CHILDREN IN AMERICA'S
262 pages. $20. In an elementary school in a poor section of Washington, a fifth-grade girl tells Jonathan Kozol that she wants to buy some blue curtains for her teacher. There's a hole in the wall behind his desk, she explains, and she'd like to cover it up. She'd also buy doors for the toilet stalls in the girls' bathroom. And she'd paint the ceiling; it looks like somebody went up there and wet over our heads, she says. Her name is Tunisia; she is tall, thin and has big glasses with red frames. She wants to make her school a clean, beautiful building: "The way it is, I feel ashamed."
"Savage Inequalities," Mr. Kozol's latest book, records the conversations of many children like Tunisia. For them, Martin Luther King's dream is something mentioned during Black History month, while "the content of the dream [is] . . . a closed box." How ironic it is that black children cannot open that box "without ruining the celebration," says Mr. Kozol. How unjust that poor children are not allowed a stake in the enormous richness of America.
Children, according to Mr. Kozol, "are all quite wonderful and innocent. Yet we soil them needlessly" by a public school system that is separate and shamefully unequal.
He describes that inequality in this heart-rending, though not always balanced, book. It's a terrifying story, and his tone is one of fury at a school system "whose policies have been turned back one hundred years." His words almost cry out at the injustice committed in the name of public education.
Why, Mr. Kozol asks, do governments spend so much money on schools in wealthy districts and so little on schools in the inner cities? Why must poor children attend school under such squalid conditions? Why must man extend his inhumanity to children, just because they happen to be black or Hispanic? Why (and this has bothered him for many years) does racism continue to grow like a cancer in the heart of this country?
"Death at an Early Age," Mr. Kozol's first book about education, won the National Book Award in 1968. In it, he spoke against the public school system and the notion of a separate but equal education. To see whether that system had improved after 20 years and numerous attempts at restructuring it, he visited schools in 30 neighborhoods -- from Illinois to Washington, and from New York City to San Antonio, Texas. He questioned the children he met, recorded their answers and described the conditions that existed in their schools. The result is "Savage Inequalities."
For poor children, Mr. Kozol explains, school can be an extraordinarily unhappy place. Steel grates cover the windows; police patrol the halls. Roofs leak; the ceilings bear ugly stains; walls have huge holes. Rats, as big as small cats, infest the buildings. After a heavy rain, sewage floods the ground-level floors.
The classrooms are overcrowded. They lack heat and light. Scores of window frames are without glass, hundreds of light bulbs are missing. In bathrooms, toilet stalls have no doors; four out of six toilets don't work. The science labs have little or no equipment. The books are out of date, and "math books copyrighted 1973 are used in 1991." There aren't enough books to go around. One teacher complains that she has "110 students and only 26 books; some of the books are missing the first hundred pages."
These students, Mr. Kozol reminds us, say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. They join in a tribute to one nation that promises liberty and justice for all.
L When, this book asks, will that nation fulfill its promises?
Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.