Friday, February 28, 2003

His goal: Equality in education


Jonathan Kozol's 'Savage Inequalities' details flaws in public school systems

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jonathan Kozol
Jonathan Kozol
Jonathan Kozol leaves a voicemail message on a reporter's phone. What's unusual is the time: 4:23 a.m.

"I was up late," the 66-year-old author of Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools says a few days later from his Byfield, Mass., home. "When I'm doing research and writing, if I find material very compelling, or if the writing's going well, I will just keep going until I drop."

Such tasks occupy half his time, he says. Much of the remainder he devotes to visiting the schools, neighborhoods and homes of the children he writes about. Many of those youngsters are products of a public education system that Kozol has long argued deprives the poor and perpetuates racial injustice.

Today the On the Same Page community reading project begins a second round by focusing on Savage Inequalities, published in 1991. A year ago, Greater Cincinnatians read Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying. The project aims to inspire discussion on race, tolerance and diversity.

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Those themes dovetail nicely with the work of Kozol, who's single and shares his home with a golden retriever named Sweetie Pie. A doctor's son with a Harvard education, he says his life was transformed in 1964 when he learned hundreds of young were going to Mississippi "to try to break the back of segregation, and three of them were murdered."

Soon after, he began teaching poor African-American children in a Boston ghetto. Death at an Early Age, his first book and an account of that year, won the National Book Award.

In Savage Inequalities, Kozol writes of vast disparities between poor, mostly African-American public schools, and their rich counterparts. He describes tragic situations in such places as East St. Louis, Ill., Chicago, New York City, Camden, N.J., Washington, D.C., and San Antonio. (The book's last few pages focus on a visit to Oyler Elementary in Lower Price Hill.)

ON THE SAME PAGE
On the Same Page debuted in spring 2002 and quickly became the project that launched a thousand books.
Today, is the official launch of the second annual community-wide reading project.
But while the book now is Savage Inequalities and a younger reader title, Marika, has been added, the project's mission remains the same:
To build community and inspire discussion on race, tolerance and diversity through reading together.
Find out about events; learn how you can participate; and read more about the project, the books and the authors at the On The Same Page Web site.
The Washington Post once said that Kozol's writing "sometimes seems to shudder with restrained fury." On the phone, though, his gentle manner makes it easy to understand how he connects so easily with children.

Question: Who are your books aimed at?

Answer: "Directly at ordinary citizens. I purposely write my books as simply as possible so high school students can read them. Many high schools assign Savage Inequalities or Amazing Grace."

Q: Is the public education system in this country more fair today than it was when Savage Inequalities was published?

A: "Some lawsuits (to force states to fund schools equally) were in existence when I wrote that. Almost none of them have translated into real results. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. (The landmark Supreme Court ruling that declared separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.) Fifty years after that decision was handed down, most public schools in the United States are more segregated and less equal than they were at that time. The only exceptions are the schools in Southern states."

Q: Do you think Americans want to solve the problem?

A: "I think there's a lot of decency in this society. There's a basic yearning for fair play. They don't want to rig Little League games, and they don't want to rig the biggest game of all - the opportunities we give to children through education. Individually, however, they act very differently. When they're faced with an immediate decision for their own child, they will very humanly act in a way that appears to be for the immediate benefit of that child, which often means moving to a school district where there are very few low-income kids."

Q: What's the root of the problem?

A: "The system of school funding (relying primarily on property taxes) is so unjust and so contrived, it's almost as if it was invented to appeal to the worst instincts in human beings. It gives people an incentive for being selfish. In a just society in which every child were valued equally, and in which funding was accorded to every single public school on a truly equitable basis, there would be no incentive for one racial group or one social class to flee into an all-white suburb or into a virtually all-white school."

Q: Your solution?

A: "We ought to abolish the local property tax. If there is a property tax for education, it ought to go into a common pool. The state should assume all responsibility for financing public education, and allocate funds on an equitable basis. When I say equitable, that's not exactly the same as equal, because some school districts have greater needs than others."

Q: Shouldn't parents have the option of spending their money to make their public schools better?

A: "Any parent who has unusual wealth of course has the right to buy their children every opportunity they can. That's why affluent people frequently send their children to exclusive private schools. But that privilege should not exist within the public system. The entire dream of public education at its best is to provide a very high level of education to all children on an equitable basis. We have contradicted that principle again and again."

E-mail jjohnston@enquirer.com





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