Well-Intentioned Ohio School Finance Plan Must Be Revised to Eliminate Savage Inequalities

After a decade of tax cuts brought by Governor John Kasich and a supermajority Republican Ohio Legislature,  Ohio—still dominated in the House, Senate and Governor’s mansion by Republicans—is considering a new school funding formula intended to address what have been glaring problems for the state’s public schools. The new plan is bipartisan. We all owe enormous thanks to Representatives Robert Cupp and John Patterson for their leadership.

Currently, only 107 (18 percent) of the state’s 610 school districts are receiving their calculated formula level of school funding from the state—an amount that supposedly represents what the state should contribute based on each school district’s capacity to raise local revenue. All the rest—503 school districts—are operating on guaranteed or capped funding.  We have reached a point—years and years after the last funding formula adjustment, where nobody can really explain how the state is dividing up its contribution through the formula.

The proposed Fair School Funding Plan is designed to consider each school district’s capacity to raise local revenue—with factors reflecting the district’s property tax base and the aggregate income of the residents.  And, we’ve been told, the new formula will distribute school funding based on the cost of what it takes to educate children—what experts identify as the cost of teachers, support staff, school operations, and school administration.

It is not yet possible to see how all this has been figured out, because the calculations and the numbers that were plugged into the calculations haven’t yet been released.  The new funding plan does get more school districts back inside a formula designed to address the number of children who live in the district, however, and supposedly to address the needs of those children. Of the state’s 610 school districts, only 100 will remain on a guarantee; 510 school districts will be back on the formula.

Conceptually all this seems positive. Except that when the computer runs of the funding for all of the state’s 610 school districts were released, something outrageous showed up.  Among those 100 Guarantee districts, which will receive the same state funding as they are receiving this year, are the state’s very poorest urban school districts, including Youngstown, Lorain, East Cleveland (said to be the nation’s fourth-poorest community), Dayton, Toledo, Lima, and Cleveland.

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel highlights the evidence that Ohio’s proposed plan fails to address a key element in any state state school funding formula—equity: “The 52 districts with student poverty rates of at least 60% would get an average funding increase of $280 per pupil over two years…. Meanwhile, the 61 districts with poverty rates of less than 15 percent would get an average $392 per pupil… (T)he formula sends 15% of new funding to the wealthiest suburban districts, compared to 5% to major urban districts and 9% to the poorest rural districts.”

In a follow-up report, Siegel describes Jennifer Hogue of the Ohio School Boards Association explaining the new plan’s implications for the schools in Ohio’s racially segregated communities: “Hogue noted that of the 71 districts getting no new money next year, 19 are among the poorest in the state, and nearly 70 percent of the students in these districts are minorities.” Hogue adds: “We have very real concerns about how this proposal will impact students in poverty particularly those attending urban districts across the state.”

Currently, Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland are identified by the state as in “Academic Distress,” a category that has put them under state takeover. Dayton is expected to join them next year. Cleveland is also under another form of state takeover based on its test scores.  At the same time as Ohio has been allowing its school funding formula to fade into dysfunction, the state has aggressively pursued punitive, high-stakes, test-based accountability.  Ohio grades its school districts (A–F) on a state report card and publishes the results. The branding has exacerbated suburban out-migration in the state’s metropolitan areas—encouraging more affluent families to choose A-rated exurbs and adding to economic segregation. Ohio awards EdChoice vouchers for private and religious school tuition to students in its F-rated schools, and it enables charter schools to open in those same school districts. And, finally, Ohio takes over the governance of the so-called “failing” school districts. In Youngstown and Lorain, both under state takeover for three years, the state appointed governance has not made a difference in test scores.

As one considers what the new formula’s numbers mean by visualizing what’s been happening in the state, one should consider that the state report cards and all the punishments have negatively branded urban districts and inner ring suburbs and encouraged families with means to move to growing exurbs around the state’s several big cities. The new formula awards funding based on a per-pupil count of students in any district, and it is the outer suburbs of Ohio’s cities which are growing.  The Dispatch‘s Siegel explains how all this is reflected in the proposed new school funding formula: “The top 10% of districts in enrollment growth over the past three years are getting about $300 more new money per pupil than the bottom 10%.”

