Poor scores for urban schools; Jonathan Kozol finds segregation persists, shortchanging kids

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Jonathan Kozol knows full well that “apartheid” is a loaded word.

It may literally mean “separateness” in Afrikaans, but it implies much more: a total governmental separation of the races, based on violence or the threat of violence.

Which is why Mr. Kozol’s use of the word in the title of his new book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, is purposefully provocative. The laws that once sent black kids to one school and white kids to another have been gone for decades. But schools are nearly as segregated today as they were 30 years ago, as white parents have moved to the suburbs and minorities have remained in central cities.

Mr. Kozol argues that separateness is, by itself, a problem. Black and Hispanic kids feel abandoned by society when they’re put in schools with only a smattering of white faces, he says. Segregation is a problem whether it’s mandated by law or a result of housing patterns.

His case will be unconvincing to many, since the sort of busing programs necessary to realign racial boundaries have proved unpopular among whites and minorities.

But he moves to stronger ground when he points out the yawning gaps between white and minority schools. The biggest is funding. Across America, it’s not uncommon for wealthy suburban districts to spend 50 or 100 percent more per pupil than poor urban districts. For minority kids, that often turns into larger classes, less experienced teachers and crumbling facilities.

(Texas is something of an exception here. The Robin Hood wealth-sharing mechanism, mandated by the state Supreme Court, creates one of the nation’s more equitable systems. But Robin Hood regularly comes under attack from suburbanites who want a wider funding gap between rich and poor. Mr. Kozol is merciless with wealthy parents who argue that more funding won’t help poor schools while sending their children to $20,000-a-year private schools.)

But Mr. Kozol smartly goes beyond the finances to the tonal differences that show up in various schools. Urban schools, worried about discipline and the basic skills that raise test scores, often impose a martial-law atmosphere, enforcing silence all day long and teaching math and vocabulary with drill-sergeant precision. It’s a far cry from the holistic approach many suburban schools offer, and Mr. Kozol argues it can drain away kids’ interest in learning.

Mr. Kozol’s argument is, on the surface, idealistic: That we should all live life together, crossing racial lines. But at its core, it’s pure political pragmatism. Unless the kids of the powerful are in the same classrooms as the kids of the poor, it’ll be difficult to rally support for the kinds of changes Mr. Kozol wants. As long as suburban schools are fine, abandoning the central city will always be alarmingly easy.