excerpted from the book

Savage Inequalities

The Savage Inequalities of Public Education
in New York

by Jonathan Kozol


In a country where there is no distinction of class," Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years . ago, "a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of equality. . . to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life." Americans, he said, "are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition."

It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness. Denial of "the means of competition" is perhaps the single most consistent outcome of the education offered to poor children in the schools of our large cities; and nowhere is this pattern of denial more explicit or more absolute than in the public schools of New York City.

Average expenditures per pupil in the city of New York in 1987 were some $5,500. In the highest spending suburbs of New York (Great Neck or Manhasset, for example, on Long Island) funding levels rose above $11,000, with the highest districts in the state at $15,000. "Why . . . ," asks the city's Board of Education, "should our students receive less" than do "similar students" who live elsewhere? "The inequity is clear."

But the inequality to which these words refer goes even further than the school board may be eager to reveal. "It is perhaps the supreme irony." says the nonprofit Community Service Society of New York, that "the same Board of Education which perceives so clearly the inequities" of funding between separate towns and cities "is perpetuating similar inequities" right in New York. And, in comment on the Board of Education's final statement-"the inequity is clear" -the CSS observes, "New York City's poorest . . . districts could adopt that eloquent statement with few changes."

New York City's public schools are subdivided into 32 school districts. District 10 encompasses a large part of the Bronx but is, effectively, two separate districts. One of these districts, Riverdale, is in the northwest section of the Bronx. Home to many of the city's most sophisticated and well educated families, its elementary schools have relatively few low-income students. The other section, to the south and east, is poor and heavily nonwhite.

The contrast between public schools in each of these two neighborhoods is obvious to any visitor. At Public School 24 in Riverdale, the principal speaks enthusiastically of his teaching staff. At Public School 79, serving poorer children to the south, the principal says that he is forced to take the "tenth-best" teachers. "I thank God they're still breathing," he remarks of those from whom he must select his teachers.

Some years ago, District 10 received an allocation for computers. The local board decided to give each elementary school an equal number of computers, even though the schools in Riverdale had smaller classes and far fewer students. When it was pointed out that schools in Riverdale, as a result, had twice the number of computers in proportion to their student populations as the schools in the poor neighborhoods, the chairman of the local board replied, "What is fair is what is determined . . . to be fair."

The superintendent of District 10, Fred Goldberg, tells the New York Times that "every effort" is made "to distribute resources equitably." He speculates that some gap might exist because some of the poorer schools need to use funds earmarked for computers to buy basic supplies like pens and paper. Asked about the differences in teachers noted by the principals, he says there are no differences, then adds that next year he'll begin a program to improve the quality of teachers in the poorer schools. Questioned about differences in physical appearances between the richer and the poorer schools, he says, "I think it's demographics."

Sometimes a school principal, whatever his background or his politics, looks into the faces of the children in his school and offers a disarming statement that cuts through official ambiguity. "These are the kids most in need," says Edward Flanery, the principal of one of the low-income schools, "and they get the worst teachers." For children of diverse needs in his overcrowded rooms, he says, "you need an outstanding teacher. And what do you get? You get the worst."




Some of the most stunning inequality, according to a report by the Community Service Society, derives from allocations granted by state legislators to school districts where they have political allies. The poorest districts in this city get approximately 90 cents per pupil from these legislative grants, while the richest districts have been given $14 for each pupil.

Newspapers in New York City have reported other in stances of the misallocation of resources. "The Board of Education," wrote the New York Post during July of 1987, "was hit with bombshell charges yesterday that money earmarked for fighting drug abuse and illiteracy in ghetto schools was funneled instead to schools in wealthy areas."

In receipt of extra legislative funds, according to the Post, affluent districts were funded "at a rate 14 times great than low-income districts." The paper said the city's poor areas were underfunded "with stunning consistency."