The situation is very difficult in school districts like East Cleveland and Youngstown and sections of Cleveland and Dayton.  Here, parts of entire neighborhoods were devastated by the foreclosure crisis a decade ago. But the families who were forced to move out or double up did not methodically abandon entire sections of the city to make it easy for school districts to close schools and save costs. The children who remain in those neighborhoods have enormous needs, and these school districts must cope with the additional challenges of concentrated economic segregation and deepening poverty. The proposed school funding planners clearly have not grasped the economic devastation across Ohio’s cities.

The best description I can find of today’s challenge for Ohio is part of a book published in 2010 by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research: Organizing Schools for Improvement.  In this book Anthony Bryk, a sociologist, confirms what many people continue to deny: deep and concentrated neighborhood poverty makes it hard for children to thrive at school.  Bryk and his colleagues studied schools in the city of Chicago and identified a group of schools they identify as “truly disadvantaged”: “In Chicago, extreme poverty combines with racial isolation.”  In the 46 truly disadvantaged schools they identify: 100 percent of the students are African American; 96 percent of the children are low income; male unemployment is 64 percent, and median family income is $9,480.  “Specifically, one-fourth of children in foster care in Chicago were concentrated within 27 elementary schools, which represent only 5 percent of the system.” Bryk and his colleagues conclude: “At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best of educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused, and so on.  Classroom activity can understandably get diverted toward responding to these manifest personal needs.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 164-173)

While no school funding plan is perfect and while the success of any plan depends on the continued commitment of a legislature to fund it adequately over time, one strategy that has been successful has been targeting of funding to the school districts with the most overwhelming needs.  In New Jersey, for example, the remedy in the school funding case of Abbott v. Burke targeted additional funding to thirty-one of the state’s poorest school districts.  These “Abbott” districts received extra funding, guaranteed pre-Kindergarten for all students, and social services.

In Ohio, on the other hand, politics seems to dictate that any added services be spread—at least to some degree—to all school districts.  For example, a month ago—wanting to support schools with what research shows are needed services by many families, Ohio’s new Governor Mike DeWine proposed a biennial budget that—on top of the new, proposed school funding formula—includes money to help schools provide wraparound social and medical services.  In his personal blog, former legislator Steve Dyer, explains:  “(I)n the 2019-2020 school year, DeWine provides $250 million more for poverty based aid in the form of wraparound services.  Then in the 2020-2021 budget, he adds another $50 million.  So at the end of the day, districts will have an additional $300 million two years from now to spend n these wraparound services.”

In Ohio, however, unlike New Jersey, politics ensures that everybody gets a little of the funding pie, even if that makes the pieces smaller for the school districts that more desperately need the funding.  As as Rich Exner explains for the Plain Dealer, Governor DeWine’s proposed program for wraparound social and medical services would include some funding for all 610 school districts: “(E)ach Ohio school district would receive a minimum of $25,000 the first year and $30,000 in year two… (M)oney would be distributed on a sliding scale, based on the percentage of children in poverty in each district.”  One wonders whether wealthy outer suburbs like Dublin, Hudson, and Solon really need to have dentists and physicians visit their schools regularly to provide services for the children.

It is difficult to know what will happen politically to Ohio’s recently proposed Cupp-Patterson school funding formula. The biggest problem, as the Dispatch‘s Siegel points out, may be the overall price tag: “Lawmakers would need an extra $1.1 billion over two years to fund the plan, which would be phased in over four years.”

