Savage Inequalities Four Years Later

Rethinking Schools interviews Jonathan Kozol

By Barbara Miner

The following is condensed from an interview with Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage  Inequalities, Death at an Early Age and other books on children. He was interviewed by Barbara Miner of Rethinking Schools.

Four years ago you wrote Savage Inequalities, which focused national attention on the problem of unequal funding of schools. What has changed since then?

Not much. In Texas for example, which was one of the areas I looked at most closely, there’s been virtually no improvement. I think there may have been some progress if Ann Richards had survived as governor, but her defeat ended any hope of serious reform.

One of the things that saddens me most is that the press, which gave a good deal of attention to this issue around the time Savage Inequalities was published, seems to have forgotten the issue almost as quickly. I get the sense that the press is bored with “equity” in general, along with racial segregation. Therefore, it tends to focus on mechanistic solutions — various types of restructuring, downsizing this and upsizing that, centralizing this and decentralizing that. There’s an enormous faith in slogans.

It’s quite extraordinary that even now, after all these years, I can still arrive at schools and hear a principal or superintendent tell me, “We’re turning it all around.” A terrible expression, as though the school were on a platform and we were hydraulics engineers. The poverty of jargon that surrounds educational reform is astonishing. It’s a testament to the poverty of thought in the United States.

A truly decentralized school with a lot of parent power and a lot of teacher power is obviously my cup of tea. That’s the school I’d love to teach in. But, at nearly the age of 60, I find it impossible to cheer too hard for a decentralized, separate, and unequal school. Or a separate and unequal school with more choices for the segregated children and their parents. It’s heartbreaking that this is what we have to settle for. It would be great to be able to pursue these laudable goals within a setting of basic justice.

I do not mean to be scornful of teachers or administrators, and I view many of these people as genuine heroes. But when they leave out the entire historic agenda of ending apartheid education in America, they are making a bitter virtue of a bleak necessity. And by “apartheid” I don’t mean just separate. I mean separate and unequal.

The perspective we sometimes hear is, “Sure things are separate and unequal, but the public’s not going to raise taxes and come up with more money, so you need to learn to make do with what we’ve got.”

I agree. I’m a pragmatist. And if I were a school administrator or a teacher activist, I would say, “O.K., with what we’ve got, what can we do?” And I would fight hard to achieve the kinds of victories that very good people are fighting for. But I would always hope that we could keep alive a larger, long-range political agenda, and not pretend that what we can’t do is therefore something we don’t want to do. That last part is most important, because there are many people who, recognizing the fiscal and racial realities in America, are now speaking as if those don’t even matter. It is a challenge to operate on two levels; to be practical and try to make decent changes within the terms of what can be done, but also to keep a larger moral agenda.

The very word “public” has a negative connotation these days. How does one counter that negative image in a way that one can defend public schools but not defend the status quo?

We’ve got to be blunt about the problems in a public system and be harsh critics of those problems. We don’t want to be in the position of knee-jerk defenders of the public schools against the bad guys.

But we have to be careful not to succumb to this nonsense that a public system is inherently flawed and that therefore we have to turn to the market place for solutions. I’ve never in my entire life seen any evidence that the competitive free market, unrestricted, without a strong counterpoise within the public sector, will ever dispense decent medical care, sanitation, transportation, or education to the people. It’s as simple as that.

I think it’s time for us to begin to look back at some of our roots as Americans. It’s absolutely crucial to claim the high moral ground on this issue and make it clear that the right-wing voucher advocates are subverting a strong American tradition. In this respect, we are the defenders of American history.

Let me state it differently. The complaints about the apparent malfunction of the public system are linked, in my belief, to the peculiar problems of impoverished, often virtually colonized, urban school systems. I mean “colonized” in the sense that very little power actually exists within the system, least of all the most important power which is finance, for which they’re dependent on outside forces. And those outside forces are the people who set tax rates, the state government, the federal government, and the people who shape economic policy in America. I don’t think the problems in urban public schools are inherently those of public education. I see hundreds of fine suburban school systems all around the country where nobody ever raises any question about the dangers of monopoly, because these are well-funded, reasonably attractive school systems.

