In a time of increasingly greater racial segregation in urban public schools, “white politicians preach on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, ‘I too have a dream.’ But they never say what the dream is,” said Jonathan Kozol to a packed Kennedy Auditorium yesterday.
Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” but that almost never happens these days, according to Kozol. Nobody wants to talk about it, and a “deadly silence” hangs in the air.
According to Kozol, America is at a perilous and reactionary moment in history in which segregation and isolation of black and Latino children has returned with a vengeance.
“The proportion of black kids who go to segregated public high schools has swung back to the highest level since 1968,” Kozol said.
As many as seven in ten black children in New York City attend segregated schools. New York is the epicenter of the segregation, followed by Michigan, Illinois and California.
And, to Kozol, what is cruelly ironic is that almost all of the miserable and segregated schools are named after Dr. King, Rosa Parks and other black civil rights leaders.
“I have to ask myself, is this post-modern apartheid what Dr. King and Rosa Parks died for?” Kozol said.
New York City spends $11,000 for each child’s education, according to Kozol; in a nearby suburb, the number rises to $19,000. In Manhasset, a town on Long Island, $22,000 is spent per child. He said that this inequality in educational funding is unjust, undemocratic and archaic.
“They’re America’s cheap children. They’re the K-Mart babies,” he said.
Money is one issue, but another is awareness.
“I don’t know what planet Mr. Bush lives on — Pluto maybe — but if he knew anything about public schools, he would know that these high stakes tests benefit nobody,” Kozol said, referring to the No Child Left Behind policy of the Bush administration.
Under this policy, children from third to eighth grade are repetitively tested. Schools are pressured to improve standardized test scores or face reduced funding, which exacerbates the problem to the point where some schools are even hiring private test preparation companies such as The Princeton Review to prepare students, according to Kozol.
The effects of the No Child Left Behind policy have reached far, wide and into unexpected areas. In some schools, outdoor recess has been substituted with more educational activities and even kindergarten students have felt the repercussions, having had their daily naps replaced with test-taking strategies.
“Grandiose politicians who speak condescendingly about this should be obliged to come to a classroom and teach a class for a day,” exclaimed Kozol.
In order to find out what’s going on, it is insufficient to simply read journals or articles in the New York Times, where’s there no flesh and blood, according to Kozol. One should visit an under-funded, miserable and segregated school, see what the children see and smell what they smell.
As for what differences college students can make, Kozol recommended signing up for service programs that put volunteers in poor public schools. But he warns that charity is no substitute for justice. Feel-good projects help, but committed advocacy is necessary in order to transform the status quo.
“All our children are equal in the eyes of God but not in the eyes of America,” he said.