Connecticut Court Decision Highlights U.S. Educational Failures

A recent court decision in Connecticut overturned a mandate that would have addressed inadequate education funding for poorer communities, a historic problem of the U.S. educational system, which relies on local resources instead of federal wealth, as Jonathan Kozol and Dennis J. Bernstein discussed.

By Dennis J Bernstein

In 1973, I was a struggling young teacher working in inner city Brooklyn when I discovered Jonathan Kozol’s National Book Award-winning Death at an Early Age.  It became my young teacher’s bible on understanding the nature of the school system and the pervasive racism at its core. It’s subtitle, “The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools” is as relevant now as it was when it was published some 53 years ago.

Students line up for school in Downtown Los Angeles. (Flicker Neon Tommy)

Witness the recent decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court [Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell], which rejected a claim by a coalition of municipalities, parents and students that the state’s education funding formula is unconstitutional.

According to the AP, a divided court recently overturned a lower court ruling that had ordered state officials to develop plans for an overhaul of the state’s education system, citing a huge gap in test scores between students in rich and poor towns. In response, Kozol remarked recently that this Court decision condones and sustains a system of virtual total segregation.

Kozol has worked with children in inner city schools for some fifty years.  Death at an Early Age was followed by a series of books, each one a powerful indictment of the public school system in the US, even as he celebrates the kids he meets and their teachers who continue to do their best, despite the abandonment of public schools and the racism that accompanies it.

His subsequent books include Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, and Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation.

I spoke with Kozol on January 31st in Boston.

Dennis Bernstein: Could you begin by describing what the decision was that the court overturned and explaining why it is significant.

Jonathan Kozol: A lower court had found that the inequalities within the state between wealthy and poor school districts were unacceptable and unconstitutional.  But the Connecticut Supreme Court in a divided decision unfortunately overturned the lower court judge.  This has been a pattern all over the United States.  By and large, we have seen this for decades.

In the 1990’s we had the same situation in Ohio.  They actually prevailed three times in showing that the system was blatantly unequal and won at the supreme court level. Even then, in contempt of court, the governor and legislature refused to obey the order.  The governor finally packed the court with new appointees and the next time around they accepted the status quo.

This kind of thing has happened everywhere.  Legislatures and governors have a thousand ways to drag their heels.  In some cases they just say they don’t have the money to do it.

There is a very poor town in Virginia named Petersburg.  It is an important city in a way because it was a center of the slave trade and some important slave rebellions took place there.  They have basically an all-Black school system.  They get about $10,000 per child a year.  Not so far away, in Arlington, Virginia, they’re spending $19,000 every year per child. That is almost twice as much, and of course the irony was that the kids in Petersburg were more in need!  They don’t have parents who can take them to Paris before their French finals.  They don’t get three years of preschool like wealthy kids do.  There’s just no level playing field in the United States.

I don’t think this is ever going to be solved at the state level.  The problem will only be solved when the education of every child in America is financed with the real wealth of the nation by the federal government.  This is the way it is done in almost every other advanced society in the world.

We can’t do that now because of a dreadful court decision [San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez] way back in 1972 in Texas.  The poor districts prevailed at the local level and then the US Supreme Court overruled the district court.  They ruled that education is not a protected right under the US Constitution.

DB: Your first book, Death at an Early Age, really broke the story of the unequal distribution of wealth among schools.  As a substitute teacher in New York City, I remember that I would get called into a school on the east side of Manhattan and they had everything: a gymnasium, a library full of books, guidance counselors.  You go up twenty or thirty blocks and the Dewey decimal system is still in place, athletics amounts to “here’s a basketball, go out and play.”  It was always amazing for me to see the incredible difference in the same school system!

JK: I must say parenthetically that even in these very poorly funded schools, I keep running into terrific teachers.  I’ve spent some time in Kern County, California, in schools that are just an hour and a half drive from L.A.  These are badly funded schools but I would run into these great teachers and good principals, too.

