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.
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.
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.