The report by the Community Service Society cites official of the New York City Board of Education who remarks that there is "no point" in putting further money "into some poor districts" because, in his belief, "new teachers would not stay there." But the report observes that, in an instance where beginning teacher salaries were raised by - nearly half, "that problem largely disappeared"-another interesting reminder of the difference money makes when we are willing to invest it. Nonetheless, says the report, "the perception that the poorest districts are beyond help still remains...." Perhaps the worst result of such beliefs, says the report, is the message that resources would be "wasted on poor children." This message "trickles down to districts, schools, and classrooms." Children hear and understand this theme-they are poor investments-and behave accordingly. If society's resources would be wasted on their destinies, perhaps their own determination would be wasted too. "Expectations are a powerful force . . . ," the CSS observes.

Despite the evidence, the CSS report leans over back wards not to fuel the flames of racial indignation. "In the present climate," the report says, "suggestions of racism must be made with caution. However, it is inescapable that these ._ inequities are being perpetrated on [school] districts which are virtually all black and Hispanic...." While the report says, very carefully, that there is no "evidence" of "deliberate individual discrimination," it nonetheless concludes that those who allocate resources make decisions over and over again which penalize the poorest districts." Analysis of city policy, the study says, "speaks to systemic bias which constitutes a conspiracy of effect.... Whether consciously or not, the system writes off its poorest students."

It is not only at the grade-school level that inequities like these are seen in New York City. Morris High School in the South Bronx, for example, says a teacher who has taught here more than 20 years, "does everything an inanimate object can do to keep children from being educated." Blackboards at the school, according to the New York Times, are "so badly cracked that teachers are afraid to let students write on them for fear they'll cut themselves. Some mornings, fallen chips of paint cover classrooms like snow. . . Teachers and students have come to see humor in the waterfall that courses down six flights of stairs after a heavy rain."

One classroom, we are told, has been sealed off "because of a gaping hole in the floor." In the band room, "chairs are positioned where acoustic tiles don't fall quite so often." In many places, "plaster and ceramic tile have peeled off" the walls, leaving the external brick wall of the school exposed. "There isn't much between us and the great outdoors," the principal reports.

A "landscape of hopelessness"-"burnt-out apartments, boarded windows, vacant lot upon garbage-strewn vacant lot"-surrounds the school. Statistics tell us, says the Times, that the South Bronx is "the poorest congressional district in the United States." But statistics cannot tell us "what it means to a child to leave his often hellish home and go to a school -his hope for a transcendent future-that is literally falling apart."

The head of school facilities for the Board of Education speaks of classrooms unrepaired years after having been destroyed by fire. "What's really sad," she notes, "is that so many kids come from places that look as bad as our schools -and we have nothing better to offer them."

A year later, when I visit Morris High, most of these conditions are unchanged. Water still cascades down the stairs. Plaster is still falling from the walls. Female students tell me that they shower after school to wash the plaster for their hair. Entering ninth grade children at the school, I'm told, read about four years behind grade level.

From the street, the school looks like a medieval castle; its turreted tower rises high above the devastated lots below. A plaque in the principal's office tells a visitor that this is the oldest high school in the Bronx.




Victor Acosta and eight other boys and girls meet with me in the freshman counselors' office. They talk about "the table of brotherhood"-the words of Dr. King that we have heard recited by the theater class upstairs.

"We are not yet seated at that table," Victor says.

"The table is set but no one's in the chairs," says a black student who, I later learn, is named Carissa.

Alexander, a 16-year-old student who was brought here by his parents from Jamaica just a year ago, says this: "You can understand things better when you go among the wealthy. You look around you at their school, although it's impolite to do that, and you take a deep breath at the sight of all those beautiful surroundings. Then you come back home and see that these are things you do not have. You think of the difference. Not at first. It takes a while to settle in."

I ask him why these differences exist.

"Let me answer that," says Israel, a small, wiry Puerto Rican boy. "If you threw us all into some different place, some ugly land, and put white children in this building in our place, this school would start to shine. No question. The parents would say: 'This building sucks. It's ugly. Fix it up.' They'd fix it fast-no question.

"People on the outside," he goes on, "may think that we don't know what it is like for other students, but we visit other schools and we have eyes and we have brains. You cannot hide the differences. You see it and compare....

