"We have a school...named for Dr. King... The school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains. Every student in that school is black. It's like a terrible joke on history."
Savage inequalities, indeed. This book, by Jonathon Kozol, is a testimony to the injustice and brutality of the American public school system. After spending two years touring some of the country's best and worst schools, Kozol put together a terrifying and heartbreaking summary of everything that is wrong with public education. Schools without running water, trash collection, or text books. Students who are sentenced to live in fatally toxic conditions without hope of escape. Teachers who work for less than minimum wage in over-crowded classrooms under threat of violence. If you haven't read this book, you should. It will open your eyes to a world of anger and pain that many of us never get to see.
The public school system in the U.S. is set up so that the majority of funding comes directly from local property tax. In affluent neighborhoods, this means low tax rates on high-value property vs. a destitute neighborhood's high tax rates on low-value property. This creates a situation in which the wealthy can effortlessly raise a surplus of money for their children's educations, whereas the poor tax themselves at an exorbitant rate just to meet a bare minimum. Many would argue that state and federal funding is available, therefore the inequalities are remedied. That's actually not true.
The federal government counts property tax as a tax deduction. Therefore, the wealthier you are (and the more property tax you paid to your school district), the more money you get back as a subsidy. As Kozol explains, in 1984 property-tax and mortgage-interest deductions totaled $32 billion. Federal grants to local districts, which go to all districts equally despite level of need, only totalled $7 billion. In other words, Uncle Sam paid the rich for being rich and left the poor to fend for themselves.
Not only did the government screw the poor through subsidy, they also stole a great deal of their best real estate. The number of entirely tax-free institutions, like colleges, museums, hospitals etc, are in cities. We don't normally think of these institutions as having a negative effect on an area, but if you look at it from an economic standpoint, they actually add to the inequality. Kozol cites 30% or more of the potential local tax base for cities as being tax-exempt, compared to perhaps 3% in the suburbs. The children who live in these affluent suburban areas, of course, benefit from the use of these tax-free institutions and are far more likely to enjoy the use of universities or museums than their impoverished urban counterparts.
Many people, even those who view themselves as liberals on other issues, tend to grow indignant, even rather agitated, if invited to look closely at these inequalities. "Life isn't fair," one parent in Winnetka answered flatly when I pressed the matter. "Wealthy children also go to summer camp. All summer. Poor kids maybe not at all... Weatlhy children have the chance to go to Europe and have the access to good libraries, encylopedias, computers, better doctors, nicer homes. Some of my neighbors send their kids to schools like Exeter and Groton. Is government supposed to equalize these things as well?"
But government, of course, does not assign us to our homes, our summer camps, our doctors--or to Exeter. It does assign us to our public schools. Indeed, it forces us to go to them. Unless we have the wealth to pay for private education, we are compelled by law to go to public school--and to the public school in our district. Thus 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.
Oftentimes the wealthy are seen as dignified, civilized, cultured and productive citizens of society. The poor are looked down upon--uneducated, dirty, savage. Reading this book, however, makes one wonder who the real savages are.