"Sorry, I didn't mean to get so angry," author and education activist Jonathan Kozol told a crowd of mostly educators in Los Angeles on Monday night. The teachers, many toting dog-eared copies of Savage Inequalities, Kozol's groundbreaking 1991 text which exposed in heartbreaking detail the education disparities between wealthier, whiter students and poor, minority kids, didn't need the apology. Instead they applauded Kozol, who is on a nationwide lecture tour promoting his 13th tome, Fire in the Ashes, for sustaining his moral outrage over child poverty, racism, and educational inequity for the past 40 years.
Wealthy Americans, Kozol notes, tend to ask him "Does class size really matter?" His response? "I always ask them where their kids go to school." He says these parents—whose kids are usually enrolled in private schools or public suburban schools that are akin to their private cousins—start to panic when their child's class size gets to 20 students. Meanwhile, poor kids are packed into rooms with 30 to 40 students. "If a very small class size is good for the son of a prosperous attorney" or "a member of the Senate or House" then it's good for the poorest children in America Kozol says, balling up his fist and banging it on the podium.
The other question wealthier people ask, "Jonathan, can you really buy your way to better education?" also sets him off. "I don't know," he tells them. "It seems to do the trick for your kids." Wealthy children still get to attend school in beautiful buildings with attractive landscaping and plenty of light, while low-income kids spend their days in ugly, foul-smelling buildings that "coarsen their mentalities and tell them how little value they have in our society."
We have, Kozol says, a pretense of equitable education funding in this nation. What happens in practice is that wealthier parents funnel plenty of extra money into schools through so-called "million dollar PTAs." With those funds, schools in well-off communities are buying extra teachers, art instructors, and music programs.
Indeed, while teachers in Chicago are being demonized by striking over these kinds of inequities, at the $20,000 per year University of Chicago Lab School where Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sends his kids there are "seven full-time art teachers to serve a student population of 1,700" and three libraries on campus. Meanwhile, 160 public schools in the city have seen their libraries shuttered. Poor kids don't get libraries, music, and art teachers anymore since budget cuts have gutted them. They're seen as irrelevant luxuries for those kids since, says Kozol, "you don't get points on art and music on standardized exams."
What's happening now in America, says Kozol, is "not even a pretense of a meritocracy." We are willfully condemning the futures of poor children in our society and, by scapegoating teachers and underfunding schools we're destroying public education. If that legacy of public education is lost, "that precious dream of Thomas Jefferson at his very best," says Kozol, "it will imperil our democracy."
At 76 years old, Kozol, knows his days of outrage over this lack of justice for America's children are numbered. "We all know we're going to die someday," he says, his voice choked with emotion. And so when it comes to speaking out about the issues he's devoted his life to, he refuses to hold back. "I'm too old to bite my tongue," he says. "I don't really care to mute my words."
It's clear that what Kozol wants to know is who's going to carry on his work when he's gone. Educators and supporters of children are "too subdued," he complains. "Someday soon," he says, "I have to pass on the torch to you." The question remains, will we take it and let our pursuit of justice and equity burn as bright?
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