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An Interview with Educator and Activist Jonathan Kozol

How racial and economic segregation damage our urban and rural school districts

Mar. 4, 2009
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Jonathan Kozol has been a staunch defender—and critic—of this nation’s public school system since he began teaching in Boston in the mid-1960s. He has recounted his insights in several highly honored books, including the very personal Death at an Early Age in 1967, and the 2005 expose of 60 public schools, The Shame of the Nation. Kozol will speak at the UW-Milwaukee Union on Monday, March 9. (For more information, go to www.unionprogramming.uwm.edu or call 229-6998.)

Kozol spoke with the Shepherd about his thoughts on the state of public education today, including the impact of vouchers and Wall Street management principles.

Kozol says that public education in 2009 is divided: Students from wealthy families live in property-tax rich suburbs and attend well-funded public schools, while urban and rural kids face very different circumstances because they are raised in less-affluent communities.

Kozol: Contrary to a lot of propaganda from the corporate sector, the fact of the matter is that the affluent suburban schools are still every bit as good as they were when I was a kid and when I was a teacher. The top high schools in America continue to produce spectacular results. The kids assume they’re going to college and they do. The schools are very well funded because of local property wealth.

There’s a kind of mantra that you hear from the politicians that our nation’s public schools aren’t working, that they need to be fixed. They love that word “fixed,” as if we weren’t talking about human beings but auto repairs. But in fact that’s a myth. The truth is that it’s our low-income urban schools and low-income rural schools that are in calamitous trouble.

Kozol argues that urban schools are more racially segregated now than they have been at any time since 1968, because conservative Supreme Court justices, including late- Chief Justice William Rehnquist, “watered down, dismantled or prohibited” successful integration programs that had been implemented after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. He says that wealthy suburban districts are able to raise more funds for their own schools, but that promises by states to equalize funding for urban districts never materialize. The result is separate but unequal public schools.

Kozol: Basically the justices ripped the guts out of Brown v. Board of Ed. between the late-’80s and right up to the present time, so black and Latino kids are more isolated intellectually than they’ve been in decades. When you isolate students it’s much easier to cheat them in terms of school finance. So long as poor black and Latino kids are in separate schools it’s much easier to shortchange those kids in dozens of ways without hurting the children of the privileged, since they’re in different school districts.

We haven’t just ripped the guts out of Brown v. Board of Ed., we have not even lived up to the tarnished promises of Plessy v. Ferguson [which supported the concept of “separate but equal” segregated facilities]. We’re not even up to Plessy, and that was decided in 1896.

Milwaukee has been at the forefront of the voucher school movement, but Kozol says voucher and charter schools have served to further divide students and allow religious ideas to be taught with taxpayer support.

Kozol:I believe that vouchers are the single worst, most dangerous idea to have entered education discourse in my adult life. … I don’t condemn the individual parent who makes that decision, although they don’t always get a better school. We don’t know [if the voucher schools are better than public schools]. The voucher schools are often much better at marketing than delivering the goods.

Here’s the thing: When people think of the recipients of vouchers or charters, the general public tends to think of the familiar benign model. They say, “Why should we send our kids to a failing school?” instead of asking “What should we be doing to make sure that we don’t have a separate, unequal system which creates failing schools?” It’s a triumph of the individual self-interest over civic virtue. Americans who are drawn to the voucher idea tend to think, “What’s wrong with a nice Catholic school or a Lutheran or a Montessori school?” There’s nothing wrong inherently with that. But constitutionally, once you let this genie out of the bottle you can’t restrict it to the kind of schools that seem benign.

If vouchers ever became a national phenomenon, it would rip apart the social fabric of this nation. Even when schools deny that they teach religion specifically, we know that education is never neutral. I consider it to be dangerous for a nation that’s already deeply divided, and we’ll become more and more divided if vouchers proliferate.

Kozol also warned about involving corporations in public education because the Wall Street business model doesn’t fit the needs of children.

Kozol: For years we’ve been told from Wall Street entrepreneurs that we don’t need more money for these inner-city schools, we just need the same management techniques that they use on Wall Street. They say, “You can’t throw money at this problem.” But they are the ones who pull their kids out of the public school system and put them in Exeter and Andover, which now costs about $50,000 a year, or the people who live in the rich suburbs who spend $24,000 on their public schools, almost twice as much as children in New York. They say you can’t throw money at the problem, but I say it seems to work for their kids. So it’s hypocrisy.

The main thing is that when schools invite businesses to be their partners—and they love that word “partners”—they also, tacitly or not, give them decision-making power. With rare exceptions, no business CEO is going to encourage educating the poorest children in America to the virtues of the labor union movement, right? Very few are going to be keen on teaching poor, black, inner-city kids the critical skills with which to judge the ethics of the ruling class.

What’s your take?

Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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