Another challenge will be political biases that blame the state’s poorest Black and Brown communities for the economic problems which have derived from the collapse of manufacturing and the foreclosure crisis among other serious structural problems that have afflicted the state. In the Dispatch, Siegel quotes Jim Betts commenting on the fact that the new funding proposal awards nothing to the state’s school districts that have been taken over by the state for their so-called “academic distress.”  Betts, who led Ohio’s rich districts’ school funding advocacy coalition, the Alliance for Adequate School Funding, during the period of the DeRolph litigation, falls back on the old argument from Hoover Institution economist Eric Hanushek: that money really doesn’t matter in school funding.  Betts’ comment also reflects a racist bias that is widespread across Ohio and across the nation: “Just because a district is poor does not necessarily mean that it needs more money, because that (raises) the question: How much is enough? Is another $2,000 (per pupil) going to help East Cleveland? Probably not.”

In a 2013 blog post, Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker confronted Betts’ idea that money doesn’t matter: “I too often hear pundits spew the vacuous mantra – it doesn’t matter how much money  you have – it matters more how you spend it. But if you don’t have it, you can’t spend it. And, if everyone around you has far more than you, their spending behavior may just price you out of the market for the goods and services you need to provide (quality teachers being critically important, and locally competitive wages being necessary to recruit and retain quality teachers). How much money you have matters. How much money you have relative to others matters in the fluid, dynamic and very much relative world of school finance (and economics more broadly). Equitable and adequate funding matters.”

It has been a long time since I heard someone consider school funding from the point of view of Jonathan Kozol, whose words—in Trump’s America—seem even farther from our political realities today than they did in 1991 when, as he stared at the Ohio River in Cincinnati, Kozol wrote the concluding words in Savage Inequalities: “Standing here by the Ohio River, watching it drift west into the edge of the horizon, picturing it as it flows onward to the place three hundred miles from here where it will pour into the Mississippi, one is struck by the sheer beauty of this country, of its goodness and unrealized goodness, of the limitless potential that it holds to render life rewarding and the spirit clean.  Surely there is enough for everyone within this country.  It is a tragedy that these good things are not more widely shared. All our children ought to be allowed a stake in the enormous richness of America.  Whether they were born to poor white Appalachians or to wealthy Texans, to poor black people in the Bronx or to rich people in Manhasset or Winnetka, they are all quite wonderful and innocent when they are small. We soil them needlessly. (Savage Inequalities, p. 233)

Meryl Johnson, who represents District 11 on the Ohio State Board of Education, will interview Diane Ravitch on Johnson’s weekly radio show, It’s About Justice (WRUW 91.1 FM) next Saturday, April 13, 2019 at from 1:00 PM until 2:00 PM.  The program will be live-streamed at  https://wruw.org/.

Congress Ought to Do Something Radical, Take ESEA Back to Its Original Purpose: Equity

In a news blast last week, the Education Law Center challenged Congress to “compel states to fund schools fairly” in any legislation it might pass to reauthorize the federal education law that we currently call No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Supposedly aides in the relevant House and Senate committees are working on a compromise between very different House and Senate versions passed earlier this year of a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  Whether any kind of compromise can be moved forward in the current Congress remains a question.

In pushing Congress to address equity in the reauthorization, the Education Law Center proposes that Congress add an element to the compromise that neither Senate nor House included in the very different bills passed by the two chambers—an element so unthinkable these days that it hasn’t even been part of the conversation.  This is, of course, ironic, as the 1965, Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)  (of which NCLB is merely the latest reauthorization) was originally designed as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  The purpose of its largest program, Title I, was to infuse federal funds into schools that serve either a large number or a high percentage of students living in poverty.

Writing of this year’s ESEA reauthorization debate, the Education Law Center points out: “Conspicuously absent from the debate is the critical need for federal policy to motivate the States to fairly fund their public schools. Federal funding accounts for only about 10% of preK-12 funding.  The states, through their finance systems, determine the lion’s share of school funding, how it’s distributed, and the mix of state and local revenue.  Only a handful of states provide sufficient levels of funding and distribute that funding fairly to address student need as documented in Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card.  Many states have been unable or unwilling to make their funding systems more equitable and adequate.  It is crucial that federal education policies pressure states to improve funding fairness.”