But when these poorer kids do badly on these standardized tests, who does the media blame?  They don’t blame the state for cheating these kids from the hour of their birth, they blame the kids or else they blame their teachers. We have this whole regime now in the United States that holds the victims accountable.

In the poorer schools, we spend half the year drilling them for the tests, which has little to do with education but is training them to outsmart the test.  We try to pump the scores a couple points and if that doesn’t happen we blame the teachers.

The new solution is to set up charter schools in these cities, which become drill academies.  Virtually all of them are apartheid schools because they specifically target minorities.  And if they can raise the scores a few points, then the media says ah, that’s the answer! Actually, they are just slightly higher-scoring separate and unequal schools.

If it were only inequality, then we could say it is a technical problem, we can solve it somehow.  But there is a toxic synergy between financially unequal schools and virtually total abandonment of any integration efforts.  In fact, when I talk about integration at school conferences, the corporate types that sponsor these events start to yawn.

What they do is sort of reinvent Dr. King’s dream.  They say, this is an all-Black school but we are living Dr. King’s dream because we are training these Black and Latino kids to be more responsible for themselves and improving their character.

But Dr. King didn’t say, “I have a dream that one day our victims will be more productive.”  It was about separate and unequal.  We are back to that again.  In my hometown of Boston, the system is more segregated than when I started teaching in 1964.

You mentioned New York and the Upper East Side. The Upper West Side is the classic example of what is happening now.  There are a lot of affluent white professionals who are historically liberal in every way except this one.  Just ten, twenty blocks to the north in Harlem you have virtually all-minority schools.  And there are some schools that are kind of on the border between the two neighborhoods, but white people, for all their liberal beliefs, shun those schools.

When enlightened civic leaders ask why these kids can’t go to school together, the white parents aren’t as obvious in their racism as people were in Alabama fifty years ago, but they will say, of course we believe in diversity, but if they go to those schools our kids won’t do as well.

There is still this assumption of basic inferiority in the minority kids.  They wouldn’t say it is genetic inferiority but, for a combination of social reasons, these kids are going to ruin our kids’ education.  That is what it amounts to.  It is heartbreaking to me.  I am 81 years old and I felt sure in 1968 that all this was going to change within ten years.

There are answers, of course.  At least in small or middle-sized cities like Boston, we could very easily create a metropolitan school system.  It wouldn’t be a long ride for a kid to go in either direction.  But that agenda is off the table, it’s unfashionable now.  This withdrawal from the mountaintop has been going on for a quarter century.

DB: One important point you make in Savage Inequalities is that we have to change the way public schools are funded.  Schools are set up for failure from the get-go when so much depends on the local economic base.  Is a lack of resources at the heart of the matter?

JK: These experts at the Hoover Institution and Heritage Foundation are always asking, “Is money really the answer?”  Supposed liberals will look me in the face and say, “Jonathan, can you really solve the problems of those kinds by throwing money at them?”  These are the same people who send their kids to prep schools that cost $60,000 a year.  My answer is always: “It seems to work for your kids, doesn’t it?”  It is sheer hypocrisy.

The basic funding for public schools comes from property taxes.  States contribute what is known as “foundation money” so that no school goes without the bare minimum even if their local property taxes are insignificant.

The problem is that these foundation levels are always set so low.  All the wealthy districts have to do is have a small bond levy and raise their property taxes half of one percent, and since they have lots of million dollar homes their funding shoots way up.  Or they hold fundraising parties and in one night they will raise half a million dollars to build a new library or bring in art and music teachers.  A poor district is lucky if they can raise $800.

A demonstrator holds a sign to protest the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Trump’s Secretary of Education. January 21, 2017. (Photo: Chelsea Gilmour)

The only answer, I believe, is to do what all other developed nations do already and fund education out of the real wealth of the nation.  It makes sense not only in practical terms, but in moral terms, in terms of citizenship.  You don’t go to school to be a citizen of Nebraska or California.  We go to school to be Americans.  Kids pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States.

