Jonathan Kozol Savage Inequalities

“What do you do with a former slave,” asks Congressman Augustus Hawkins when I meet him the next day, “when you no longer need his labor?”

Harper and four friends of hers go with me to a neighborhood McDonald’s. While we eat, they talk about their school. Harper describes the paddle that her teacher uses when the children misbehave. “Teacher makes you stand and bend across the desk,” she says.

Another child, named Rebecca, climbs from her chair and shows me how she stands and bends when she is beaten. “Man!” she says. “That thing eats up your butt.” (Jonathan Kozol "Savage Inequalities 1991 p.188 entire Chapter 5

When low income districts go to court to challenge the existing system of school funding, writes John Coons, the natural fear of the conservative is "that levelers are at work here sapping the foundations of free enterprise.

In reality he says, there is ‘no graver threat to the capitalist system than the present cyclical replacement of the ‘fittest’ of one generation by their artificially advantaged offspring. Worse, when that advantage is proffered to the children of the successful by the state, we can be sure that free enterprise has sold its birthright…. To defend the present public school finance system on a platform of economic or political freedom is no less absurd than to describe it as egalitarian. In the name of all the values of free enterprise, the existing system [is] a scandal.‘

There is something incongruous, he goes on , about "a differential of any magnitude" between the education of two children, "the sole justification for which is an imaginary school district line" between those children. The reliance of our public schools on property taxes and the localization of the uses of those taxes "have combined to make the public school into an educator for the educated rich and a keeper for the uneducated poor. There exists no more powerful force for rigidity of social class and the frustration of natural potential…"

“The freedom claimed by a rich man, he says, ‘to give his child a preferential education, and thereby achieve the transmission of advantage by inheritance, denies the children of others the freedom inherent in the notion of free enterprise.’ Democracy “can stand certain kinds and amounts’ of inherited advantage. ‘What democracy cannot tolerate is an aristocracy padded and protected by the state itself from competition from below…’ In a free enterprise society, he writes, ‘differential provision by the public school marks the intrusion [of] heresy, for it means that certain participants in the economic race are hobbled at the gate–and hobbled by the public handicapper.’

“According to our textbook rhetoric, Americans abhor the notion of a social order in which economic privilege and political power are determined by hereditary class. Officially, we have a more enlightened goal in sight: namely, a society in which a family’s wealth, has no relation to the probability of future educational attainment and the wealth and station it affords. By this standard, education offered to poor children should be at least as good as that which is provided to the children of the upper-middle class.

“If Americans had to discriminate directly against other people’s children, I believe most citizens would find this morally abhorrent. Denial, in an active sense, of other people’s children is, however, rarely necessary in this nation. Inequality is mediated for us by a taxing system that most people do not fully understand and seldom scrutinize. How this system really works, and how it came into existence, may enable us to better understand the difficulties that will be confronted in attempting to revise it.” (Jonathan Kozol "Savage Inequalities 1991 p.206-7)

(Jonathan Kozol "Savage Inequalities 1991 cited in Education gets the (t)ax.

Late in 1971, a three-judge federal district court in San Antonio held that Texas was in violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. "Any mild equalizing effects" from state aid, said the Court, "do not benefit the poorest districts."

It is this decision which was then appealed to the Supreme Court. The majority opinion of the high court, which reversed the lower court’s decision, noted that, in order to bring to bear “strict scrutiny” upon the case, it must first establish that there had been “absolute deprivation” of a “fundamental interest” of the Edgewood children. Justice Lewis Powell wrote that education is not “a fundamental interest” inasmuch as "is not among the rights afforded explicit protection under our Federal Constitution." Nor, he wrote, did he believe that “absolute deprivation” was at stake. “The argument here,” he said, “is not that children in districts having relatively low assessable property values are receiving no public education; rather, it is that they are receiving a poorer quality education than that available to children in districts having more assessable wealth.” In cases where wealth is involved, he said, “the Equal Protection Clause does not require absolute equality …”

Attorneys for Rodriguez and the other plaintiffs, Powell wrote argue “education is itself personal right because it is essential to the exercise of the First Amendment freedoms and to intelligent use of the right to vote. [They argue also] that the right to speak is meaningless unless the speaker is capable of articulating his thoughts intelligently and persuasively …. [A] similar line of reasoning is pursued with respect to the right to vote.

