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Education Advocate Warns of
Dangers to Public Schooling
October 4, 1999

America's education system is not worthy of the country's democracy, said Jonathan Kozol, award-winning author and advocate, in an impassioned plea for public education and dedicated teachers during the naming ceremony for the Neag School of Education September 24.

"The old and honored dream of public education as the common ground of an informed democracy ... is a good dream," he said, criticizing voucher schools and charter schools - "boutique schools" - as "a dagger in the heart of our American ideal of democratic education."

Kozol, a graduate of Harvard University and a Rhodes Scholar, turned to education during the civil rights movement, becoming a substitute teacher in Roxbury, a poor neighborhood in Boston, in 1964. He described his first year of teaching as "the hardest thing I ever did in my life."

More recently, Kozol - author of 10 books including Death At An Early Age, Savage Inequalities, and Amazing Grace - has worked with children in South Bronx, one of the poorest neighborhoods in America.

He said children there are afflicted with many ailments, including AIDS, chronic depression, hyperactivity and asthma. Many of the children have never seen their fathers or have seen them only in prison. And the South Bronx is so racially segregated that in a school of 800, a teacher who has been there for 18 years has taught only one white child.

He said education finance further tips the scales against the children of the South Bronx. Whereas New York City spends $6,000 a year on a child in a mainstream classroom in the Bronx, in the richest suburb of Long Island spending per child per year in a public school is at $18,000. But if a child from the poorer neighborhood grows up to commit a crime, it will cost $64,000 a year to keep him in prison.

Yet, said Kozol, these children have much to give. "There are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of poor white, black, Latino children all over our nation who are not just cheated of so many things that a rich democracy could give to all its children, but our society itself is cheated of the gifts these kids could give us."

Kozol criticized current educational ideology as inadequate to address the needs of children in poor neighborhoods. At education conferences, "statisticians sit there and they talk of abstract entities like cohort groups," he said. "If a bunch of real live children in blue trousers and red jerseys ever came into that room and sat down at that table, it would seem a comic anomaly."

He said words such as "joy" and "happiness" are missing from the picture. "Children do need basic skills," he said, "and they need to be prepared for economic competition too, but there is more to life and ought to be much more to childhood than readiness for economic function."

He said dedicated teachers are essential if schools are to improve. "Schools can survive without elaborate software if they have to, they can survive without a swimming pool or a gym. They can certainly survive without some of those lists of competencies," he said. "One thing schools cannot survive without are radiant and vital and well educated teachers. Nothing else in the budget of an education system counts one-tenth as much, yet teaching has for years been treated as a lowly, unloved and poorly paid profession."

Kozol said UConn has taken major steps to prepare students to teach in the public schools, and he praised Ray Neag's gift to the School of Education. "Schools of education at most universities are treated like stepchildren. They don't receive the legacies that go to schools of medicine, schools of engineering, schools of law," he said. "Placing a school of education on a pedestal is quite unusual. It places teachers on a pedestal as well, and that is where good teachers do belong."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu