The World According to Kozol

Take from the rich and give to the poor.

Robin Hood's credo has never been guiding force in American public policy, but Jonathan Kozol, a writer who might be called the Robin Hood of education, has used the concept in his bestselling book Savage Inequalities and an emerging voice in political debates over education.

When Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, in one of the New Hampshire Democratic presidential debates invoked the name of educator and writer Jonathan Kozol, Kozol was a little bit dumbfounded.

"Senator Kerrey showed a lot of courage," Kozol said in a recent interview. "If I were advising him, I wouldn't have told him to mention the book."

Jonathan Kozol is still trying to explain the success of his latest book. He didn't expect Savage Inequalities to become a bestseller. After all, it's a book about the vast differences between rich and poor schools and about how the country's system of school finance has created this gap.

It's no Love Story or even The Hunt For Red October. Rather it's an indictment of the nation's present educational system which benefits only the children of the upper-middle class and the wealthy.

Kozol calls his own ideas "radical." He wants to adjust school funding so that poor and lower middle-class children can get the same educational opportunities that wealthy kids enjoy.

"If indeed we are a just society, then we at least have to spend as much for poor children [as we do for wealthy children]," Kozol says.

Although critics argue that giving more money to schools won't help, Kozol believes that smaller class sizes and "AP" classes instead of "auto body and cosmetology" would mean better performances from poor children.

Kozol thinks that "the nation is ready to look into its conscience after a decade in which the governing dialogue featured slogans like "Go for it" and "You can have it all."

Politically, Kozol realizes the debate over school funding has, and will, divide Americans along class lines. Among the middle-class, for instance, he believes his arguments have strong political support.

"This is an issue that affect working-class white people," Kozol says.

But Kozol knows that his ideas are not political favorites among the upper middle-class and wealthy.

If poor kids were really given equal educational opportunities, says Kozol, "a lot of these kids would qualify to go to schools like Harvard."

"There would be more competition for people like us," Kozol explains.

Kozol believes that it is no accident that schools in poorer neighborhoods often do not receive equitable funding.

He calls this not a "conspiracy of intent," but a "conspiracy of effect."

Kozol is not concerned that his ideas are not likely to garner across-the-board political support anytime in the near future.

"I never set out to say: here's a pragmatic battle plan for the next four years," Kozol says. "I see my role as an author to envision a just society."

The current system fosters inequality, says Kozol, because school funding relies heavily on local property taxes. So, wealthier neighborhoods gather a larger pool of tax money for their kids' education.

Critics argue that simply pumping more money into schools won't help educational quality. Though he stops short of saying that money would definitely make the difference, Kozol believes putting more money into poor schools would be a "noble social experiment."

Kozol is angered by what he perceives as a nationwide lack of attention to segregated schools.

"They'll (the Bush Administration) talk about everything except the central moral agony of our society-that we are still two nations," Kozol says.

Kozol's thoughts on desegregation are far outside the bounds of current political debate. "In the North, the only feasible system of desegregation would have to be between the cities and suburbs," he says.

But Kozol has no illusions about the political feasibility of such a system. "Virtually no white liberals are willing to discuss this," he says. Even during the Boston busing crisis, Kozol says, Boston suburban liberals "used their own racism to exonerate racists of South Boston."

Kozol, an English literature concentrator while at Harvard who graduated in '58, lived in Eliot House across the hall from his classmate Senator Jay Rockefeller.

"All the students and faculty at Eliot House pretended they were British," he recalls. "They had the 'Henry James disease.'''

Although his academics allowed him to go to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Kozol says he "studied much too hard at Harvard."

After Oxford, Kozol spent a few years writing in Paris amid older writers like Allen Ginsberg, William Styron and Richard Wright.

In 1963, Kozol came back into the United States to "do something respectable" like "go to law school and then to the Senate."

But the civil rights movement inspired him to take the "longest trip I ever took," a 20-minute trip on the subway to Roxbury where Kozol volunteered as a schoolteacher. Eventually he was fired from the Boston schools for reading a Langston Hughes poem to his students.

Kozol believes he is one of the few true liberals who still fights the good fight. Even now, as a successful member of the political/literary establishment whose name is held up high by senators and journalists, Kozol feels betrayed by some of his old liberal friends, whom he calls "all these nice people in New York who get out Pete Seeger records and reminisce about their youthful ethics."

Kozol laments what he sees as a loss of idealism among these "decent-minded, progressive people. "While some of these people travelled to Mississippi to register blacks in the summer of 1964, Kozol says, "today it's their kids, and they don't want them going to school with anyone who might hold them back."