Why are we punishing America’s schoolchildren and their teachers?

Jonathan Kozol in action

Every stakeholder in the current Chicago teachers’ strike who has not visited an inner city Chicago public school should take the time to read Jonathan Kozol’s powerful book Savage Inequalities, which chronicles the author’s explorations of conditions in schools in poor and rich neighborhoods in a series of American cities.

“One would not have thought that children in America would ever have to choose between a teacher or a playground or sufficient toilet paper,” wrote Kozol back in 1991.  “Like grain in a time of famine, the immense resources which the nation does in fact possess go not to the child in the greatest need but to the child of the highest bidder—the child of parents who, more frequently than not, have also enjoyed the same abundance when they were schoolchildren.

“’A caste society,’ wrote U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel 25 years ago, ‘violates the style of American democracy….The nation in effect does not have a truly public school system in a large part of its communities; it has permitted what is in effect a private school system to develop under public auspices….Equality of educational opportunity throughout the nation continues today for many to be more a myth than a reality.’  This statement is as true today as it was at the time when it was written.”

And it remains true twenty years later.

The bedrock issue here is one of inequality, which is measured along multigenerational racial and class lines.  As long as we continue to link public school funding to local property taxes we are going to be perpetuating an entrenched system of race and class segregation, from which there is little chance for escape.

Kozol observed that kids in suburban schools, no matter what state, already have what the CPS teachers are begging for in the urban schools, and then some.

Is it right that kids from wealthy neighborhoods go to college while kids from poor neighborhoods go to jail?

Kids in poor districts need more help from the state, not less, than kids in wealthy districts.

Chicago is not the only place in America where our schools are failing our neediest children, it is just the only place in America right now where the teachers have been pushed so far that they are taking to the streets in protest.

The Chicago teachers’ strike is being presented in the media as a case of selfish, whining teachers walking out on their students because they are greedy for more money, or afraid of being held to high standards.

But when you listen to the teachers, parents and students who have managed to penetrate the media gatekeepers and make their voices heard, what you hear is not greed or shortsightedness, but deep concern for the health of the school system and the welfare of the children.

The teachers are asking for smaller class sizes (would you want your child in a kindergarten class of 45?); improvements in the crumbling physical plants of their schools, including libraries and playgrounds; and support staff for troubled students, including nurses and social workers.  They don’t want their evaluations tied so tightly to how their students perform on standardized tests, and they want to be given seniority preference if they are laid off because of a school closing.

I don’t hear anything unreasonable in these demands.

Has anyone on the editorial boards of the newspapers who have condemned the Chicago teachers’ strike, which include the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times and the Washington Post, ever set foot in a Chicago public school?

I know for a fact that Mayor Emmanuel’s children attend private school, as did the Obama girls when they lived in Chicago.

President Obama and business leaders like to exhort American children to study hard and close the achievement gap between our country and others like China and India.

They need to put their money where their mouth is, and give our dedicated teachers the support they need to do the job right.

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1 Comment

  1. So many things have bothered me about school reform since No Child Left Behind. Honestly, I feel Race to the Top is just more of the same. The only folks who will gain from these myopic policies are test-making businesses and management companies who offer entirely unproven products. What is it that PT Barnum said? A sucker born every minute?

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