It's almost 25 years since the publication of Jonathan Kozol's "Death at an Early Age," which recounted his eight months as a teacher in a rundown Boston ghetto school. Mr. Kozol was fired by the then notorious Boston School Committee for reading Langston Hughes' poem "Ballad of a Landlord" to his fourth-grade class -- not part of the syllabus, the school committee said -- and instantly became a major voice in the movement for school equity and integration of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Mr. Kozol has never strayed far from that theme and has now returned to it with a book called "Savage Inequalities" that's gotten a respectful, even glowing, reception. It has made Mr. Kozol once again the most visible left-wing critic of American education and the star witness in a movement, now spreading to more than a dozen states -- among them Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee -- to get court orders to equalize per-pupil spending between public schools in rich and poor communities.
It's a moving book -- about filthy schools where roofs leak and halls are flooded each time it rains, where three or four classes have to share a gym or cafeteria because there aren't enough rooms, where teachers have outdated textbooks or none at all. It's also a reminder that a lot of those kids really want to learn, aren't on drugs and understand that this is a society that treats white suburban children a lot better than it treats black inner-city kids. Given the thin gruel that the Bush administration has served up to deal with the nation's horrendous school problems -- roughly equal parts school "choice," testing and that old conservative favorite "more money's not the answer" -- it's not surprising that Mr. Kozol is getting attention.
The rationale of the equalizers is simple: Unequal spending among schools denies children equal protection of the laws. A poor community with a weak tax base simply can't spend as much on each child's education as a wealthy one, even if it raised taxes to the breaking point, and that's patently unfair.
But is equalization of all spending -- which, in addition to increasing the spending in poor districts, means capping the spending of affluent or motivated districts -- really the solution? Consider California, the only major state where equalization has been thoroughly tried. The results have been a wondrous illustration of the law of unintended consequences.
The most obvious of those consequences is that equalization sharply reduced local incentives to raise school taxes. After the California Supreme Court ruled, in Serrano v. Priest (1976), that the old funding system was unconstitutional, the legislature agreed to bring per-pupil spending in virtually all of the state's districts to within $100 (later revised to $200) of the state average.
It proposed to do that not by requiring the rich districts to spend less, something that would have been academically unseemly and politically impossible, but by directing additional state money to the poor districts. Yet since the funding formula also reduced state funding one dollar for each dollar the districts might have raised in additional local property taxes, it eliminated much of the rationale and motivation for local efforts to improve the schools.
School equalization might have taken decades to achieve had it not been for the fortuitous passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. By slashing and capping local property-tax revenues, Prop 13 shifted the burden of school funding to state income and sales taxes, which made equalization a lot easier to realize. But because of 13, and perhaps because of Serrano as well, the state's spending on schools has also slipped precipitously -- from sixth or seventh in the nation to 25th or 26th. California now spends less per child than any other major industrial state, and less than the national average.
Mr. Kozol has a lot of numbers dramatizing the inequities in spending between, for example, Camden and Princeton, New Jersey; Chicago and suburban New Trier High School; and New York City and suburban Manhasset (Long Island). But he doesn't point out that the $7,299 New York spent on each child in 1989-1990 was nearly double what most of the fanciest California suburbs got to spend that same year. California now spends roughly $5,100 a year per student.
With the power to appropriate funds having shifted from local boards to the state government, it is no longer possible to know who is responsible for the financial problems of the local schools -- the board that allocates the funds and overspends or mismanages them or the governor and legislature that fail to pony up enough to begin with. The same goes for responsibility for the construction of new schools, now so incomprehensibly divided between state and local agencies that almost no one understands the system.
Moreover, since school boards no longer have anything to do with setting tax rates, the interest of local business groups and taxpayer organizations in the schools, or in running people for the board, has sharply declined, leaving more and more districts in the control of the only well-financed group that's really interested in school affairs, the teacher's union.
It shouldn't be surprising, then, that the union-dominated Los Angeles board awarded huge raises to its teachers three years ago -- the average increase was roughly 27 percent over three years -- and is now in deep financial trouble. One-third of all the state's districts, according to the state controller, Gray Davis, are spending more money than they take in.
No state in the country has as large a gap between what it pays its school employees and what it spends on everything else. California is fifth in the nation in teachers' salaries and dead last -- meaning worst -- in class size: Many classes are now running well over 30 children, even in elementary schools. We also have leaky roofs and rotting buildings, but we have them in the suburbs as well as in the inner cities.
Mr. Kozol says, correctly, that poor children are trapped in awful inner-city schools, while the middle class has choices. But he refuses to give poor children the chance to escape to better public schools, through choice. He's also too simplistic in blaming the comparatively poor performance of our schools on money alone. Under the circumstances, our schools are doing better than one might expect -- as well at least as we did two decades ago. And given also what we've learned about the schools' external problems -- poverty, broken families, teen-age pregnancies, drugs, lack of health care, lack of child care -- the first place to spend (and equalize) new money on children may not be in the K-12 school program, but in the environment in which it is beleaguered.
Although Mr. Kozol acknowledges that equalization has been problematic in California, his support for the idea remains undiminished. Of course, Proposition 13 and fiscal mismanagement exacerbated the problems here. But the fact remains that equalization -- any way you formulate it -- destroys local accountability and erodes the supports and sense of mission that make strong schools possible. It is an inherently flawed proposition.
Peter Schrag is editorial-page editor of the Sacramento Bee. This article first appeared in The New Republic.