What we have today is an uneven social contract.  If not for that decision in 1972, equal education would be a fundamental right under the US Constitution.  If Bernie Sanders had won, perhaps we would have ended up with a Supreme Court that would reexamine that decision.

DB: Finally, what do you think of the job our Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, is doing?

JK: She is a catastrophe.  First of all, although she is not very smart, she is slick and gives a slick veneer to this old slogan “freedom of choice.”

This was the slogan of segregationists in the South after the Brown decision, when they started so-called “voucher schools.”  She is not simply in favor of more and more of these segregated charter schools, which are even more segregated than public schools; she is also in favor of vouchers, the invidious idea that goes way back to Milton Friedman in the 1950’s and was tested out in Pinochet’s Chile.

Devos also wants to open this up to religious schools.  She represents the spearhead of the privatization movement that would like to do away with public education altogether.

We are at the lowest point in the history of education in America that I can remember since the hopeful moment at the tail end of the 1960’s.  Fortunately, there is a younger generation that is gathering momentum now. I am working with Black Lives Matter on a project. They are talking about these issues at last.  When I visit colleges, I’ll stay up half the night with these young minority kids, and sometimes some damn decent white kids who identify with the struggle.  Maybe they are going to save us.

Dennis J. Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at

29 comments for “Connecticut Court Decision Highlights U.S. Educational Failures

  1. February 10, 2018 at 00:59

    mandatory education is the principal evil. let those kids find something useful to do with their time. there’s no money for their schools? oh, well. jefferson merely thought they should be nationally conformed and i guess they are. they all can still look down on other nations. what more do they need? i’ll answer my own question. they need books and an interest in reading them. how is it that my son graduated from california public schools and is now finishing a joint honours degree at oxford? when i asked him point blank if he ever learned anything in school that he didn’t already know, he replied only in math. and he dislikes math! what a waste of time in general terms…

  2. Radical Pragmatist
    February 6, 2018 at 08:14

    More “Fake News” from the Left. Because it has been proven time and time again that throwing money at poor performing schools does little to improve student outcomes.

    Moreover: Re: “Devos also wants to open this up to religious schools. She represents the spearhead of the privatization movement that would like to do away with public education altogether.”

    Well so? Why should public schools that fail miserably in providing a quality education remain open? Inner city Catholic schools that educate disadvantaged students achieve twice the outcomes at half the per pupil cost of the public schools. Why not give inner city parents vouchers to send their kids to whatever school provides a high quality education? By arguing a failed strategy, Dennis J. Bernstein wants to cripple parents’ freedom of choice. BTW, at $19K per student, Arlington County is wasting taxpayers’ money.

    Throwing money at broken public schools is as intellectually bankrupt as throwing more money at health care. I.e. both domains are systemically busted and can’t be fixed by simple throwing money at them. Statewide funding supplements for education may make sense, but allocate it as vouchers to parents and let them choose where to send their kids to school.

    • February 6, 2018 at 09:52

      Everything you say is true but your implied alternative is even more repugnant. Devos is an OLIGARCH and has never worked a day in her life nor has her murderous brother. Instead, their family ran a Ponzi Scheme called Amway.

      These Oligarchs want to enslave the children of America and put them back to work in hard-labor jobs for a pittance. Trump is deregulating everything under the sun and when you couple that trend & sentiment with the following quote, well, the end result isn’t difficult to determine.

      The Oligarchs seek labor cost arbitrage and since the Asian countries no longer offer that cost savings like they once did, America’s Oligarchs are compelled to cultivate cheap labor once again in America. Enter Trump and his Entourage that is using him as a foil to prepare the environment for a return to the good old days when America was great in their bullshit Make America Great Again propaganda campaign.