The Education Law Center references the report of the Equity and Excellence Commission chartered by Congress itself in 2013, a document that charges: “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American Schooling today.  Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

The version of the ESEA reauthorization that the House passed earlier this year contains a dangerous provision, Title I portability—a public school Title I voucher a poor child could carry to any public school to which she or he might move. Title I portability would actually increase school funding inequity by rendering Title I less effective to address what is a rapidly growing trend in many cities—the concentration of very poor children in particular neighborhoods and schools. Title I was designed to drive additional federal funds to schools where poverty is concentrated.  If Congress were to enact Title I portability, a poor student whose family moved to a wealthier school would instead carry the funding away from the school in the poorer neighborhood where many poor children remain concentrated. Many also worry that a public Title I portability voucher program could easily be the  top of a slippery slope toward Title I private school vouchers that would further drain funding from poor urban school districts.

The Education Law Center adds that while neither House nor Senate version of the ESEA reauthorization increases overall funding for Title I, both propose damaging changes in the distribution of an already far too small pot of money: “This year, the Senate passed a version of the ESEA that would allocate more Title I funds to southern and western states at the expense of northern and eastern states. The House passed a version that would allocate Title I funds away from large cities in favor of smaller school districts… The ESEA reauthorization bill recently passed by the Senate changes Title I by taking away a built-in reward to states that exhibit high “effort” in school funding. “Effort” measures state spending on education relative to state fiscal capacity. If this change to Title I is accepted by the conference committee, states would lose an important incentive to adequately fund their schools.”

The Education Law Center’s news blast concludes: “Under Title I, about $14.5 billion is provided annually to school districts, an amount that has remained flat for several years… What’s needed is a commitment from the President and leaders in Congress to take up the deep and longstanding inequities that inhibit educational progress in most states.”

In recent speeches Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, is also advocating for equity, though NEA’s request is even more humble: get funding fairness at least into the conversation.  Eskelsen Garcia and the NEA are asking Congress to include more reporting on disparities in the opportunity to learn by mandating a national “opportunity dashboard” that would expose inequity.  Patrick O’Donnell interviewed Eskelsen Garcia for the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “She said the worst failure of No Child Left Behind is that it expected all students to meet test score targets, without paying any attention to how poverty affects how much kids learn.  Expecting scores to rise without solving underlying socioeconomic issues was never realistic, she said. Garcia wants the federal government to report things like student access to Advanced Placement classes, kindergarten, nurses and arts or foreign language classes, along with test results.  The dashboard would also list attendance and graduation rates, data on teacher qualifications, class sizes and the availability of libraries and technology. ‘What we are asking for is a very powerful advocacy tool that will give us data. We will be able to use that information to call out what needs to be called out.'”

Congress certainly needs to increase the Title I allocation, keep the formula fair, and report data on access to opportunity as well as data on test scores. But during the Obama administration the U.S. Department of Education has also demonstrated that the federal government has an additional tool.  Arne Duncan has created huge grant competitions that have conditioned application for federal funds on states’ incorporating federal priorities into their own laws and rules.  As conditions for Race to the Top money, states were required to remove caps on the number of new charter schools that could be opened.  To get a waiver from the most onerous penalties of NCLB, states accepted a federal requirement that they tie teachers’ evaluations to their students’ test scores.  States have been receiving federal money on the condition that they agree to close or charterize so-called “failing” schools.  As part of the ESEA reauthorization, Congress could just as easily create incentives for states to close opportunity gaps by equalizing their state school funding formulas.

In her 2010 book, The Flat World and Education, Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond describes the kind of school funding reform Congress ought to be considering as its members reauthorize the federal education law: “It is exhausting even to recount the struggles for equitable funding in American schools, much less to be engaged in the struggles, year after year, or—more debilitating—to be a parent or student who is subject day-by-day, week-by-week to the aggressive neglect often fostered in dysfunctional, under-resourced schools.  One wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity….” (p.164)

Or go back to Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 classic, Savage Inequalities, as timely today as when it was published a quarter century ago: “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’  Americans, he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’  It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.” (p. 83)

Reading, Pennsylvania: A Microcosm of Today’s Savage Inequalities

NEA Today has just published a short, eloquent, and very profound article on an old, old subject.  In 1991, Jonathan Kozol called this problem “savage inequalities.”

