Book Review: Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol

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Savage Inequalities

Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools may be the most depressing non-fiction book that should be on every person's must-read list. Kozol divides his book into six chapters, each of which examines the specific conditions faced by children in a particular area. The conditions that Kozol describes throughout the book are so far removed from the average middle class American's experience that they almost seem unbelievable. In fact, most people reading the book, including this reviewer, may have been aware that there continued to be some disparity in educational quality, but have absolutely no idea of the extent of that disparity. The conditions that Kozol describes in the book are not reminders of the horror of segregated school facilities that the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education demonstrated to the Supreme Court to bring about the end of legalized segregation. On the contrary, these horrors are far, far worse than anything put into the public discourse about educational disparity in the last several centuries. They harken back to the days of slavery, when it was actually illegal to teach African-American children to read, because the depraved conditions that Kozol describes are so horrific that it is unrealistic to expect a child to be able to learn in those circumstances.

Kozol opens his book with a discussion of East St. Louis, Illinois, an impoverished, mostly black city. He does not start his chapter by focusing on the school. Instead, he tries to explain the totality of the living situation in East St. Louis. For most people, the description sounds like a description of a Third-World country. The city has no garbage collection, those in charge have no power to affect any type of meaningful change and no resources to implement the change even if they had the power, and the city has toxic pollution which contributes to illness in many households. Before children even step in the door, they are facing disadvantages when compared to the average middle class child, because their living conditions are so horrific. However, once Kozol describes the conditions in the school, it seems apparent that these children simply did not have a chance. East St. Louis High School is literally a decrepit mess. Its facilities are so far below par that it is a physical danger for children to even be in the school. For example, the bathrooms in the school are non-functioning, lack toilet paper, and the odor from them permeates the school. The classrooms are in similar condition. The school materials, when they are available, are outdated. The school is severely understaffed, and many of the teachers who continue to teach there seem to have lost the desire to teach. Kozol's descriptions make it clear that the attitude of depression and despair has permeated the students, most of whom simply see no future for themselves.

In the second chapter, Kozol looks at the city of North Lawndale, Illinois. North Lawndale is a bedroom-city to Chicago, which became gang territory after the nearby factories closed and unemployment skyrocketed in the area. While Kozol visited a high school in East St. Louis, in Lawndale he visits an elementary school. Mary McLeod Bethune School's students were among the poorest in the city, and their chances in life were startling horrible. Of the students in a kindergarten class, less than 40% were expected to graduate from high school, and only a single college graduate was expected from the class. While Kozol could not find a teacher who was really enthusiastic at East St. Louis High School, he did find a great teacher at Mary McLeod Bethune, but a single great teacher seems insufficient to surmount the educational challenges presented by the school. Kozol's real emphasis in this chapter is not one this single elementary school, but on the contrast in spending between urban and suburban schools. He discusses the idea of white flight from North Lawndale, and how middle class people moved to the suburbs as the area became less and less desirable. Kozol compares the amount of money spent per student in derelict urban schools to the amount spent per student at nearby rich, suburban, predominantly white schools, and finds tremendous disparity. Kozol also engages in some commentary about those who have fled urban schools, and suggests that they do not seem to care about the conditions that urban children face in their school environments. In fact, the title of the chapter, "Other People's Children," suggests that people are indifferent to the plight of other people's children. However, when discussing economics, Kozol describes scenarios in which helping impoverished schools would take resources away from wealthier schools. It may be over simplistic to suggest that people do not care about urban children; they may be interested in helping those children, but not at the expense of their own children.

In the third chapter, Kozol looks at public education in New York City. Before reading the book, one may have awareness of some of the worst of New York public schools; they have been dramatized in several rather famous movies. Kozol visits three different public schools in the same district to show how disparity exists even in the same school system. Public School 261 is in an old roller skating rink, P.S. 79 is overcrowded, and P.S. 24 receives more funding than the other two schools and has much better facilities. Kozol uses these three schools to examine how money is divided within districts, which is largely due to property values in surrounding neighborhoods. For example, students in P.S. 261 received approximately $6,000 each in education, while students in P.S. 24 received approximately $11,000 each in education. Of course, given that less affluent neighborhoods are more likely to be minority neighborhoods, there is a disparate impact on minorities as a result of this class-based discrimination.

In the fourth chapter, Kozol goes to Camden, New Jersey to examine whether higher spending for education results in a better education. Kozol discusses the view that many people in affluent areas hold, which is that it is ineffective to put money into urban schools because the students are somehow unable or unwilling to learn. These people might characterize that type of increased spending as throwing good money after bad. At the time, Camden, New Jersey was one of the poorest large cities in the United States. Kozol visits Pyne Point Junior High and Camden High, where he finds conditions that are incompatible with learning. At the high school, he talks to the principal about the dropout rate, which is greater than 50%. Without a high school education, Kozol sees no future for these children.

In the fifth chapter, Kozol looks at Washington, D.C. And visits an elementary school and talks to the children about their perceptions of their future. At a young age, these children have an optimistic view of their futures. However, Kozol reveals that the children and their families understand that poverty impacts their education, which impacts their future, and that the families cannot solve this problem without a change in the school system. Kozol also reveals a class division in the perception of how money could impact education in impoverished areas. As he revealed in the fourth chapter, affluent people tend to believe that money cannot solve the educational woes of the impoverished, because their backgrounds and families condemn them to this low performance. However, Kozol reveals sufficiently involved parents that make people question these middle-class assumptions. These parents believe that, without the money to improve the school facilities, provide up-to-date materials, and hire incompetent teachers, the family's influence on education is minimal.

In the sixth chapter, Kozol examines schools in San Antonio, Texas. One of the things he uncovers in that school district is that tax rates do not necessarily reflect the amount of money spent per pupil. He focuses on San Antonio because the Edgewood school district was the subject of a federal lawsuit because some of its residents paid the highest tax rate in the area, but only received $37 dollars per child for school funds, while other schools received around $50,000 per student. Even though these schools were found to be violating the Equal Protection clause, the district was not required to remedy this disparity.

A middle class person in America reading Kozol's book cannot help but wonder if he is exaggerating. The media does not report on these inner-city conditions, and what Kozol describes matches Third World conditions. The people who are impacted by these conditions are most likely to be minorities and be in the lower socio-economic class. They live in places that are so atrocious that simply living in them requires perseverance. Moreover, they are so impoverished that they cannot realistically escape from those scenarios. The depressing fact is that Kozol describes an almost inescapable cycle of poverty, despair, and educational disparity. Even more depressing is the fact that if a person does manage to rise up out of this poverty and become successful, that single example becomes… [END OF PREVIEW]

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