"Most of the students in this school won't go to college. Many of them will join the military. If there's a war, we have to fight. Why should I go to war and fight for opportunities I can't enjoy-for things rich people value, for their freedom, but I do not have that freedom and I can't go to their schools?"

"You tell your friends, 'I go to Morris High,'" Carissa says. "They make a face. How does that make you feel?" She points to the floor beside the water barrel. "I found wild mushrooms growing in that corner." "Big fat ugly things with hairs," says Victor.

Alexander then begins an explanation of the way that inequality becomes ensconced. "See," he says, "the parents of rich children have the money to get into better schools. Then, after a while, they begin to say, 'Well, I have this. Why not keep it for my children?' In other words, it locks them into the idea of always having something more. After that, these things-the extra things they have-are seen like an inheritance. They feel it's theirs and they don't understand why we should question it.

"See, that's where the trouble starts. They get used to what they have. They think it's theirs by rights because they had it from the start. So it leaves those children with a legacy of greed. I don't think most people understand this."

One of the counselors, who sits nearby, looks at me and then at Alexander. Later he says, "It's quite remarkable how much these children see. You wouldn't know it from their academic work. Most of them write poorly. There is a tremendous gulf between their skills and capabilities. This gulf, this dissonance, is frightening. I mean, it says so much about the squandering of human worth...."




New York City manages expertly, and with marvelous r predictability, whatever it considers humanly important. Fax machines, computers, automated telephones and even messengers on bikes convey a million bits of data through Manhattan every day to guarantee that Wall Street brokers get their orders placed, confirmed, delivered, at the moment they demand. But leaking roofs cannot be fixed and books cannot be gotten into Morris High in time to meet the fall enrollment. Efficiency in educational provision for low-income children, as in health care and most other elementals of existence, is secreted and doled out by our municipalities as if it were a scarce resource. Like kindness, cleanliness and promptness of provision, it is not secured by gravity of need, but by the cash, skin color and class status of the applicant.

At a high school in Crown Heights, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, "bathrooms, gymnasiums, hallways and closets" have been converted into classrooms, says the New York Times. "We have no closets-they're classrooms now," says the principal of another school. "We went to a school," says Robert Wagner, former president of the city's Board of Education, "where there were five Haitian youngsters literally [having classes] in a urinal."

At P.S. 94 in District 10, where 1,300 children study in a building suitable for 700, the gym has been transformed into four noisy, makeshift classrooms. The gym teacher improvises with no gym. A reading teacher, in whose room "huge pieces of a ceiling" have collapsed, according to the Times, "covering the floor, the desks and the books," describes the rain that spills in through the roof. "If society gave a damn about these children," says the teacher, "they wouldn't let this happen." These are the same conditions I observed in Boston's segregated schools a quarter-century Nothing has changed.

A class of third grade children at the school has four different teachers in a five-month span in 1989. "We get dizzy,'' says one child in the class. The only social worker in he school has 30 minutes in a week to help a troubled child. Their caseload holds the names of nearly 80 children. The only truant officer available, who splits her time between this and three other schools in District 10-the district has ten truant officers, in all, for 36,000 children-is responsible for finding and retrieving no less than 400 children at a given time.

When a school board hires just one woman to retrieve 400 missing children from the streets of the North Bronx, he may reasonably conclude that it does not particularly desire to find them. If 100 of these children startled us by showing up at school, moreover, there would be no room for them in P.S. 94. The building couldn't hold them.

Many of these problems, says the press again, may be, attributed to inefficiency and certain very special bureaucratic difficulties in the New York City system. As we have seen, however, comparable problems are apparent in Chicago, and the same conditions are routinely found in other systems serving mainly nonwhite children. The systems and bureaucracies are different. What is consistent is that all of them are serving children who are viewed as having little value to America.




One way of establishing the value we attribute to a group of children is to look at the medical provision that we make for them. The usual indices of school investment and performance -- class size, teacher salaries and test results -- are at best imperfect tools of measurement; but infant survival rates are absolute.