“Yet we have never presumed to possess either the ability or the authority to guarantee …. The most effective speech or the most informed electoral choice.” Even if it were conceded, he wrote, that “some identifiable quantum of education” is a prerequisite to exercise of speech and voting rights, “we have no indication … that the [Texas funding] system fails to provide each child with an opportunity to acquire the basic minimum skills necessary” to enjoy a “full participation in the political process.”

This passage raised, of course some elemental questions. The crucial question centered on the two words “minimal” and “necessary.” In the words of O.Z. White of Trinity University in San Antonio: “We would always want to know by what criteria these terms have been defined. For example, any poor Hispanic child who could spell three-letter words, add and subtract, and memorize the names and dates of several presidents would have been viewed as having been endowed with ‘minimal’ skills in much of Texas 50 years ago. How do we update those standards? This cannot be done without the introduction of subjective notions as to what is needed in the present age. Again, when Powell speaks of what is ‘necessary’ to enjoy what he calls ‘full participation’ in the nation’s politics, we would want to know exactly what he has in mind by ‘full’ participation. A lot of wealthy folks in Texas think the schools are doing a sufficiently good job if the kids of poor folks learn enough to cast a vote -- just not enough to cast it in their own self interests. They might think it fine if kids could write and speak -- just not enough to speak in ways that make a dent in public policy. In economic terms, a lot of folks in Alamo Heights would think that Edgewood kids were educated fine if they had all the necessary skills to do their kitchen work and tend their lawns. How does Justice Powell settle on the level of effectiveness he ahs in mind by ‘full participation’? The definition of this term is at the essence of democracy.


“To a real degree, what is considered ‘adequate’ or ‘necessary’ or ‘sufficient’ for the poor in Texas is determined by the rich or relatively rich; it is decided in accord with their opinion of what children are fitted to become, and what their social role should be. This role has always been equated with their usefulness to us; and this consideration seems to be at stake in almost all reflections on ….

"There is," said Powell, "no basis on the record in this case for assuming that the poorest people -- defined by reference to any level of absolute impecunity -- are concentrated in the poorest districts." Nor he added, is there "more than a random chance that racial minorities are concentrated in property-poor districts."

Justice Thurgood Marshall, in his long dissent, challenged the notion that an interest, to be seen as "fundamental," had to be "explicitly or implicitly guaranteed" within the Constitution. ....

Marshall also addressed the argument of Justice Powell that there was no demonstrated "correlation between poor people and poor districts." In support of this conclusion, Marshall wrote, the majority "offers absolutely no data -- which it cannot on this record ...."


On Justice Powell’s observation that some experts questioned the connection between spending and the quality of education, Marshall answered almost with derision: "Even an unadorned restatement of this contention is sufficient to reveal it's absurdity." It is, he said "an inescapable fact that if one district has more funds available per pupil than another district," it "will have greater choice" in what it offers to its children. (Jonathan Kozol "Savage Inequalities 1991 p.214-8)

(Jonathan Kozol "Savage Inequalities 1991 also cited in Introducing the World of Education: A Case Study Reader

San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez

“The poor live by the water ditches here,” said O. Z. White as we were driving through the crowded streets on a hot day in 1989. “The water is stagnant in the ditches now but, when the rains come, it will rise quite fast – it flows south into the San Antonio River ….

“The rich live on the high ground to the north. The higher ground in San Antonio is Monte Vista. But the very rich – the families with old money – live in the section known as Alamo Heights.”

Alamo Heights, he told me, is part of San Antonio. “It’s enclosed by San Antonio but operated as a separate system. Dallas has a similar white enclave known as Highland Park, enclosed on all four sides by the Dallas schools but operated as a separate district. We call these places ‘parasite districts’ since they give no tax support to the low-income sections.


Although the property tax in Alamo Heights yielded $3,600 for each pupil, compared to $924 per pupil in the San Antonio district and only $128 in Edgewood, Alamo Heights also received a share of state and federal funds – almost $8,000 yearly for a class of 20 children. Most of this extra money, quite remarkably, came to Alamo Heights under the “equalizing” formula. (Jonathan Kozol "Savage Inequalities 1991 p.224-5)

“We’re not talking about some abstraction here. These things are serious. If all of these poor kids in Cassiano get to go to real good schools — I mean, so they’re educated well and so they’re smart enough to go to colleges and universities — you have got to ask who will be there to trim the lawns and scrub the kitchen floors in Alamo Heights. Look at the lights up there. The air is nice and clean when you’re up high like that in Texas. It’s a different world from Guadalupe. Let me tell you something. Folks can hope, and folks can try, and folks can dream. But those two worlds are never going to meet. Not in my life. Not in yours. Not while any of these little kids in Cassiano are alive. Maybe it will happen someday. I’m not going to be counting.” “We’re not talking about some abstraction here. These things are serious. If all of these poor kids in Cassiano get to go to real good schools—I mean, so they’re educated well and so they’re smart enough to go to colleges and universities—you have got to ask who there will be to trim the lawns and scrub the kitchen floors in Alamo Heights. Look at the lights up there. The air is nice and clean when you’re up high like that in Texas. It’s a different world from Guadalupe. Let me tell you something. Folks can hope, and folks can try, and folks can dream. But those two worlds are never going to meet. Not in my life. Not in yours. Not while any of these little kids in Cassiano are alive. Maybe it will happen someday. I’m not going to be counting.”

Around us in the streets, the voices of children filled the heavy air. Teen-age girls stood in the doorways of the pastel houses along Guadalupe while the younger children played out in the street. Mexican music drifted from the houses and, as evening came to San Antonio, the heat subsided and there was a sense of order and serenity as people went about their evening tasks, the task of children being to play and of their older sisters to go in and help their mothers to make dinner.

“Everything is acceptance,” said O.Z. “People get used to what they have. They figure it’s the way it’s supposed to be and they don’t think it’s going to change. All those court decisions are so far away. And Alamo Heights seems far away, so people don’t compare. And that’s important. If you don’t know what you’re missing, you’re not going to get angry. How can you desire what you cannot dream of?” But this may not really be the case; for many of the women in this neighborhood do get to see the richer neighborhoods because they work in wealthy people’s homes. (Jonathan Kozol "Savage Inequalities 1991 p.228)

(Jonathan Kozol "Savage Inequalities 1991 also cited by keightbergmann

Some indication of the poverty within the neighborhood may be derived from demographics. Only 27 percent of adults in the area have finished high school. Welfare dependence is common, but, because the people here identify the welfare system with black people, many will not turn to welfare and rely on menial jobs; betterpaying jobs are quite beyond their reach because of their low education levels.

The neighborhood is industrial, although some of the plants are boarded up. Most of the factories (metal-treatment plants and paint and chemical manufacturers) are still in operation and the smoke and chemical pollutants from these installations cloud the air close to the river. Prostitutes stand in a ragged line along the street as I approach the school. Many of the wood-frame houses are in disrepair. Graffiti (FUCK YOU, painted in neat letters) decorates the wall of an abandoned building near the corner of Hatmaker Street and State.

The wilted-looking kids who live here, says Bob Moore, an organizer who has worked with parents in the neighborhood for several years, have “by far the lowest skills in math and reading in the city.” There is some concern, he says, about “developmental retardation” as a consequence perhaps of their continual exposure to the chemical pollutants, but this, he says, is only speculation. “That these kids are damaged is quite clear. We don’t know exactly why.”

Oyler Elementary School, unlike so many of the schools I’ve seen in poor black neighborhoods, is not so much intense and crowded as it is depleted, bleak and bare. The eyes of the children, many of whom have white-blond hair and almost all of whom seem rather pale and gaunt, appear depleted too. During several hours in the school I rarely saw a child with a good big smile.

Bleakness was the order of the day in fifth grade science. The children were studying plant biology when I came in, but not with lab equipment. There was none. There was a single sink that may have worked but was not being used, a couple of test tubes locked up in a cupboard, and a skeleton also locked behind glass windows. The nearly total blankness of the walls was interrupted only by a fire safety poster. The window shades were badly torn. The only textbook I could find (Mathematics in Our World) had been published by Addison-Wesley in 1973. A chart of “The Elements” on the wall behind the teacher listed no elements discovered in the past four decades. (Jonathan Kozol "Savage Inequalities 1991 p.230-1) complete chapter at

(Jonathan Kozol "Savage Inequalities 1991 p.)

The typical attitude toward control and financing of public education throughout the nation has long been that control should be close to the people; that education is best administered at the local level; and that control is best assured by requiring substantial local financial support. Thus, the pattern that has evolved is one in which the state has assumed the role of providing a minimum statewide program; equalizing the cost of that program; and permitting local governments to spend in excess of the minimum program at whatever levels they are willing and able No. 5447 - New England Law

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