A reprieve for public schools

Author and educator Jonathan Kozol assesses the impact of the election on American children.

By Amy Benfer

Published November 10, 2000 11:25PM (EST)

Amid much sniping, keening and complaining about the disputed outcome of the presidential election, Jonathan Kozol comes across as amused, calm and remarkably optimistic. Perhaps his experiences as an educator and advocate for inner-city children (and their parents) for the past three decades has made Kozol better suited to political adversity and the need for patience than the rest of us. His struggles, described as "noble" by Elie Wiesel, have been meticulously and elegantly documented in his award-winning books: "Death at an Early Age" (about his first year as a teacher), "Rachel and Her Children," "Savage Inequities" and "Saving Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation." His gentle manner and good humor are much in evidence as he contemplates our current political entanglements.

Kozol, on a promotional tour for his recent book, "Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope," says that the constant travel has given him an opportunity to sample American political attitudes from coast to coast. He spoke to Salon from his home in Massachusetts -- he was fresh off a plane from Michigan and on his way to Boston for dinner with "recovering Republican" Arianna Huffington. Salon asked Kozol for his interpretation of election outcomes that dealt specifically with education.

How do you interpret the various election outcomes on educational issues nationwide?

What I see is a strong vote of confidence for public schools. It's an interesting shift. The scenario that comes out of a number of different votes in different states suggests that the electorate is having very strong second thoughts about the privatizing agenda that has received so much press attention during the 1990s. Also, it seems there is a greater willingness to support public education without draining off money to the private sector.

On a larger scale, there seems to be less emphasis on the severe punitive agenda that came into fashion the last few years and more emphasis on actually providing resources for students to do well in public schools.

I'll give you an example: First of all, there are two referenda, in Michigan and in California, in which the voters resoundingly rejected voucher schemes. The rejection in California, I somewhat expected. The rejection in Michigan was not at all certain in advance, yet the vote, at least as it stood a few hours ago, represented a definitive rejection of vouchers. The last vote I saw had it at about 70 to 30 percent. [The most recent report indicated 69 percent against the voucher scheme and 31 percent in favor with 95 percent of the votes counted.]

Many of us expected vouchers would be rejected in California -- even advocates for vouchers did not think it was presented in a convincing way. The fact that it was also rejected by a large margin by voters in Michigan is a very interesting sign of the times.

Along with that, we see in California, for example, an approval of a measure to lower the vote threshold to pass local school bonds. Now that sounds like a technicality, perhaps, to many people, but it's a very important decision. Because as it stood previously, the state regulations made it very difficult for a community to pass a levy to raise money to support their schools. Now local communities are able to pass a levy to raise local funds, and they can raise local property taxes now when they need to.

There was one other decision made in California that I found interesting. Along with the other two propositions, there was also a decision to require treatment for low level drug offenders, instead of sending them to prison. To some people, that may appear to be a completely separate issue, but I see it as closely related to the vouchers issue for the following reason: It is no secret to anybody in California or the rest of the United States that a vastly disproportionate number of the young men who are sent to jail for low-level drug offenses are black and Hispanic.

Many of us have noticed that in the past 10 years there has been a lot of political support for two developments: One was tightening the budgets of the public schools. The other was putting more money into the prison system.

These two policies together, along with the fashionable policy called "zero tolerance," have made it tougher and tougher for schools to provide the resources to keep inner-city kids in school and educate them in small classes with good, well-paid teachers. And at the same time, it has made it much more likely that they would be ejected from school for small discipline infractions -- like rudeness, even. These are small things that we never would have been tossed out of school for in the past.

And then if these children were involved in minor drug offenses, they would end up in prison soon after. (I don't mean to imply that drugs is the reason they are most often thrown out of school.)

These policies have had the net effect of sending a message to low-income communities, especially black and Hispanic communities. This message is: We're not going to spend much money on your schools, but we're going to get tougher on you. We're going to give you more exams. We're going to have stricter rules about "appropriate behavior," so we can throw you out more easily. Then if you're out in the street, and you fall into petty drug crimes, we're going to put you away for a long time. We're not going to give you therapy. We're not going to educate you and we're not going to help you recover from the illness of drug addiction. We're going to spend less on your school, and more on your prisons.

These kids don't behave as we stipulate. These kids don't live up to the gospel according to William Bennett. Then we have prison cells waiting for them.

The three outcomes I'm referring to in California [vouchers, school bonds and drug treatment] seem to me to represent a very hopeful, and from my point of view, beneficial new trend. Who knows if that trend will carry to the rest of the nation? I do know that there are people in New York state who are also looking seriously at the very long mandatory prison sentences for low-level drug offenses. I suspect that New York will follow the pattern of California in that respect.

I do know that there is a great deal of public sentiment in New York state right now to put a lot more money in the public schools. And there is very little support for vouchers in New York. I know that Hillary Clinton is passionately against vouchers, and very much in favor of greater investment in urban education, in education for kids across the board.

If you can read anything into these referenda and electoral victories in states like California, Michigan and New York, I would read into it: a diminution of the severe punitive tone of public policy towards inner-city kids, a diminution in the mean-spirited tone that's prevailed ever since the mid-1980s. And a greater willingness to support public education and rely less on retrograde punitive approaches.

What about the rejection of bilingual education in Arizona?

I've always found Arizona a peculiarly mean-spirited state. It's the only state in which I was actually stopped on a state highway by a state trooper late at night. I had spoken in a Catholic church in favor of the United Farm Workers. That was many years ago, but I've never forgotten it. I was stopped by a state trooper and a helicopter with a voice in it. A talking helicopter. It came down on top of me, with a voice -- like God's voice. The only reason I got out of that was because I happened to be in the car with an investigative reporter from the Arizona Star. She protected me. This frail, young reporter protected me.

