BOSTON — JONATHAN KOZOL, a former Boston public school teacher and author of eight books, visited about 30 schools in rich and poor neighborhoods across the United States before writing "Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools." In a recent interview, Mr. Kozol spoke about the educational segregation and inequality his book documents.You've said you were shocked to find how far the US had fallen since you were teaching. Twenty-seven years after I entered the Boston schools and nearly 40 years since the Brown decision, schools are still separate and still unequal in every major city of this country and in most small cities. And they're more separate and less equal than they were when I started teaching. In virtually every inner-city school I've seen in America, 95 to 99 percent of the kids are black and Hispanic, a few Asian kids, that's it. ... The financial differences have widened progressively over the years. Today New York City spends a little over $7,000 per pupil. Great Neck spends over $15,000 per pupil, same with Manhasset and the other super-rich suburbs of New York. Those discrepancies are found everywhere in America. You see that and you say, why would the people in the suburbs permit this injustice to go on? They wouldn't play Little League that way. They wouldn't dream of a baseball game in which their kids wore baseball mitts and the poor kids had to play with their bare hands. Why do they allow schools to be funded in that manner?
Do you view it as blatant racism or classism?
It's selfishness. ... Despite a lot of rhetoric about equal opportunity in America, most Americans want their child to have a better than equal opportunity, which means inevitably that they want someone else's child to have a less than equal opportunity. And that's the crux of the problem. ... Indeed, if funds were allocated according to the real needs of children in America, New York City would get the $15,000 a year and Great Neck would get by on $7,000. ...
So you'd provide funds according to need rather than equally across the board? It's not an equity issue to you?
No, it's an equity issue. But equity to me does not mean equal resources for unequal needs. Equity is equal resources for equivalent needs. ... But I would consider it little short of a miracle if we ever got to simple arithmetic equality. I don't think I'll ever live to see that.
Do you see any reason for hope?
No, I'm not hopeful. This book is written with a sense of mourning and despair. When I was younger my books had naive optimism suffusing every page. When I wrote "Death at an Early Age," my first book, I had this sort of sweet faith in the way things work. I thought, "Most people don't know how bad it is in poor ghetto schools, so I'm going to tell them, and once they read it and know, they'll fix it." And they read it, and they gave me prizes, and nothing changed.
Do you think we should stop trying to improve the education of every American student and instead focus on the least successful students?
I don't want to deny the best that's available to any child in America. But there is something, to my mind, rather invidious about polishing the silverware for the rich children when the poor kids don't even have plastic spoons. ...
In a way, your book addresses two different issues: fiscal inequity and racial isolation.
They're not two issues to me. They're the same issue. ... Without middle-class white and black families in the system, we will never get fiscal equity. And without fiscal equity we will never hold them in the system. The curse of the present decade is the virtual secession of the privileged from the common soil of democracy.
Lawsuits on school finance are now pending in more than 20 states. Does that give you some hope?
Yes, it does. Especially because three of the most important suits were victorious in the past couple of years - in Kentucky, Texas, and New Jersey. The suits that I'm going to be watching with the most interest in the next two years are those in Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York. In the affluent suburbs in these three states are tens of thousands of people who in the 1960s would have given their right arm to bring about justice in Mississippi. ... Now that history comes North, they're not so sure that equality was such a good idea.