Savage Inequalities: Building Injustice From the Classroom Out

There are a handful of books I’ve read in my life that have had a profound impact on me. One of them was Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, a book on the education system in the United States. If you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend that you do so, because it contains some rather enlightening information about how inequality is structured right into the way we educate people in this country. It may also contain information that shocks and disturbs you.

Compulsory education, like that offered here in the United States, seems like the sort of thing that should come with a level playing field. As a society, we ought to be able to identify a baseline and ensure that amount gets spent on every child. That no matter where a child goes to school, ou has equal access and equal opportunities. That, in other words, education is open to all, at all levels.

This is not the case. School funding is heavily based on property taxes and that means areas with high property values have nice schools, and areas with low property values have not-nice schools. Schools where there are no toilets, or where the toilets overflow into the halls on a regular basis, forcing students to wade through sewage. Schools where there are no textbooks. Schools where there are not enough teachers. Schools where students go through lockdowns on a weekly basis. Schools with dilapidated and unsafe classrooms. Schools with asbestos and lead paint. Schools so bleak, you can’t even imagine.

Conditions in schools mirror the opportunities students have in their communities. Wealthy students going to wealthy public schools already have a wealth of opportunity ahead of them. They have privilege coming out their ears. Poor students attending impoverished schools have few opportunities at home. School could be a way out of a very broken system, except that it’s not, because the school is part of the system, and here in the system there are no opportunities for advancement.

The system in this country is one designed to perpetuate inequality while maintaining a healthy veneer of American dream. Everyone gets to go to school! So it’s their own fault if they don’t succeed. Everyone gets to vote! So it’s their fault if the government oppresses them. This, of course, neatly ignores that both of these statements actually aren’t true; some children with disabilities, for example, are kept out of school because there are no places for them, and there are numerous disenfranchised groups in this country, including felons and immigrants (documented and otherwise, you must be a full citizen to vote).

We are creating a perpetual lower class while patting ourselves on the back about all the opportunities we provide. It’s a pretty great way to avoid responsibility and culpability, to neatly dodge the system and our own role in it.

What Kozol demonstrated in Savage Inequalities is that when offered a chance to even out education funding, people will resist, even if it doesn’t involve taking funding from their children, and doesn’t require raising taxes. As it turns out, people will actively work to enforce inequality as well as passively letting it happen.

We wonder why the lower classes are angry. We wonder why people living in poverty feel disconnected from the rest of the country. It can’t possibly be because we made them that way, of course. It can’t possibly be that our failure to identify education funding as a priority contributed to the creation of a permanent lower class.

Here in California, education funding is in dire straits. I see schools getting their budgets cut left and right. And which schools always hurt the most? The ones in poor districts. In wealthy districts, parents take up the slack. They raise funds. They get grants. They attempt to ensure that a high quality education will be delivered to their children, no matter what. In poor districts, parents can’t afford to do that. They don’t have the time to do that. They are well aware that their children are being denied opportunities, but there’s no action they can take, because they’re trapped.

We seriously wonder why inequality persists in this country? Our very policy ensures that the next generation will be unequal, and that the inquality will essentially be inherited. Your opportunities in this country are largely dependent on what you are born into, and while people hate it when this is openly stated, it’s the truth. The sooner we start accepting that, the sooner we can change it. The longer we maintain the myth that people can get anything if they just try hard enough, the worse off we will be, collectively.

People want to fix inequality in this country? There are a lot of places to start, but one of the places I would like to start is in our schools. I want to see education funding increased and equalized. I want to see all children going to school in this country with access to the same educational opportunities. With access to art, and music. Literature. Advanced sciences. Technical training. Great history teaching. I want children to be provided with the tools to shape their own destinies.

Not as a special program. Not as something offered reluctantly. Not as something only available in some districts. As something freely available to all. Not as an afterschool program, something that can only be attended by students who don’t need to work, or participate in childcare, or do other tasks at home. Not as a before school program, only available to people who can afford to drive their cars or be driven to school early. As part of the regular curriculum. I want school curricula to be structured around the radical idea that all children have promise, potential, the possibility to be something great, and it’s our job collectively, as a society, to provide children with the opportunity to get there.