The subject of Amanda Litvinof’s piece in NEA Today is Reading, Pennsylvania, once an industrial community an hour and a half west of Philadelphia:  “Reading is one of the nation’s poorest cities. It’s also one of the most poorly funded school districts in America.  Like students in disadvantaged communities across the nation—who are disproportionately students of color—kids in Reading suffer from a school finance policy that does not come close to providing them with education resources on par with those of their wealthier peers.  Tour Reading’s 19 schools and you’ll see mostly aging buildings with broken floor tiles, leaky ceilings, sprouting patches of mold, students crammed into too-small classrooms and feral cats squatting under classroom trailers.  One high school has a room full of broken microscopes, and no money to repair them.  One large-group instruction room is completely off limits after a broken pipe left it spattered with sewage.  The drama teacher now conducts class in the hallway.  But even more detrimental is what you don’t see.  Reading School District lost 200 educators, including 120 education support professionals in 2011-2012 when statewide education funding plummeted by $1.1 billion under then-Gov. Tom Corbett.  Incredibly, the cuts were four times greater in Pennsylvania’s 50 poorest districts ($532 per student) than in the state’s wealthiest districts ($113 per student).  In practical terms, those cuts left Riverside Elementary’s Ms. Sherman with a class of more than 30 kindergartners and no aid.”

Litvinof interviews Sherman: “One of my close friends went to a wealthier district after working in Reading for 10 years.  At the same step on the pay scale she was earning $16,000 more per year and had a kindergarten class of 18 with an aide, while I had a class of 30 kindergartners all on my own.  It’s a big difference.”  Litvinof takes the trouble to be sure there are no misconceptions here about leveling down: “Let’s be clear: The kids in Wyomissing should have smaller class sizes, challenging academics, and extra curriculars like sports, band and orchestra.  They should have access to a nurse and a counselor and all the academic supports they need.  But students in Reading should have those things, too.”

Describing an interview with Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University and manager of the blog School Finance 101, Litvinof writes: “We know the strategies that help close achievement gaps: Lower class sizes. A broad curriculum. Attraction and retention of highly qualified teachers. But these strategies are unobtainable without stable, adequate, and equitable funding.”  According to Baker, “Reading is a classic case of savage inequality.  It’s a school district that is incredibly poor in terms of its own tax base, it has high-needs students, and it exists in a state that appears not to give a [expletive].” “The data show that we’ve never provided sustained, adequate, and equitable funding in any of our disadvantaged communities.”

There is really no disagreement among experts on the subject of the need for adequate and equitably distributed state funding of public schools.  A long shelf of books documents the problem.  What follow are just a handful of examples:

From Jonathan Kozol in Savage Inequalities (1991): “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor.  It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’  ‘Americans,’ he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’ It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.  Denial of ‘the means of competition’ is perhaps the single most consistent outcome of the education offered to poor children in the schools of our large cities….” (p 83)

From the National Research Council in Making Money Matter, edited by Helen Ladd (1999): “That middle-and upper-income households can move out of high-taxation areas makes it possible for them to avoid sharing the burden of financing the local share of education for those left behind.  In particular, as households and firms have moved out of central cities in search of lower land prices in the suburbs or more favorable business conditions in other states or countries, they have often left behind them smaller tax bases and concentrations of economically disadvantaged and difficult-to-educate students.  The result is widening disparities among the capacities of school districts to generate local funds to meet the educational needs of their students…. While assistance from the federal and state governments helps to offset these disparities, large differences remain, both within and across states.” (p 20)

