In 1964, the author, Jonathan Kozol, is a young man who works as a teacher. Like many others at the time, the grade school where he teaches is segregated (teaching only non-white students), understaffed, and in poor physical condition. Kozol loses his first job as a teacher because he introduces students to some African American poetry that questions the conditions of blacks in America. Years later, after holding many other jobs, Kozol misses working with children. He decides to visit schools across America to see what has changed. What he learns is saddening; many schools have student bodies that are still separate and unequal.
Kozol’s journey starts in East St. Louis, Illinois. Traveling with a woman from a religious organization, Kozol takes a look around the inner city. The town sits on a flood plain below beautiful homes that have been built on. Furthermore, factories pour sewage and toxic waste into the city. Playgrounds are found to contain heavy metals that can make children ill. An attempt has been made at building a new school in one area, but cheap construction techniques result in a roof that collapses. Local grade school children tell Kozol horror stories of family and friends who were murdered.
A visit to the East St. Louis schools reveals an overall lack of facilities. Sewage floods lunchrooms, making it intolerable to serve food there. Students need books, computers, chalk and even toilet paper. Science classes need test tubes, tables, running water and even heat. The ceiling is about to collapse in one school, the gym and locker room stink with toxic mold, and even the arts classes have no tools.
Dedicated teachers make poverty wages teaching oversized classrooms and even choose to bring in their own teaching aids and pay for them out of their own wages. Almost every student in every rundown school is not white. Minority students know they are receiving inferior education in ugly, filthy, dangerous buildings but seem most concerned by the fact that they are all pushed aside and not accepted into nearby white schools. They wonder why they are not liked or trusted.
Next Kozol travels to Chicago, Illinois, in the area of Lawndale where Martin Luther King has worked and experienced the worst racism of his life. The conditions are similar as in East St. Louis with filth, decay and danger in mostly non-white schools. Kozol focuses on the incompetent and unkind teachers are the only people the Chicago school system have been hired for these segregated schools and offering low wages. The author disagrees with government officials claims that schools don’t need more money, only better teaching methods. To prove his point he talks about a dedicated, brilliant teacher working in the slums who manages to excite students. She is just down the hall from uncaring teachers. If they wish to learn her methods, all they have to do is watch.
Lack of money is the problem and racism is the reason these schools are not getting the money they need, Kozol states. Thousands more dollars are spent each year on each white student attending better schools in the nearby suburbs. Blaming teaching methods or parental involvement for the horrible problems in segregated schools is easier than raising money and finding solutions.
The author continues on that the way schools are funded allows inequalities to continue. Local property taxes fund schools, meaning the money a school receives is based on the value of the houses in the area. Houses in richer areas can be afforded by whites that pay more property taxes and get better schools (even if they are dumping sewage onto non-white areas situated below them without paying taxes to those areas to help clean up). Richer homeowners also get tax relief for paying their mortgages.
Meanwhile, poor black areas are dumping grounds for toxic waste and garbage, which benefit the wealthier citizens, but they tend to be the only places poor non-whites can afford to live. Low properrty values result in badly funded, dangerous schools. Wealthier whites avoid these public schools and move to suburbs where their property taxes go toward building elegant public schools. Trier school is an example. It attracts a highly trained staff, and boasts an Olympic swimming pool as well as other luxuries. An article about this suburban school brags that most of the students in it are white.
Kozol says that magnet schools (special public schools built for the most talented students) seem like a good idea, but are also unfair. The inner city disadvantaged non-white students usually don’t provide head start programs or educated parents who can help them push for admittance. Students of magnet schools are mostly white. Disadvantaged students watch television and know they are being treated like something less than human. This is savagely cruel.
In the next area, New York, Kozol sees the same pattern of filth, indifference and degradation. The difference between money spent in inner city schools and outlying suburbs is more than double in the New York districts. The school system administrators admit they don’t even know how many kids become discouraged and drop out of these schools. Kozol finds this shocking in a town where every penny stock on Wall Street can be accounted for every day. However, the school system cannot collect a list of names of dropouts. In fact, several school administrators admit that they actually hope kids will drop out because they have so many students, they can’t teach them all.
Health care for disadvantaged minorities is pathetic, which shows society’s indifference to the non-whites, says Kozol. As in Illinois, funding inequalities in New York are not just a local problem. The State of New York actually distributes more money to the richer schools. Visiting a fancy school in Rye, NY, Kozol is disappointed to learn privileged kids are uninterested to the suffering of non-white students in other schools. According to Kozol this is not true of students in his day.
Media adds to the misconceptions about poor schools, according to Kozol. For instance, The Wall Street Journal claims that minor cuts in class size won’t help test scores much. Kozol argues that if that is the case, why not double the number of children in each white public school classroom? Nobody would stand for this.