In Central Harlem, notes the New York Times, the infant death rate is the same as in Malaysia. Among black children in East Harlem, it is even higher: 42 per thousand, which would be considered high in many Third World nations. "A child's chance of surviving to age five," notes New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, "are better in Bangladesh than in East Harlem." In the South Bronx, says the author of a recent study by the nonprofit United Hospital Fund of New York City, 531 infants out of 1,000 require neonatal hospitalization-a remarkable statistic that portends high rates of retardation and brain damage. In Riverdale, by contrast, only 69 infants in 1,000 call for such attention.

What is promised these poor children and their parents, says Professor Eli Ginzberg of Columbia University, is "an essential level" of care as "distinct from optimal." Equity, he states, is "out of the question." In a similar way, the New York Times observes, a lower quality of education for poor children in New York, as elsewhere in America, is "accepted as a fact." Inequality, whether in hospitals or schools, is simply not contested. Any suggestion that poor people in New York will get the same good health care as the rich or middle class, says Dr. Ginzberg, is "inherently nonsensical."

The New York Times describes some public hospitals in which there is "no working microscope" to study sputum samples, no gauze or syringes "to collect blood samples." A couple of years ago, says a physician at the city's Bellevue Hospital, "we were running out of sutures in the operating room." Two years before, Harlem Hospital ran out of penicillin.

"Out-and-out racism, which in our city and our society, is institutionalized," said David Dinkins in 1987, a year before he was elected mayor, "has allowed this to go on for years.

But the racial explanation is aggressively rejected by the medical establishment. The Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, seeking to explain the differences in care provided to the white and nonwhite, speculates that "cultural differences" in patients' attitudes toward modern care may be involved. White people, says the Journal, "may prefer a more technological approach...."

A doctor at Cook County Hospital in Chicago has an other explanation. "I think," he says, "there's a different subjective response on the part of doctors...." And, in explanation of the fact that white patients in cardiac care are two to three times as likely as black patients to be given by pass surgery, he wonders whether white physicians may be "less inclined to invest in a black patient's heart" than in the heart of a "white, middle-class executive" because the future economic value of the white man, who is far more likely to return to a productive job, is often so much higher. Investment strategies in education as we've seen) are often framed in the same terms: "How much is it worth investing in this child as opposed to that one? Where will we see the best return?" Although respectable newspapers rarely pose the question in these chilling terms, it is clear that certain choices have been made: Who shall be educated? Who shall live? Who is likely to return the most to our society?

A doctor who has worked for many years in the South Bronx notes that views like these are masked by our apparently benevolent attempts to rectify the damage that we have permitted: "Once these babies, damaged by denial of sufficient health care for their mothers, have been born impaired, we hook them up to tubes and place them on a heated table in an isolette and do our very best to save their lives. It seems that we do not want them to die. Much is made in press reports of our provision for these infants; it may even be that we are prone to praise ourselves for these extensive efforts. But, like the often costly salvage programs of teen-age remediation for the children we have first denied the opportunity for health care, then for preschool, then for equal education, these special wards for damaged infants are visions of obligatory mercy which are needed only as a consequence of our refusal to provide initial justice."




One consequence of medical and early educational denial is the virtual destruction of the learning skills of many children by the time they get to secondary school. Knowing one is ruined is a powerful incentive to destroy the learning opportunities for other children, and the consequence in many schools is nearly uncontrollable disruption.

Two years ago, in order to meet this and other problems, New York City's Office of School Safety started buying handcuffs. Some 2,300 pairs were purchased for a system that contains almost 1,000 schools: an average of two pairs of handcuffs for each school. "It is no doubt possible," the weekly New York Observer editorializes, "to obtain improvements in discipline and even in test scores and dropout rates" by "turning schools into disciplinary barracks." But the paper questions whether such a regimen is ideal preparation for life in a democratic nation.

Handcuffs, however, may be better preparation than we realize for the lives that many of these adolescent kids will lead. According to the New York City Department of Cor rections, 90 percent of the male inmates of the city's prisons are the former dropouts of the city's public schools. Incarceration of each inmate, the department notes, costs the city nearly $60,000 every year. Handcuffs draw the attention of the press because they are a graphic symbol of so many other problems. But far more damaging, I am convinced, are the more subtle manacles of racial patterns in assignment and-school tracking. Few things can injure a child more, or do more damage to the child's self-esteem, than to be locked into a bottom-level track as early as the first or second grade. Add to this the squalor of the setting and the ever-present message of a child's racial isolation, and we have in place an almost perfect instrument to guarantee that we will need more handcuffs and, no doubt, more prisons.

