to haunt us. Looking around these awful schools — these ugly buildings — I wonder sometimes why we would consent to let these children lose their years in squalid, ugly buildings where not one of us would ever dream of working for one hour.

We hear repeatedly these days about the need for competition. Business leaders talk constantly about that. People who live in the wealthy suburbs back East where I live say things like, “We need to sharpen our competitive edge against the Japanese. We need to toughen our competitive instincts.” The only kind of competition they resist is that which would compel their children to compete with the children of poor people on a truly level field of education. We wouldn’t dream of sending our kids on the field with baseball mitts against a team that had to play with bare hands. Why do we do it then in public school?

The president said six months ago that dollars don’t buy education. I don’t want to be censorious of Mr. Bush, but I’ve got to keep faith with the children who have trusted me. If money is good for the education of a future president at Andover, it’s good for the child of a poor black woman in Chicago.

The president went to New Jersey two years ago to a place where parents were desperately struggling to pump money into the poorest school districts in the state.

He told those parents that it was unwise to think that money was the answer to the problems of their schools. He said, “A society that worships money is a society in peril.” My question is, why didn’t he say that to the folks in Princeton? Why not say it to the folks in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan or in Great Neck, Long Island? What is the message?

The wonderful principal of Camden High School in New Jersey told me of going to speak in Princeton. “I tell them,” she said, “‘that if you don’t believe that money matters send your kids to school in Camden. Trade with our children; start in the second grade.’ When I say this, people will not meet my eyes. They look down at the floor because they’re ashamed.”

There’s a demand now for national exams. The president and the secretary of education want a national exam. Kids in America already take 200 million exams every year. Virtually every state now has mandated state exams. It hasn’t made a bit of difference in the scores and skills of children.

Tests do not teach reading. As any old farmer in Vermont could tell the president—you don’t fatten your lambs by weighing them. We’re doing a lot of weighing these days and the lambs are getting thinner.

Rhetoric into Action

If we really want to turn our rhetoric to action, we should do at least six things:

  1. Provide immediate full funding to provide Head Start to every eligible three-and four-year-old, with an additional component to give literacy instruction to their parents where they need it. What’s the point of bullying parents, as many of our political leaders do, and bemoaning the fact that they don’t read to their children if we know that they can’t even read?
  2. We should reduce class size to 20 children in every inner city and low income rural school district in America.
  3. We should assign the highest salaries to win and keep the finest teachers in the schools that serve our poorest children.
  4. We should enact a federal school construction bill to tear down all these ugly, haunted buildings that pass for schools, and put up modern schools that children wouldn’t be ashamed to enter.
  5. We should stop pretending that the whim of charity, even at its best and noblest, is any substitute for equity assured by government. I’m grateful for volunteers. I don’t mock people who bring candles to the darkness. But the house of poverty will never be illuminated with more candles. We need to talk about the fusebox. The fusebox of this issue is systemic inequality in the way we fund our public schools.
  6. We should stop tinkering with futile formula revisions for state aid. This happens every few years in America.

Local districts have to depend on their property tax and then on the state government to provide a certain amount to equalize. They’ve done it all over the country. After a few years the courts intervene and say they didn’t do it quite right and to try again. Ten years later the disparities are just as great as they were in the beginning. These formulas have never worked and never will.

We ought to abolish the property tax entirely as the basic form of funding for our public schools. It is inherently unequal. It is the purest instrument for inheritance of wealth.

I don’t object to any wealthy parent in the world wanting to spend all they can to buy their child the best education they can get. But if they want to do that, let them send them to the private schools. It isn’t fair to allow public schools to be de facto prep schools.

It’s just not fair. The states, which unlike the local districts have the only constitutional obligation for providing education to our children, ought to be providing three-fourths of the funding for our public schools. The other quarter ought to come from Washington.

It’s hardly fashionable to speak of money now, especially in Washington. But that’s nothing new.

The Same Story

For 10 years, every time I’ve gone to Washington, whether to beg for money for Head Start, adult literacy, homeless children, or for the mother who can’t get infant formula, I was told the same thing — “we’ve got this deficit; there’s just no money.” Suddenly the S&Ls went bankrupt and Congress found $200 billion. Then the war in Iraq broke out, and we found $50 billion more.

If we can spend $50 billion to defend the Emir of Kuwait, surely we can find $5 billion to give Head Start to the poor children of this country, and another $20 billion to rebuild these ruined inner city schools. Which is more important to our nation’s destiny?

Occasionally I speak at a dinner of members of Congress. Usually they are polite and sometimes even seem moved by what I say.

They’ll come up at the end, Republicans and Democrats alike, and say, “That was very upsetting,” or, “It’s shameful that children are being treated this way.” Sometimes they’ll even say something personally affectionate to me. That always makes me uneasy as to what’s coming next.

They step away. I can see they’re narrowing their eyes and looking at me in a slightly different way, almost like anthropologists examining the last living liberal from Boston. At that point they say to me, still in a good natured way, “It’s just a crime to treat children this way. But, is money really the answer?”

That’s an extraordinary question. As if it were a bizarre idea that money would really be a good solution for poverty. As if it were a fantasy of mine that money would put a new roof on Morris High School and get the sewage out of the schools in East St. Louis. As if it were a hallucination that it would take money to buy IBM and Apple computers and to keep good teachers in the classrooms for 20 years, not for the usual three before they go on to something more interesting and rewarding.

Sometimes they ask it in a slightly different way — “Can you really solve a problem of this sort by throwing money at it?” I don’t know why they always use that verb — throwing.They never speak of throwing money at the Pentagon. No, we allocatemoney for the Pentagon. We throw money at anything that has to do with human pain.

Someday — when I’m secretary of education — we’ll try this interesting idea I have, just as an experiment. For maybe four years we’re going to throw money at the Pentagon and allocate funds to make America a decent land.

Jonathan Kozol is author of several books on education, most recently Savage Inequalities. The above is excerpted from a speech to The Commonwealth Club, a nonprofit public policy group based in San Francisco.