Anyway, it doesn't surprise me that they passed the same measure there that they passed in California requiring that all public education be conducted in English. I happen to think that is an unfortunate decision. I think it's unfortunate because I've seen wonderful bilingual education, and I do not agree with the opinion that many conservatives have that bilingual education is a dead end for kids.

When it's done right, when it's truly transitional, as it is in New York City, for example, it can be very effective. For seven years, I've been visiting a school in the South Bronx where there is excellent bilingual instruction in elementary school. The kids come in not knowing any English and by second or third grade they are usually doing all their work in English.

But in the case of the Arizona referendum, I'm not sure how much it tells us about public opinion. I think it does tell us that if one very rich man with a fierce xenophobic ideology like Ron Unz puts up a huge amount of money, you can probably talk people into anything, temporarily. But I hope people in Arizona will rethink that in the next few years.

And I do notice they left some loopholes, even in Arizona. Parents can still petition their school boards for bilingual education, if they think their kids need it. It's not as severe as it could have been.

How does our attitude toward public education during this election compare with our attitudes in other election years?

I think that has gotten much worse over the past five or 10 years. It started in the Reagan years, but there was not a substantial change of heart during the Clinton years. I get the sense that since Governor [Gray] Davis has been in, there has been some rethinking in California.

There was a real seismic shift in the last 15 years -- you could feel the earth moving away from the idealism we identified with Dr. King, but more than that, away from the most generous educational theories -- away from the tradition of John Dewey, Erik Erikson, that whole tradition of treating children with enormous respect, always looking for their potential and treating them as though we treasure them.

That has been replaced by a rhetoric that is almost adversarial towards children. We don't have the Communists to fear anymore, so we fear our children. We don't fear our own kids, to be honest, but we fear children who don't look like our kids, we fear those other people's children -- inner-city children.

Listen to the language: "We are going to demand accountability, we are going to hold them accountable, these little kids." We don't give them preschool, we don't give them attractive buildings to go to, we don't pay their teachers enough for them to stay in their schools before they slip out to the suburbs for better pay, we don't give them any of the things we give rich kids in schools like Andover.

We don't give the inner-city kids any of that stuff. In New York City, the parents I know give their kids three years of developmental preschool, starting when they are 2 and a half. They spend $15,000 a year on those schools. And yet 80 percent of the inner-city kids still don't have Head Start, even for one year.

So we rig the game against these kids, but what have we heard in the last 15 years? Nothing that even hinted at the generosity of a society that would give poor children even a hint of equal opportunity.

Instead, we're going to hold them accountable for their performance on exams. Not just exams, but high stakes exams. George W. Bush even says that we're going to give them to them every single year, so they can have an annual anxiety attack.

We use phrases like "personal responsibility" and "zero tolerance." A vocabulary of Dickensian schoolmasters has replaced the American vocabulary of generosity towards children. Zero tolerance is the fitting cap on all of that.

The privatizing drive, the vouchers drive emerged naturally from that. At the heart of the vouchers movement is the idea that we might siphon off a few of these kids and give them something special if their parents are aggressive enough to apply. And for all the others, we'll leave them behind in schools that are depleted of resources, with less money, with less people to advocate for them (because we will have filtered off all the activist parents to voucher schools) and once those kids die quietly in their poorly funded urban schools, we'll provide them with plenty of space in prison.

That's been the mood for 15 years. And although some of it was about economic class, I think that race was at the heart of the agenda. Going right along with that has been the tendency for even small municipalities to shut down even the smallest integration efforts. The Brown vs. Board of Education decision has been virtually invalidated now in most communities.

Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush appear to have very different ideas about public education. Do you believe that whichever one of them becomes president should adjust his views to be more in line with those of the electorate in California and Michigan?

Whichever nominee becomes the president of the United States -- assuming one of them does -- will have to pay attention to the shifting climate of opinion about education in general and about low-income kids in particular.

I think it's notable that George W. Bush, although he has not disowned the voucher issue, tried very hard not to speak of it during the campaign. I think he too is reading the political mood correctly.

These three separate votes I spoke of in California, and the similar vote in Michigan, and the general change in mood I sense in New York, these are three large states stretching from coast to coast. Perhaps I'm grasping at straws, but I see what I would call a good kind of global warming.

I think it's a change in the sympathies of the electorate, and I think it's a sign that political leaders do respond to the explicit -- or even implied -- will of the people. I see that in Michigan. The governor, a guy named John Engler, used to be a voucher advocate, but he didn't even support the voucher referendum this time. Like Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and Pete Wilson in California, he was a tough guy as far as poor people were concerned. So it was interesting to see that he backed down from vouchers. Maybe he's reading the electorate correctly.

Naturally, because George W. Bush, at least in principle, still supports vouchers, I hope he's not going to be our next president. If he does have a Republican majority in both houses, I'd worry very much about whether we would see vouchers resurrected on a national level. I was asked by Ralph Nader, a man I admire very much, to be a surrogate speaker for him. In any other year, I would have been honored. But the voucher issues made it an easy decision for me: I supported Vice President Al Gore as strongly as I could. I don't want to see our public education system dismantled.

Even if George W. Bush is the next president, I think he will be forced to accept this change in the national will. He's sort of a baffling person for me to deal with. I've spent 30 years arguing that if people really spend a lot of money on their children's education, in public or private schools, you usually get what you pay for. And then I look at him. And I think, Good Lord, this man is ruining my entire argument. You know, Andover now costs at least $30,000 a year, which is three to five times what we spend on a child in an inner-city school. But it didn't seem to work in his case.

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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