The slotting of black children into lower tracks, according to the Public Education Association of New York, is a familiar practice in the city: "Classes for the emotionally handicapped, neurologically impaired, learning disabled and educable mentally retarded are disproportionately black.... Classes for the speech, language, and hearing impaired are disproportionately Hispanic." Citywide, the association adds, fewer than 10 percent of children slotted in these special tracks will graduate from school. Nationwide, black children are three times as likely as white children to be placed in classes for the mentally retarded but only half as likely to be placed in classes for the gifted: a well-known statistic that should long since have aroused a sense of utter shame in our society. Most shameful is the fact that no such outrage can be stirred in New York City.

This is the case with almost every aspect of the degradation of poor children in New York. Even the most thorough exposition of the facts within the major organs of the press is neutralized too frequently by context and a predilection for the type of grayish language that denies the possibilities for indignation. Facts are cited. Editorials are written. Five years later, the same facts are cited once again. There is, no sense of moral urgency; and nothing changes.




"If you're looking for a home, "a realtor notes,' you can look at the charts for school expenditures and use them to determine if your neighbors will be white and wealthy or, conversely, black or white but poor."

Newsday, a Long Island paper, notes that these comparisons are studied with great interest by home-buyers. Indeed, the paper notes, the state's exhaustive compilation, "Statistical Profiles of Public School Districts," has unexpectedly become a small best-seller. People who want to know if public schools in areas where they are planning to buy homes are actually as good as it is claimed in real-estate brochures, according to Newsday, now can use the "Statistical Profiles" as a nore authoritative source. Superintendents in some districts ay the publication, which compares student performance, spending, staff and such in every state school system, "will be useful for home-buyers." For real estate agents in the highest-rated districts, the appearance of this publication is good news. It helps to elevate the value of the homes they have for sale.

In effect, a circular phenomenon evolves: The richer districts-those in which the property lots and houses are more highly valued-have more revenue, derived from taxing land and homes, to fund their public schools. The reputation of the schools, in turn, adds to the value of their homes, and this, in turn, expands the tax base for their public schools. The fact that they can levy lower taxes than the poorer districts, but exact more money, raises values even more; and this, again, means further funds for smaller lasses and for higher teacher salaries within their public schools. Few of the children in the schools of Roosevelt or Mount Vernon will, as a result, be likely to compete effectively with kids in Great Neck and Manhasset for admissions to the better local colleges and universities of New York state. Even fewer will compete for more exclusive Ivy League ad missions. And few of the graduates or dropouts of those poorer systems, as a consequence, are likely ever to earn enough to buy a home in Great Neck or Manhasset.

The New York State Commissioner of Education cautions parents not to make "the judgment that a district is good because the scores are good, or bad because the scores are bad." This, we will find, is a recurrent theme in public statements on this issue, and the commissioner is correct, of course, that overemphasis on test scores, when the differences are slight, can be deceptive. But it may be somewhat disingenuous to act as if the larger differences do not effectively predict success or failure for large numbers of school children. Certainly home-buyers will be easily convinced that schools in Jericho, third-highest-spending district on Long Island, where the dropout rate is an astonishing and enviable "zero" and where all but 3 percent of seniors go to college, are likely to be "good" compared to those of New York City, which spends only half as much per pupil and where only half the students ever graduate. An apparent obligation of officials in these situations is to shelter the recipients of privilege from the potential wrath of those who are less favored. Officials manage, in effect, to broadcast a dual message. To their friends they say, in private, "This is the best place to buy a home. These are the best schools. These are the hospitals. These are the physicians." For the record, however, they assure the public that these numbers must not be regarded as implying any drastic differentials.

