Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools

An Overview of the Book by Jonathan Kozol

Chicago Teachers Union, SIEU Local 1, friends and sympathizers protesting planned Chicago Public School closings. The Loop, Chicago, March 27, 2013.
Chicago Teachers Union, SIEU Local 1, friends and sympathizers protesting planned Chicago Public School closings. The Loop, Chicago, March 27, 2013. Kenneth Ilio/Getty Images

Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools is a book written by Jonathan Kozol that examines the American educational system and the inequalities that exist between poor inner-city schools and more affluent suburban schools. Kozol believes that children from poor families are cheated out of a future due to the vastly underequipped, understaffed, and underfunded schools that exist in the poorer areas of the country. Between 1988 and 1990, Kozol visited schools in all parts of the country, including Camden, New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; New York’s South Bronx; Chicago’s South Side; San Antonio, Texas; and East St. Louis, Missouri. He observed both schools with the lowest and highest per capita spending on students, ranging from $3,000 in New Jersey to $15,000 in Long Island, New York. As a result, he found some shocking things about America’s school system.

Key Takeaways: Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol

  • Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities addresses the ways in which inequality persists in the American educational system.
  • Kozol found that the amount school districts spend on each student varies dramatically between wealthy and poor school districts.
  • In poorer school districts, students may lack basic supplies and school buildings are often in a state of disrepair.
  • Kozol argues that underfunded schools contribute to higher dropout rates in poorer school districts, and that funding between different school districts should be equalized.

Racial and Income Inequality in Education

In his visits to these schools, Kozol discovers that black and Hispanic schoolchildren are isolated from white schoolchildren and are shortchanged educationally. Racial segregation is supposed to have ended, so why are schools still segregating minority kids? In all of the states he visited, Kozol concludes that real integration has declined significantly and education for minorities and poor students has moved backwards rather than forwards. He notices persistent segregation and bias in poorer neighborhoods as well as drastic funding differences between schools in poor neighborhoods versus more affluent neighborhoods. The schools in the poor areas often lack the most basic needs, such as heat, textbooks and supplies, running water, and functioning sewer facilities. For instance, in an elementary school in Chicago, there are two working bathrooms for 700 students and the toilet paper and paper towels are rationed. In a New Jersey high school, only half of the English students have textbooks, and in a New York City high school, there are holes in the floors, plaster falling from the walls, and blackboards that are cracked so badly that students cannot write on them.

Public schools in affluent neighborhoods did not have these problems.

It is because of the huge gap in funding between rich and poor schools that poor schools are faced with these issues. Kozol argues that in order to give poor minority children an equal chance at education, we must close the gap between rich and poor school districts in the amount of tax money spent on education.

The Lifelong Effects of Education

The outcomes and consequences of this funding gap are dire, according to Kozol. As a result of the inadequate funding, students are not simply being denied basic educational needs, but their future is also deeply affected. There is severe overcrowding in these schools, along with teacher salaries that are too low to attract good teachers. These, in turn, lead to inner-city children’s low levels of academic performance, high dropout rates, classroom discipline problems, and low levels of college attendance. To Kozol, the nationwide problem of high school dropouts is a result of society and this unequal educational system, not a lack of individual motivation. Kozol’s solution to the problem, then, is to spend more tax money on poor schoolchildren and in the inner-city school districts in order to equalize spending between school districts.

Educational Inequalities in America Today

While Kozol’s book was first published in 1991, the issues he raised continue to affect American schools today. In 2016, The New York Times reported on an analysis by researchers of approximately 200 million student test scores. The researchers found inequalities between wealthier school districts and poorer ones, as well as inequalities within school districts. In August 2018, NPR reported that lead was found in the drinking water at Detroit Public Schools. In other words, the educational inequalities outlined in Kozol’s book continue to exist today.