SAVAGE INEQUALITIES: CHILDREN IN AMERICA'S SCHOOLS. By Jonathan Kozol, Crown, 262 pp., $20CAMDEN, one of the nation's poorest cities, and Cherry Hill, a posh suburb, are two New Jersey towns separated by a drive of about five minutes, but for schoolchildren, they might as well be as far apart as Mars and Venus. When it comes to public schooling in America, geography is destiny. The tax base of a district goes far toward determining the amount of financial support that will be available for each pupil. Jonathan Kozol, who has built a writing career as an advocate for the underdog, uses his latest book, "Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools," to focus on a problem that has been festering for years: the uneven way in which public school systems are financed in most of the 50 states. What he says is not new, but it is well worth repeating. In a book that reads like a sustained polemic, Kozol hammers home this message. He does so mainly by painting empathetic portraits of schools in some of the most disenfranchised places in the land - East St. Louis, Ill., the South Side of Chicago, the Bronx, Washington, D.C., and the aforementioned Camden. And he contrasts these unfortunate schools with those in neighboring suburbs or, as in the Bronx, schools in more advantaged parts of the same district. "How little choice poor children really have is seen at East Side High School in Paterson," writes Kozol, of a school system that is so bad the state of New Jersey recently had to take control of it. "The school is in a stolid-looking building with no campus and no lawn. ... Scarcity and squalor are again compounded by the consequences of a test-curriculum that strips the child's school day down to meaningless small particles of unrelated rote instruction." There is a subcontext, as well, to Kozol's argument. Not only does the nation tolerate widespread fiscal inequities in its schools, he says, but it also tacitly condones racially segregated education. Kozol maintains that a main reason scholastic inequality is allowed - even encouraged - is that white Americans don't want their children attending schools with the children of nonwhites. As he sees it, advantaged Americans behave as if it is their birthright to have more money spent on the education of their children. In vignettes throughout the book the point is made that well-to-do suburbs would never accept what passes for education in schools serving the downtrodden. This is undoubtedly true. Many urban schools, as Kozol so vividly puts it, have the feel of being "outposts" or "garrisons" in a foreign land. Even the magnet schools that have won praise for preserving educational quality amid systemic mediocrity are dismissed by Kozol as mere vehicles for retaining whites and middle-class students in urban public school systems. "It tends to be children of the less poor and the better educated who are likely to break through the obstacles and win admission," Kozol charges. Kozol's wide-ranging attack also includes salvos aimed at one of the best nourished of sacred cows: local control of schools. He deems the protection that has been erected around local control as one more example of the preservation of privilege. This argument might have been carried further by doing more to show - as indeed is possible - that achieving fiscal equity need not prevent local officials from promulgating policies affecting teaching and learning or from holding higher expectations for students. A troubling aspect of this book's impassioned plea for equity is not what is said, but what is not said. The author would have readers believe that fiscal inequity and racism explain all when it comes to education. Certainly the nation's method of school finance is inequitable and shameful, but this does not account for all the differences in academic outcomes. Some of the most ill-equipped, stripped-down elementary schools in New York City, for instance, have been those in northeastern Queens, where the prevalence of white middle-class enrollments has rendered schools ineligible for most federal and state aid that benefits schools elsewhere in the city that are attended by the poor. Nonetheless, achievement in northeastern Queens far outstrips most of the better-funded schools in the rest of the city. A fact of this kind echoes one of Kozol's other omissions. He barely mentions the responsibility of parents. Homes where education is not valued may do as much to diminish the academic prospects of children as spending inequities. A more compelling case can be made for fiscal equity on the basis of simple fairness than on the grounds of equalizing academic achievement, since the research linking per pupil spending and school performance is rather skimpy. Kozol leaves the reader with a sense of despair. He cites the example of California to show that even when forced to make spending for public education more even, people prefer to undercut support for all schools rather than lift poor districts to the levels at which the rich had been operating. Funding levels among 95 percent of California's districts are now within $300 of each other, but the state ranks 46th in the per capita share of its income spent on public education, according to Kozol. Nonetheless, there may still be hope. A Gallup Poll released in August, too late for this book, found that 80 percent of Americans believe that money allocated to public education from all sources should be the same "for all students, regardless of whether they live in wealthy or poor school districts."