Revisiting Savage Inequalities

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Savage Inequalities, by Jonathan Kozol, is a heartbreaking book about the injustice and racism inherent in the American school system.  It exposes the shocking realities of how we shortchange poor and minority students, and is a must-read for anyone with an interest in our educational system.

I first read this book when I was a freshman at Rhodes, back in 1996, and I was horrified by what it taught me.  Growing up in the suburbs and attending either well-funded county schools or elite Catholic schools, I could not conceive of a classroom without books or a school building without heat in the winter.  Savage Inequalities taught me my first lessons in how policy affects different people differently, how lucky I had had it growing up, and how brutally our system can take advantage of the helpless.

This summer, I had a hunch that it was time to revisit Savage Inequalities. Now that I have been teaching in  segregated school systems for 10 years (both public and private), I had the feeling that I would not find Savage Inequalities as shocking as I had back in the mid 1990s.  Sadly, I was right.  This time instead of shaking my head in astonishment, I found myself nodding in recognition.

This book came out in 1991, ten years before the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act, yet the problems Kozol faced are the same ones I face in my classroom today.

As I was reading the book, I started highlighting passages that spoke directly to the problems that I have encountered in my career, and I would like to include them below.  These are statements or complaints that are as relevant to me and my position as they were to Kozol when he was writing his book.  Nothing has changed.

(N.B. This is not a criticism of my own school, which I love despite its many flaws.  Kozol does not criticize individual schools, but rather a dysfunctional and broken system that creates the problems.)

  • The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education 37 years ago, in which the court had found that segregated education was unconstitutional because it was “inherently unequal,” did not seem to have changed very much for children in the schools I saw, not, at least, outside of the Deep South.  Most of the urban schools I visited were 95 to 99 percent nonwhite.  (3)
  • Lottery proceeds in Illinois allegedly go into education; in reality they go into state revenues and they add nothing to the education fund.  So it is a total loss.  Affluent people do not play the lottery.  The state is in the business here of selling hopes to people who have none. (16)
  • “Well, it’s amazing,” [a teacher says].  “I have done without so much for so long that, if I were assigned to a suburban school, I’m not sure I’d recognize what they are doing.”  (29)
  • A history teacher at the Martin Luther King School has 110 students in four classes–but only 26 books.  Some of the books are missing the first hundred pages…  Certain classrooms are so cold in the winter that the students have to wear their coats to class.  (37)
  • The state, by requiring attendance but refusing to require equity, effectively requires inequality. Compulsory inequity, perpetuated by state law, too frequently condemns our children to unequal lives. (56)
  • There are no science labs, no art or music teachers.  There is no playground.  There are no swings.  There is no jungle gym. (63)
  • A 16-year old student in the South Bronx tells me that he went to English class for two months in the fall of 1989 before the school supplied him with a textbook.  He spent the entire year without a science text.  “My mother offered to help me with my science, which was hard for me,” he says, “but I could not bring home a book.” (110)
  • Several children of my acquiantance in the New York City schools were truant for eight months in 1988 and 1989 but were never phoned or visited by school attendance officers. (113)
  • [A teacher says,] “You don’t even dare to speak about desegregation now.  It doesn’t come up.  Impossible.  It’s gone.”  (142)
  • “The high school proficiency exam,” a teacher says, “controls the curriculum.  It bores the children, but we have to do it or we get no money from the state.”  (144)

I was shocked to learn that the per-student spending for my school is actually less than many of the schools Kozol visited in 1991–and this is not adjusting for inflation!  In other words, affluent schools had more money allocated for them per student in 1989 than Tennessee spends on charter schools today.  Kozol writes:
In 1989, Chicago spent some $5,500 for each student in its secondary schools.  This may be compared to an investment of some $8,500 to $9,000 in each high school student in the highest-spending suburbs to the north.  
Today, Memphis City Schools allocates $7,633 per student each year for my school.  It has been twenty years, and we have made no progress.

Work Cited:
Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.

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