From Peter Schrag in Final Test: The Battle for Adequacy in America’s Schools (2003): Schrag quotes Alondra Jones, a student from San Francisco’s Balboa High School in her deposition filed in California’s Williams case: “It makes you feel less about yourself, you know, like you sitting here in a class where you have to stand up because there’s not enough chairs, and you see rats in the buildings, the bathrooms is nasty…. Like I said, I visited Marin Academy, and these students, if they want to sit on the floor that’s because they choose to.  And that just makes me feel less about myself because it’s like the state don’t care about public schools…. It really makes me feel bad about myself.” (p 21)

From James E. Ryan in Five Miles Away, A World Apart (2010): “(I)t is worth noticing that those who embrace adequacy as a goal have essentially abandoned any attempt to link the financial fates of poor and rich districts.  Adequacy presupposes that some districts will be able to provide an education that is more than adequate.  Thus, instead of seeking to ensure that all districts have access to the same pool of resources, which was the goal of fiscal neutrality, those in favor of adequacy accept the inevitable inequalities that will follow.  Indeed, some seek to make a virtue of necessity by arguing that adequacy is superior to equity precisely because it is less threatening to property-rich districts.  In the words of one commentator, adequacy is less costly ‘for the elites who derive the greatest benefits from the existing inequalities, because adequacy does not threaten their ability to retain a superior position.'” (p. 176)

From Linda Darling-Hammond in The Flat World and Education (2010) : “The onus of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is on individual schools to raise test scores.  However, the law does not address the profound educational inequalities that plague our nation.  Despite a 3 to 1 ratio between high-and low-spending schools in most states, multiplied further by inequalities across states, neither NCLB nor other federal education policies require that states demonstrate progress toward adequate funding or equitable opportunities to learn… To survive and prosper, our society must finally renounce its obstinate commitment to educational inequality and embrace full and ambitious opportunities to learn for all of our children.” (p. 309)

Earlier this summer, as the Education Law Center released its fourth annual report on the challenges to school funding equity across the states, its press release declared: “The picture is bleak: the vast majority of states are not funding public schools adequately or equitably; the fiscal retrenching connected with the Great Recession has not been reversed; and at-risk students are not being provided with the resources they need to succeed.”

Amanda Litvinov succinctly summarizes our long, long problem in her piece on Reading, Pennsylvania: “Most lawmakers agree that low-income students, like all children, deserve a great public school—until its time to pay for it.”

We like to think of this as a thorny fiscal problem, but in reality it is a much deeper matter of public morality.  Here are the words—timely today but written over a quarter of a century ago—by the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the prophetic pastor of New York’s Riverside Church: “We comfort ourselves with the thought that because our intentions are good (nobody gets up in the morning and says, ‘Whom can I oppress today?’), we do not have to examine the consequences of our actions.  As a matter of fact, many of us are even eager to respond to injustice, as long as we can do so without having to confront the causes of it. And there’s the great pitfall of charity. Handouts to needy individuals are genuine, necessary responses to injustice, but they do not necessarily face the reason for the injustice.  And that is why President Reagan and so many business leaders today are promoting charity: it is desperately needed in an economy whose prosperity is based on growing inequality.” (Credo, p. 64)

Jonathan Kozol: A Prophet Calling Us All to Account

It was fitting that a huge crowd packed into the pews of Herrick Chapel at Grinnell College last Friday night to hear Jonathan Kozol, for while the 78-year-old Kozol is a quiet prophet with a Boston accent and a sense of humor, his life work has been to name the deepest sins of our society and call us to do something about them.  He writes and speaks about public policy—especially as it shapes education and the other institutions that embody the way we value or devalue our children, but he isn’t really a policy wonk.

Kozol does not arrive with a list of the perfect policy solutions.  Rather he writes from a location of privilege to challenge the blindness of privilege.  His purpose is to make us all see and feel responsible for how our society’s injustices are experienced by real people who share the same values and needs and humanity as those who have been positioned to shape public policy for their own benefit.  That Kozol is a prophet and not a policy wonk is why his 50-year-old Death at an Early Age is still read and his 25-year-old  Savage Inequalities remains timely despite the passage of a quarter century, despite that No Child Left Behind created another set of under-funded programs, and despite state-by-state policy changes that have rearranged the inequality.  Underneath the savage inequality in school finance is a moral failure: our society’s willingness to tolerate alarming inequality as long as those of us who have the power to move to farther suburbs can be sure our own children are protected and as long as we can allow ourselves not to see the children who have been left behind.  All this blindness, Kozol shows us, is possible because we are increasingly a society segregated and disconnected by race and class—even more so than when Kozol published Savage Inequalities in 1991.