      They are on the streets, in the factories, in the mines, with adults and with peers, learning and doing. They are being valued for what they do, which is to say being valued as people. They are earning money.

      Whatever else you want to say about this, it’s an exciting life. You can talk about the dangers of coal mining or selling newspapers on the street. But let’s not pretend that danger is something that every young teen wants to avoid. If you doubt it, head over the stadium for the middle school football game in your local community, or have a look at the wrestling or gymnastic team’s antics at the gym.

      The above quote is from the Action Institute. I’m all for children being hands on, but I assure you, Oligarchs aren’t interested in that. They’re interested in Slave Labor and if you defend that, well, you are my enemy then. I’m all for replacing the educational system as it now exists but I’m not going to be a Chump for the Oligarchs and pave the way for de facto Slavery in America.

      • February 6, 2018 at 13:27

        “Everything you say is true but your implied alternative is even more repugnant.” It would be helpful if you explained why. Are you referring to the right of parents to choose? Or something else?

    • Zachary Smith
      February 6, 2018 at 13:24

      You’ve made a lot of claims without a speck of evidence to back them up. Do you have such evidence, or are you merely repeating some stuff from sites funded by the Koch Brothers?

      • February 6, 2018 at 17:46

        Zachary, you may have to write out this link.

        Actually the citations are so frequent that they are easily found by searching. The speck of evidence is pretty large and overwhelming. But the point is not that one way is cheaper than the other but that intuitively more choices are going to improve performance. Public school unions have blocked efforts like vouchers for a reason. They understand what will happen, not appreciating that it will improve the teaching environment which is what good teachers want.

        • Zachary Smith
          February 6, 2018 at 20:04

          The link works. It references a 1998 (!) piece written by a dedicated rightwingnut named Wendell Cox. The combination of extreme age plus the ‘nut connection means I’m not going to pursue that one. But on a whim I did look up Mr. Cox.

          I have a simple message today. Public transit policies are not working.They are not working because they cannot work.


          At his wiki is this:

          He has authored studies[1] for conservative think tanks such as the Cato Institute, Heartland Institute, Heritage Foundation,[2] and the Reason Foundation,[3] and for industry groups such as the American Highway Users Alliance, a lobbying and advocacy group for automobile-based industries.[4]

          The man makes a living writing what the likes of the Heritage and Heartland outfits want to hear.

          I’m surprised nobody has posted here about the massive failure of the US Post Office. At least that’s the view of the Heritage Foundation.

          Americans love to complain about the post office. Enjoying one of the few government-enforced monopolies in the U.S., it has long been a model of bureaucratic inefficiency. In popular culture, it has been portrayed by TV sitcom characters such as Seinfeld’s Newman and Cheers’s Cliff Clavin as bumbling and dysfunctional. But Americans may not have the United States Postal Service (USPS) to kick around for long. The USPS, despite its continued legal monopoly on the delivery of letter mail, is virtually bankrupt, losing $45 billion since 2007. It has already defaulted on its obligations three times. The Postal Service projects that on October 15, after making its annual workers’ compensation payment, it will have only five days of cash on hand.

          Unmentioned is WHY they’re having these deficits. It’s because an alliance of Republicans and Democrats want the Post Office to fail. They passed a law which was designed to push the USPS over the cliff.

          It goes on to advocate for privatizing the agency by selling off parts of it to bidders who could then operate it independently.
          That year, the Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA). Under the terms of PAEA, the USPS was forced to “prefund its future health care benefit payments to retirees for the next 75 years in an astonishing ten-year time span” – meaning that it had to put aside billions of dollars to pay for the health benefits of employees it hasn’t even hired yet, something that “no other government or private corporation is required to do.”The problem with the Post‘s argument starts in its thesis: that the post office is in some sort of deep fiscal hole of its own making – a result of being left behind in the Internet Age and a shrinking consumer base. The truth is that almost all of the postal service’s losses can be traced back to a single change in the law made by the Republican Congress in 2006.

