The Shame Of The Nation

By Jonathan Kozol (Crown Publishers, 404 pages, $25)

If the United States were to apply the constitutional principle of equal protection under the law to public education, it would ignite a social revolution as momentous and sweeping as the abolition of slavery.

In 1973, a predominantly Nixon-appointed Supreme Court put equality effectively out of reach when it ruled 5-4 that inequities in public-school funding do not violate the equal-protection clause and that education "is not among the rights afforded explicit protection under our federal Constitution." Since then, writes education critic Jonathan Kozol in The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, the funding gap between rich and poor school districts has not only widened; in some inner-city districts, it's returned to levels of racial segregation as bad as that predating the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.

Kozol documents how cities like New York, Chicago and Boston spend about twice as much per pupil in the richest, whitest districts as they do in the poorest ones, where all but a handful of students are black or Hispanic. Court-ordered desegregation plans across the country have stalled as school districts simply await the appointment of more conservative appeals judges to overturn them. What's worse, Kozol notes, these super-segregated schools often take the names of civil-rights pioneers like Thurgood Marshall (who argued the Brown case) and Rosa Parks, whose lives were a repudiation of the separatism such schools represent.

The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind policy promises "accountability" and "high expectations" for students and administrators in failing schools, but what this really means, Kozol writes, is more assessment testing without any regard for the disparities in funding and racial isolation that led to failure in the first place. Kozol's analysis is harrowing, but it's heartbreaking as well, because he lets children tell their own stories: "What's it like where you know, where the other people are?" asks a black South Bronx grade-schooler named Pineapple. The "other people" are white.

Kozol appears at First Baptist Church, 909 SW 11th Ave., 228-4651 (Powell's). 7:30 pm Friday, Sept. 30. Free.

Read a Q&A with Kozol on page 15.