For me Kozol’s most memorable words were part of a keynote at a Providence, Rhode Island church convention in 1999.  Kozol’s topic was welfare reform. Although Kozol is Jewish, he went to the New Testament for words that would touch an audience of mainline Protestants.  Here is what he said:  “When Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘If you love me, feed my sheep,’ he didn’t say, ‘only the sheep who dwell in the green pastures.’  He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep whose mothers please us by acceptable behavior.’ He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep whose fathers have good jobs and mothers come to PTA.’  He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep whose parents make smart choices.’ He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep that have two parents in the pen.’  He just said, ‘If you love me, feed my sheep.'”  Kozol is calling to account a society that would blame and punish individuals unable to pull themselves up even as we citizens have blinded ourselves to the role of the structural factors that are deepening poverty and intensifying inequality in America.  We are even willing to punish children for the perceived sins and failures of their parents.

So… what did Kozol tell us on Friday night?

Segregation continues to dehumanize us.  “Black and Hispanic children are more isolated intellectually and segregated geographically than at any time since the Civil Rights Movement.”  “Dr. King did not say, ‘I have a dream that we’ll have more efficient, test-driven, anxiety-ridden schools.'”  On top of the segregation and inequality, “The pestilence of standardized testing is sucking the beauty and spontaneity out of the lives of children.”

As we permit ourselves to dehumanize education—focus on standards and rubrics, ratings and test scores; manipulate data to shape technocratic policy; value competition and efficiency and forget that it is all about shaping children—we lose sight  of our human connectedness and our mutual responsibility for our children.  “The education reform business is a business now,” with all the cold language of competition and accountability.  Teachers “deliver” the lessons at prescribed times of the day to achieve “the outcome mandated for that moment of the morning.”  In the 2005 book, The Shame of the Nation, Kozol explains the danger of language that transforms the experiences of children and their teachers into abstractions: “By giving every particle of learning an official name, we strip it of uniqueness.  By forcing it to fit into the right compartment of significance or meaning, we control its power to establish its own meanings or to stir the children to pursue a small exhilaration in directions that may lead them to a place that experts haven’t yet had time to name.  Fascination and delight, no matter what lip-service we may pay to them, become irrelevant distractions.  Finding ‘where it goes’ and what it ‘demonstrates’ and how it can be ‘utilized’ become the teachers’ desolate obsessions.” (p. 77)

We have limited our dreams to the relatively tiny group of children we can save through a particular program, or one charter school, or even our favorite brand of charter management organization, but by definition justice must be systemic. Our education system cannot be reformed for a few exceptional children who earn a spot at a selective school or those whose parents are sophisticated enough to secure a place in a school choice lottery.  Kozol elaborates in the 2007 Letters to a Young Teacher, “The Hebrew prophets and the followers of Jesus did not make a false god out of elbow-pushing skills and hard-nosed competition.  ‘Savviness’ was not their ministry.  We ought to remind Americans of that.” (p. 148)

Public morality must be about shaping the institutions of our society to provide access for all.  Here is how Kozol explained it last Friday evening:

Competitive programs, whether in private schools or charter or voucher schools or public magnet programs, reward individuals with exceptional prowess or luck, but, “Charity has never been a substitute for systematic justice and systematic equity in public education.  Public schools themselves in neighborhoods of widespread destitution ought to have the rich resources, small classes, and well-prepared and well-rewarded teachers that would enable us to give to every child the feast of learning that is now available to children of the poor only on the basis of a careful selectivity or by catching the attention of empathetic people like the pastor of a church or another grown-up whom they meet by chance.  Charity and chance and narrow selectivity are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.”