          Not only have the employees not been hired yet, some of them haven’t been born.

          Point is, the rightwingers want to destroy the US as it has existed for over 200 years. The nation somehow survived with the public school system during all that time. But if you cut off funding or make impossible demands like with the Post Office, that opens the door for Private Companies to take their pound of flesh from the taxpayer money.


          • February 7, 2018 at 10:10

            Zachary, your response is to attack the sources of the data, not the data itself. And all of the data doesn’t come from “conservative” sources.

            I happen to prefer our Post Office over other carriers and every time I have a choice I use USPS. I would hate to see it go and hope it doesn’t.

        • MillyBloom54
          February 6, 2018 at 21:01

          You are wrong. See my previous response to you. Review this link and Diane Ravtich’s blog. She is an educator, researcher, and was GHW Bush’s education secretary. She told him that No Child Left Behind would destroy public education, and hence, democracy. Here is one link that demonstrates the destructive money grab of the charters. When you talk about wasting tax payer money, you need to show how much is spent in comparison to true waste:

          • February 7, 2018 at 10:18

            Milly, true parental choice should not be between charter schools and public schools but to all schools that meet state standards. I don’t know very much about charter schools except to say they are an attempt to convey the impression of school choice, when in effect it is not.

            When I first saw your name, I thought it might be Molly Bloom, which is the name of a famous Irish Pub overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv. As I recall, it was painted a deep emerald green, like a piece of the old sod..

  3. Roberto
    February 6, 2018 at 00:41

    >> “which relies on local resources instead of federal wealth”<<
    What federal wealth?, the government (fed) is broke, your only "wealth" is coming from the future taxpayers that you are hoping to educate. You may as well tell them the truth. Obama doubled the debt in his POTUS term. Don't mix Reagan into this.

    • Silly Me
      February 6, 2018 at 08:14

      Let us face it, most of us are broke. :)

    • Realist
      February 7, 2018 at 11:51

      (Almost) completely agree. National debt in the trillions, and the author claims “federal wealth.”


    • .
      February 7, 2018 at 21:26

      There’s enough wealth to shovel MORE BILLIONS INTO THE PENTQAGON & to give Corporations & the 1% a $1.5 TRILLION TAX CUT

  4. Zachary Smith
    February 5, 2018 at 23:54

    DB: Finally, what do you think of the job our Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, is doing?

    JK: She is a catastrophe.

    This is the sort of thing I’m thinking of when I say Trump is destroying the nation. Though the man is too lazy to knock flies off, he (or his handlers) installed some very efficient demolition experts into key positions throughout the government.

    This has been going on since the days of Reagan, but the work of these termites is getting to the point formerly solid structures are beginning to collapse. The arrogant ignoramus will be quite pleased to take full credit for those demolitions.

  5. Bill jones
    February 5, 2018 at 23:10

    What a clown! Pissing money away in places like D.C. Has no correlation with educational achievement.

  6. Hawaii guy
    February 5, 2018 at 20:28

    As you opened with the discovering of an award winning book in 1973, I almost wish you hadn’t. For it was in 1973 at Camp David where Rockefellers Trilateral Commission put in place the decimation of public education. Had everyone pushed back against that the nation wouldn’t be in the position it is today. Which is three generations and counting of a public that lacks the ability to think critically, attain knowledge or act on its dismal education. That’s the main issue, sheep indeed.

  7. February 5, 2018 at 20:16

    Education should be the ballast of the ship of state but, unfortunately, it’s heavily weighted to the right, heading in the wrong direction and ready to capsize.

  8. February 5, 2018 at 18:56

    “According to the AP, a divided court recently overturned a lower court ruling that had ordered state officials to develop plans for an overhaul of the state’s education system, citing a huge gap in test scores between students in rich and poor towns. In response, Kozol remarked recently that this Court decision condones and sustains a system of virtual total segregation.”