I think it’s important to recognize that this issue of monopoly never came up until people realized the incredible problems of our segregated, impoverished, colonized inner city systems, and needed to find a scapegoat other than segregation and colonization. The issue to me is not that these are public institutions. The issue is that these city schools are basically powerless. The superintendent is usually the viceroy representing other interests to which the superintendent has to be deferential, usually at great emotional cost.

My own faith leads me to defend the genuinely ethical purposes of public education as a terrific American tradition, and to point to what it’s done at its best — not simply for the very rich, but for the average American citizen. We need to place the voucher advocates, the enemies of public schools, where they belong: in the position of those who are subverting something decent in America.

What about the conservative argument that all progressives want to do is throw money at the problem?

I don’t think we should flinch on that. When a wealthy conservative says to me, “All you folks want is more money,” I say “You’re absolutely right and we’re going to start with your money. And if you’re really rich, we can take a lot of it.” They say, “Are you talking about some kind of redistributive justice in this country?” And I say, “Absolutely. That’s the whole idea of public schools.”

We shouldn’t always be fighting a defensive battle on this issue. Let’s tell the conservatives, “You know, looking at your experience, it seems like you think you can buy a better car with more money, a better house with more money, a better holiday with more money, a better doctor with more money, a better psychiatrist for your children with more money, and you’re paying $40,000 to send two kids to Andover or Exeter. So why not more money for public schools?”

What about the role of the federal government? Everyone seems to be infatuated with “devolution” from the feds to the states to the locals. Responsibilities are going downward, but not a lot of demands are going upward.

I think we have to remind each other that the slogan “devolution” or “decentralization” is really part of a continuum. First you diminish the federal role, then you diminish the state role, then you diminish the city role, until finally you have little, self-governing enclaves of privilege and destitution. That brings us right back to the South in the worst days of the 1930s. We have to remind people of that.

If you had to essentialize your perfect political agenda to get rid of separate and unequal schools, what would it be?

Massive political demonstrations by parents and children and teachers from the poorest urban schools, marching to the wealthiest suburban schools. Ideally, there would be a return march doubled in number, with lots of good kids from the suburban schools. Then the two marches might head toward the state legislature, or stop at the governor’s mansion, or perhaps go to some of the major financial powers in the city. I grew up in an age when we didn’t feel that we were going to win many victories through testifying at legislative hearings unless there were a lot of people in the streets behind us.

I think a great resurgence of a passionate, non-violent protest movement would probably accomplish more than a thousand national conferences on restructuring.

All of this sounds nice in theory. But in the political real world, isn’t that 1960s approach dead?

Yeah, but you’ve also got to change the political real world. It isn’t like weather conditions; it’s not determined by God.

It’s determined by other people who are often no smarter than we but sometimes richer. It’s determined by a couple hundred owners of radio stations and newspapers who have chosen to advance a certain set of anti-government views along with a great deal of contempt for children of immigrant families, children of Black and Hispanic-American families; owners who have chosen to satirize the notion that money matters when in fact they’re exploiting it so well to advance their own agenda. The next time you hear somebody say on the radio that money doesn’t matter, ask them how much money it cost them to buy that radio station.

We have to become creatively and politely and peacefully far more irreverent and aggressive in fighting these issues.

We certainly can’t accept this bizarre idea that money and race and a great deal of racial hatred are not at the heart of the school problem in the cities of America. Because those are the ultimate issues. If we bypass all of this in the effort to be pragmatic, we will be forfeiting the biggest struggle. We’ll also be forfeiting any of the transcendent energy that comes from a great struggle. That’s why a lot of education workshops seem so dull; they have everything except energy, joy, vision, and transcendence. That’s a lot to be missing. r

The following is condensed from an interview with Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities, Death at an Early Age and other books on children. He was interviewed by Barbara Miner of Rethinking Schools.