Jonathan Kozol Fought School Inequality for Decades. Here’s One Final Plea.

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There are certain motifs in Jonathan Kozol’s half-century of writing about America’s failure to adequately educate poor Black and Hispanic children, which began with “Death at an Early Age,” a blistering account of his year teaching in the Boston Public Schools.

Decrepit school buildings with rancid bathrooms and leaking ceilings. Students stultified by scripted curriculums and endless test prep. Bleak urban neighborhoods with neglected parks, crumbling apartments and harried, underpaid teachers. The despair is punctuated by bright and vivacious children, who bluntly note the obvious unfairness that adults have trained themselves to overlook.

“Death at an Early Age,” published in 1967, turned him into the sort of widely read public intellectual hardly present anymore.

Now, at 87, he has published “An End to Inequality,” his 15th book — and his last, he says. It is an unapologetic cri de coeur about the shortcomings of the schools that serve poor Black and Hispanic children, and thus, the moral failure of the nation to end the inequality he has documented for decades.

Critics have long said that Mr. Kozol has focused too much on all that is wrong in American public schooling, and not enough on models for success. They point to the charter schools, charismatic principals and early-reading programs driving change, even in some deeply segregated neighborhoods.

But Mr. Kozol characterizes those as marginal reforms meant to plug into a system that is unequal by design. And in his long career, he has seen decades of national reform efforts — “A Nation at Risk,” No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Every Student Succeeds — come and go, while some problems remain much the same.

Educational opportunity is still apportioned mostly by parents’ ability to pay for housing in desirable ZIP codes. Some aging school buildings are still laced with lead. Black and Latino students are still disproportionately subjected to harsh forms of discipline: silent hallways, isolation closets, even physical restraint.

“I don’t brook with forced optimism right now,” Mr. Kozol said in an interview. “If we’re talking about Black and Latino children in our public schools, I think it’s unrealistic to be optimistic.”

He spoke from an armchair in the living room of his canary yellow, colonial home in Cambridge, Mass., where he lives alone, aided by several young assistants. He was briefly married and divorced in the 1970s and had no children, devoting years to immersive reporting. He spent his days inside schools and homeless shelters, and wrote by hand late into the evening — still his favorite time to work, he said, as he sipped an iced coffee at dusk.

The room was packed with teddy bears — he began collecting them when he became too infirm to care for dogs — and old issues of left-leaning magazines like The Nation and The Progressive. A nearby coffee table was stacked with keepsakes, arranged for a potential acquisition of Mr. Kozol’s papers by the New York Public Library.

They included a signed photograph of Langston Hughes, which the poet sent in 1965, after Mr. Kozol, then 28, was fired for teaching a class of mostly Black fourth-graders Mr. Hughes’s poem “Ballad of the Landlord” — then considered a subversive work by Boston administrators.

In “An End to Inequality,” Mr. Kozol uses bold language to make his case.

He rejects the idea, popular in some education circles, that to focus on the problems of racially segregated public schools is to encourage a sort of deficit mind-set, in which Black, Latino and Native American children are regarded more for what they lack than for what makes them resilient.

“It’s a delicate dilemma,” Mr. Kozol writes. “If we cannot speak of victims, if the word is in disfavor, what other language can be used to speak of children who are faced with cognitive suppression in almost every aspect of instruction?”

He continues, “Then, too, if there are no victims, then no crime has been committed. If no crime has been committed, there can be no reason for demanding redress for what these children undergo in their schools of sequestration. Avoiding a disfavored word cannot expunge reality.”

The solution, he argues, is still the yellow school bus, transporting poor children to opportunity in more affluent neighborhoods and towns, where they can learn alongside upper middle-class peers and enjoy some of the advantages their parents have secured for them: rich arts programs, foreign language classes, science labs, vibrant libraries.

The system we have instead is nothing short of “apartheid,” Mr. Kozol writes. The persistence of lead paint and pipes in poor children’s schools is “cerebral genocide,” he adds, and budget cuts are evidence of a “war on public schools.”

Mr. Kozol, who grew up as the son of a doctor and a social worker in the affluent Boston suburb of Newton, credits Archibald MacLeish, the modernist poet who taught him at Harvard, with helping him develop his writing style.

“He encouraged me to use strong words,” he recalled. “There is a tendency to assume that the extremes of expression are always wrong, and that the truth, by its own preference, likes to live in the middle. It doesn’t always live in the middle.”

After college and a stint as a failed novelist in Paris, Mr. Kozol had planned to earn a Ph.D. in literature.

His life changed in 1964, when the civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Mississippi.

“What am I doing here,” he recalled thinking, “hanging out in Cambridge, and talking about John Donne’s metaphysical poetry?”

Shortly thereafter, he was teaching in Roxbury, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Boston, and organizing alongside parents who wanted to enroll their children in higher-quality schools, first within Boston and eventually, in the suburbs.

Their activism helped establish a voluntary busing program called METCO, which still exists, transporting 3,000 students a year from Boston to suburban schools. Research shows that students accepted into the program earn higher test scores and have better college and career outcomes than students who apply to METCO but do not win a spot in the randomized lottery.

The big idea in Mr. Kozol’s new book is for a huge federal and state investment — “reparations” — to expand voluntary busing programs like METCO. Another model is voluntary two-way busing, which uses themed magnet schools to draw middle-class students to poorer neighborhoods, opening up seats in middle-class schools for low-income children.

While Mr. Kozol’s writing is anything but dry, his understanding of education research has always been careful and rigorous, said Gary Orfield, co-director of The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, an institute that provides data on the persistence of school segregation by race and class.

Dr. Orfield credited Mr. Kozol for not allowing himself to get distracted by the types of technocratic school reforms that politicians often prefer, like increasing high-stakes testing.

“He just is relentless,” Dr. Orfield said. “He is angry and offended by the reality he sees going on and on and on. And nobody cares.”

Mr. Kozol is far from a lone voice in asking the nation to refocus on school segregation and inequalities between rich and poor districts. Several new organizations in Washington are devoted to these issues, and have attracted influential supporters.

But Mr. Kozol is dismayed that mainstream Democrats rarely support big investments in school desegregation. And he said he is not interested in other forms of school choice, like charters or vouchers, that also help low-income students escape underperforming schools. Like many traditional liberals, he sees these options as financial leeches on the public school system, and is skeptical of their support from Republicans and conservatives.

He began writing “An End to Inequality” before the Covid-19 pandemic, and the book barely mentions how the crisis upended education politics, as schools in the country’s most liberal cities were shuttered the longest, with low-income students of color falling even further behind.

Nor does he address the fact that after the pandemic, parents — including some of those he cares most about — became more likely to support school choice.

This omission irks some education activists, even those who admire Mr. Kozol.

“You can’t give reparations to the system that harmed the people,” said Derrell Bradford, president of 50CAN, a group that supports the expansion of charter schools and vouchers. “You have to give it to the people the system harmed.”

But Mr. Kozol is sticking to the traditional notion of public education — one system for everybody. “A democratic nation needs to have a truly democratic, well-funded public school system,” he said.

On a table next to his armchair was a framed drawing, now faded, of a sun peeking out over the horizon. The artist, Pineapple, was a tenacious girl who appears in several of his books, chronicling the travails of growing up in the South Bronx in the wake of the crack and AIDS epidemics.

“I asked her, ‘Is the sun rising or setting?’’ Mr. Kozol remembered. “And she looked at me and she said, ‘You decide.’”

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