    The statement suggests a correlation between spending and test scores. I don’t think the facts support that. More money is not the answer and is not even supported by the facts. More spending is just spending good money after bad. The answers, more parental choices, is suppressed by the teacher’s unions and has been or years. For a long time, denying the right of children to go to private schools was founded on bigotry, now it is union opposition

    • KB Gloria
      February 6, 2018 at 12:08

      Often that is the only correlation for test scores–witnessed over and over again. There are facts that support it, and Jonathan Kozol is one that has identified, and reported on them time an again.

      • February 7, 2018 at 21:24

        You’re just parroting right-wing & racist talking points. IF it’s true that “Money does not matter”, then, WHY PAY SO9 JCH FOR PRIVATE SCHOOLS for RIGH (White) kids?”More spending is just spending good money after bad” you say==for WHO? is it ONLY when low-income/children of color are spent on–but,it'[s NOT the case with rich white kids? Yu0o’re so transparent, and prove Jonathan Kozel’s point: there’s NO DIFFERENCE between the bigots who resisted school integration in the 1960s/early’70s and bigots today

    • MillyBloom54
      February 6, 2018 at 20:48

      Money, of course makes a difference- lower student to teacher ratios cost money. Poverty and low teacher-student ratios are independent predictors of school success.You want to improve schools? Eradicate poverty and income inequality. Student “choice” is another mechanism of segregation- look at New Orleans, Detroit- because charters will not take special needs children, children with educational challenges, or children with behavioral problems. Public schools are required by law to take all. Charters are run and pushed by billionairs by for profit hedge fund managers, investment and management companies, whose goal is profit. All that data charters and for- profit testing companies gather on the children via standardized testing and other student information is sold to marketing companies. Immoral? Yes. Legal? Yes. Children are NOT commodities. Children’s information should should not have their school information used as a marketing mechanism. We as a country can afford public education using sound evidence based education techniques, as demonstrated by millions of professionally educated public school teachers in this country. We spend trillions on wars all over the world, but we balk when it comes to a paltry million for our children. We would rather sell our children and our democracy to the highest bidder rather than address the needs of our children- the future of our country.

  9. ,
    February 5, 2018 at 17:42

    White racist America at work.

    • Silly Me
      February 6, 2018 at 08:12

      Are you from anti-white racist America?

  10. Larry Gies
    February 5, 2018 at 16:35

    “They don’t get three years of preschool like wealthy kids do.”

    Teachers knowingly confine “They” children by birth age without regard to development, temperament, energy, etc. But, with more money teachers can overcome this inherent defect that teachers have recognized in their education model for generations. It matters not that some “They” children sequestered in teachers’ classrooms read while others do not know primary colors … or letters of the alphabet or are unable to count 1-2-3. Teachers simply need money. Unnecessary to change teachers’ fatally flawed model.

    • Larry Gies
      February 6, 2018 at 02:02
    • KB Gloria
      February 6, 2018 at 12:06

      Teachers don’t do this–school systems do.

    • Robert Smith
      February 7, 2018 at 12:02

      Teachers are not the answer nor is more money but better parenting skills.

      When parents spend time with their children, teach their children instead of planting them in front of a TV as a baby sitter children become ready for the next step.

      It all begins at home.

  11. February 5, 2018 at 16:22

    Funding is only one dimension. The entire structure and philosophy and purpose of Public Education has to be properly evaluated and a new System needs to replace the current outdated System. Keep what works, the babies in the bathwater, and discard what doesn’t in the process.

    As one example. Public Schools, or any schools really, are tantamount to prisons rather than environments that enable & encourage learning. Stuffing thousands of teens in a warehouse all day long for the majority of the year is not conducive to learning unless learning is acquiring skills on how to outmaneuver and dominate your peers on your way to the top of the heap. Schools need to be decentralized and much smaller. They need to be more personal. They need to be more human & humane.

    That’s just a start.

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