He visits Camden, NJ, the fourth poorest area in country. At Pyne Jr. High there are no computers. At the local high school the computers have literally melted because of the extreme heat in the non-air conditioned building. Kozol wonders why African American teachers at these schools ignore the issues of race as if they just accept matters as inevitable. High school kids in Camden tell Kozol about being unable to read the classics because pages are missing from their books, and one promising student is told by her guidance councilor to give up her dream of becoming a lawyer because her English isn’t good enough. As in other cities, dangerous chemicals flee from nearby factories (the factories do not pay taxes here) and children suffer major illnesses. The only principal who earns respect from the media s a man who walks around the school with a bat and tosses three hundred students out of school. This doesn’t help the school, but it gets him on the cover of magazines.
When parents of a young boy named, Raymond Abbott go to court to protest the inferior education he is receiving as a poor non-white boy in New Jersey. Expensive lawyers are hired by the State to fight the lawsuit. Eventually the court decides that Raymond is indeed being unfairly treated. However, the decision comes too late to save his educational career. Raymond ends up a dropout cocaine addict in jail.
Before introducing readers to the problems in Washington, DC, Kozol observes that disadvantaged people ask for totally equal education when they go to court. Why not? Kozol heads to Washington, where the city contrasts with the reality of the non-white slums a few blocks away. A city official observes that the very poor accept a dual system with richer magnet schools so the whites won’t leave altogether and take political power and money to the suburbs. The news media seem to “blame the victim” portraying the people who live in ghettos as dangerous fools who spend too much on expensive tennis shoes and jewelry. Kozol says TV viewers in the suburbs don’t understand this stuff is being pushed on ghetto residents who have no access to things of real value.
One failed method of improving non-white schools has been to hire non-white administrators. Kozol says this cannot help. Detroit has had non-white administration for years and the underfunded schools are still in a predicament. When a U.S. District Court finds that Detroit schools are both separate and unequal, the U.S. Supreme Court is called in to consider the charge. The Supreme Court at this time is heavily packed with conservative Nixon appointees. These judges say that making things fair in the city of Detroit for the poor would unfairly punish the suburbs. An important Justice of the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, disagrees with the majority opinion and sees that the country has taken a giant step backward in values. Later, President George H.W. Bush says money is not the answer to solving school problems.
Kozol then heads to San Antonio where he begins by claiming that Americans hesitate to directly discriminate against other people’s children because this would make them feel guilty. However, he thinks, laws have allowed discrimination to occur in a less direct form. For example, in the 1920s in America the Foundation program is established. It is supposed to mean that everybody is taxed on local homes and businesses at the same rate, and the federal government comes in to make up the difference in money raised by sending extra subsidies to poor schools. Yet, white schools historically get more of this “make up” money. Kozol thinks it’s strange that when it comes to equal funding for public schools, officials fight for local control, but the federal government is happy to overrule federal control when it comes to which books should be read, and other important issues.
In 1968 in San Antonio, the parents of Demetrio Rodriguez and other students go to court to fight for equal funds for their low-grade school. Justice Powell of the Supreme Court suggests that a quality education is not guaranteed by the constitution, although lawyers argue the students need the skills to vote, which is guaranteed by the constitution. Twenty-one years later it is found that unequal funding is in fact unfair, but of course this decision is too late for the kid who brought the lawsuit in the first place.
Kozol visits Alamo Heights near San Antonio where the wealthy live. He then descends to the shacks below the bluffs where 99.3 percent of the kids are Hispanic and poor enough to rely on the school lunch program for their main meal of the day. Down in the valley, the teachers are underpaid, the buildings are crumbling and the schools can spend only a fraction of what they spend in Alamo Heights on each student. Yet most of the State’s extra funding goes to Alamo Heights.
Finally Kozol sees that when white children are impoverished and discriminated against, their schools are poor, too. He visits a community of poor Appalachian children thrust into one school. It undergoes overcrowding; the building is in shambles and teachers lack resource, just like all of the non-white schools all over the country. He is told that soon many of these children will be bussed to non-white schools nearby
Kozol’s observations are haunting. Time and time again the pattern is repeated; Non-whites pushed into nasty, dangerous conditions through history, whites unwilling to share their prosperity with the people of color they fear, governments endless excuses for doing nothing and actually blocking the success of poor schools in corrupt ways. Kozol’s conclusion is that this is illogical, unpatriotic and deeply unkind.
Overall, I truly enjoyed this book and what is has to offer when describing the unequal treatment African Americans and minorities have in urban areas. “Here’s what we should do. Put more money into preschool, kindergarten, elementary years. Pay college kids to tutor inner city children. Get rid of the property tax, which is too uneven and use income taxes to support these schools. Pay teachers more to work in more places like the Bronx. It has to come from taxes. Pay them extra to go to the worst schools. You could forgive their college loans to make it worth their while.”, this statement spoke to me. It’s the ideal plan, however I don’t see it actually transpiring into our education world.
I was ignorant to the true facts of the American educational system. This book, Mr. Kozol, has opened my eyes to the history, suffering and makes a powerful impact on his behalf. He begins by showing specific, terrible injustices then examines how the troubles have come to be, sometimes by reviewing court decisions or by tracing the movement of labor away from a particular area. Next, he talks about those things standing in the way of improvement, often vague attitudes or fears. Finally, toward the end of the book, he begins to outline his vision for getting past the roadblocks and improving all schools. The result is that the reader/I was hooked right away, wondering how in the world such awful things have come to pass.