"The question," says the New York State Commissioner, is not how good the test scores look, but "how well is the district doing by the children it enrolls?" This will bring to mind the statement of New Trier High School's former head of student services. (This school is right," he said, "for this community." It wouldn't, however, be "right" for everyone.) It does not require much political sophistication to decode these statements-no more than it requires to discern what is at stake when scholars at conservative foundations tell us that black children and white children may have "different learning styles" and require "different strategies" and maybe "different schools."

The commissioner's question-"How well is the district doing by the children it enrolls?"-sounds reasonable. But the answers that are given to that question, as we know, will be determined by class expectations. The schools of the South Bronx-not many, but a few at least-are "doing well" by future typists, auto mechanics, office clerks and factory employees. The schools of Great Neck are "doing well" by those who will someday employ them.

There is a certain grim aesthetic in the almost perfect upward scaling of expenditures from poorest of the poor to richest of the rich within the New York City area: $5,590 for the children of the Bronx and Harlem, $6,340 for the non white kids of Roosevelt, $6,400 for the black kids of Mount Vernon, $7,400 for the slightly better-off community of Yonkers, over $11,000 for the very lucky children of Manhasset, Jericho and Great Neck. In an ethical society, where - money was apportioned in accord with need, these scalings would run almost in precise reverse.




In his earnestness and in his willingness to search his conscience, David reminds me of some of the kids I knew during the civil rights campaigns of the mid-1960s. Standing here beside him and his teacher, it occurs to me that many students from this town, much like those in Riverdale, were active in those struggles. Hundreds of kids from neighbor hoods like these exposed themselves to all the dangers and the violence that waited for young volunteers in rural areas of Mississippi.

Today, after a quarter of a century, black and white children go to the same schools in many parts of Mississippi -the public schools of Mississippi are, in fact, far more de segregated now than public schools in New York City-but the schools are very poor. In 1987, when a child in Great Neck or Manhasset was receiving education costing some $11,000, children in Neshoba County, Mississippi, scene of many of the bloodiest events during the voter registration drives of 23 years before, received some $1,500 for their education. In equally poor Greene County, Mississippi, things got so bad in the winter of 1988 that children enrolled at Sand Hill Elementary School had to bring toilet paper, as well as writing paper, from their homes because, according to the Jackson Daily News, "the school has no money for supplies." In the same year, Time magazine described conditions in the Mississippi town of Tunica. The roof of a junior high school building in the district had "collapsed" some years before, the magazine reported, but the district had no money for repairs. School desks were "split" and textbooks were ' rotting," said Time. "Outside, there is no playground equipment."

At Humphreys County High School, in the Mississippi Delta, the science lab has no equipment except a tattered periodic table. "The only air conditioning," says a recent visitor, "is a hole in the roof." In June and September, when the temperature outside can reach 100 degrees, the school is "double hot," according to the principal. Children graduating from the school, he says, have little to look forward to except low-paid employment at a local catfish plant.

Until 1983, Mississippi was one of the few states with no kindergarten program and without compulsory attendance laws. Governor William Winter tried that year to get the legislature to approve a $60-million plan to upgrade public education. The plan included early childhood education, higher teacher salaries, a better math and science program for the high schools, and compulsory attendance with provisions for enforcement. The state's powerful oil corporations, facing a modest increase in thelr taxes to support the plan, lobbied vigorously against it. The Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association began a television advertising campaign to defeat the bill, according to a Newsweek story.

"The vested interests are just too powerful," a state legislator said. Those interests, according to Newsweek, are "unlikely" to rush to the aid of public schools that serve poor children.

It is unlikely that the parents or the kids in Rye or Riverdale know much about realities like these; and, if they do, they may well tell themselves that Mississippi is a distant place and that they have work enough to do to face inequities in New York City. But, in reality, the plight of children in the South Bronx of New York is almost as far from them as that of children in the farthest reaches of the South.

All of these children say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. Whether in the New York suburbs, Mississippi, or the South Bronx, they salute the same flag. They place their hands across their hearts and join their voices in a tribute to "one nation indivisible" which promises liberty and justice to all people. What is the danger that the people in a town like Rye would face if they resolved to make this statement true? How much would it really harm their children to compete in a fair race?

Jonathan Kozol page