Savage Inequalities

by Jonathan Kozol

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: April 11, 2024
Savage Inequalities
Savage Inequalities

Explore the racial and economic inequalities in US education revealed in 'Savage Inequalities'. Discover how legal rulings failed to bridge the gap and get actionable insights to drive change.

What are the big ideas?

Persistent Segregation Despite Brown v. Board

Despite the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the book details ongoing racial segregation in schools, evidencing a significant gap between legal mandates and real-world practices in education.

Inequalities Masked by Local Autonomy

The notion of 'local control' over schools is challenged, highlighting how it often masks inequalities and provides affluent areas the leverage to maintain superior educational facilities and resources, leaving poorer districts disadvantaged.

Systemic Opposition to Resource Redistribution

A recurring theme is the strong resistance from wealthier districts and communities to redistributing resources to poorer schools, which is framed as protecting personal entitlements at the cost of broader educational equity.

Underfunding and Its Deep Impact

The book sheds light on the dire consequences of underfunding in urban schools, impacting everything from facilities and supplies to teacher quality and student outcomes.

Racial and Economic Isolation Compounds Challenges

The isolation of urban, predominantly minority schools from wealthier, whiter schools compounds educational challenges, creating a dual system of education that perpetuates inequality.

Legal Rulings Fail to Bridge Inequality

Significant court decisions like Rodriguez v. San Antonio ISD and Milliken v. Bradley are discussed as having reinforced existing educational inequities rather than ameliorating them, showcasing the limitations of legal solutions in achieving genuine educational equity.

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Persistent Segregation Despite Brown v. Board

The Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 was a landmark decision that declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. However, the book reveals that persistent racial segregation continues to plague the education system, even decades after this pivotal Supreme Court case.

Despite the legal mandate for desegregation, the author's observations show that urban schools remain overwhelmingly non-white, with little true integration between white and non-white students. This suggests a significant gap between the law and reality when it comes to achieving racial integration in schools.

Furthermore, the book indicates that many influential people and leaders seem indifferent or resistant to addressing this ongoing issue of segregation. Some even view it as a "past injustice" that has been sufficiently addressed, despite the clear evidence to the contrary.

This persistent segregation has profound consequences, as the author describes the bleak, unhappy conditions of many of these non-white, under-resourced schools. The lack of progress in desegregation has effectively turned back the clock on the promise of equal education, leaving many black and minority students trapped in a separate and unequal system.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight of persistent racial segregation in schools despite the Brown v. Board of Education ruling:

  • The author visited urban schools that were 95-99% nonwhite, with no true integration of white and nonwhite children.
  • Many influential people the author met seemed to view school segregation as a "past injustice" that had been sufficiently addressed, showing little inclination to address the ongoing issue.
  • Proposals were being considered in cities like Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Detroit to have separate schools or classes specifically for Black male students, indicating continued racial separation.
  • The author describes urban schools as "extraordinarily unhappy places" that felt like "garrisons" or "outposts" in a foreign land, surrounded by signs of "DRUG-FREE ZONE" and guarded doors, painting a picture of highly segregated, under-resourced institutions.
  • The author contrasts the bleak conditions of an elementary school in Anacostia, a predominantly Black area, with the opulent environment of government buildings in Washington, D.C., highlighting the stark divide between white and nonwhite school systems.
  • The Supreme Court's decisions in the Texas case and the Detroit case effectively "locked black children" into segregated, under-funded school systems, denying them opportunities for desegregation and equal education.

These examples illustrate how, despite the legal mandate of Brown v. Board, the reality on the ground was one of persistent racial segregation and inequality in the education system, with little progress made in the decades following the landmark ruling.

Inequalities Masked by Local Autonomy

The notion of local control over schools is a facade that often conceals deep inequalities. Affluent districts leverage this autonomy to maintain superior educational facilities and resources, while poorer districts are left severely disadvantaged.

This dynamic plays out across various levels of governance - from states versus the federal government, to local districts versus state control, to individual schools within a district. In each case, the argument is made that local governance leads to greater efficiency. However, this rhetoric is used to rebut claims of equal opportunity and funding.

In reality, local school boards have little true control over the core elements of education, such as curriculum, teacher certification, and assessment. Their authority is largely limited to managing the meager resources available to them. Wealthy districts can use this limited control to provide well-equipped classrooms, up-to-date technology, and enriching extracurricular activities. Conversely, underfunded districts are forced to ration basic necessities like textbooks and heating.

This uneven playing field condemns children in poorer areas to unequal educational opportunities and, ultimately, unequal life outcomes. The notion of "local control" is thus revealed as a smokescreen that perpetuates systemic inequities, rather than a genuine empowerment of communities.

Here are examples from the context that support the key insight about how the notion of 'local control' often masks inequalities in education:

  • The context describes how "local control" is a "sacred principle" used to argue for efficiency and against centralized authority, even though state officials readily ignore local control when they are "dissatisfied with local leadership" and call for state takeovers of failing districts.

  • The context explains how states subvert local control through prescribing uniform curricula, certifying teachers statewide, and adopting textbooks statewide - undermining the ability of local districts to truly govern their schools.

  • The passage notes that the local school board "does not control" key aspects of education like textbooks, teacher preparation, exams, or even school architecture, challenging the idea of meaningful "local governance" in public education.

  • The context highlights the stark disparities in per-student funding, ranging from $2,100 in the poorest districts to over $10,000 in the wealthiest, showing how "local control" allows these inequities to persist.

  • The passage describes how even when states try to achieve more "equity", the solutions still fall short, only aiming for a "75% equality" that maintains key differences in resources and services between rich and poor districts.

In summary, the context demonstrates how the rhetoric of "local control" often obscures the reality of entrenched educational inequalities, allowing affluent areas to maintain their advantages while poorer districts suffer from lack of resources and opportunity.

Systemic Opposition to Resource Redistribution

The core issue is the fierce opposition from affluent communities to redistributing educational resources more equitably. Wealthier districts fiercely resist any measures that would direct funding and support away from their schools, even if it means depriving less fortunate children of essential educational opportunities.

This resistance is rooted in a deep-seated belief that individuals have a fundamental right to secure the best possible education for their own children, even at the expense of others. Affluent parents view any attempt at educational equity as a threat to their children's individual advancement and the ability to maintain their privileged social status. They frame this as a matter of personal liberty and local control, rather than acknowledging the broader societal implications.

The arguments used to justify this resistance often downplay the importance of funding and resources, claiming that money alone does not determine educational outcomes. However, this rhetoric is selectively applied - the same groups have no qualms about spending lavishly on their own schools. The underlying dynamic is a zero-sum mentality, where gains for disadvantaged students are perceived as losses for the privileged.

This systemic opposition to redistributing educational resources represents a formidable barrier to achieving true equity in the education system. It reflects a broader societal reluctance to address entrenched inequalities, even when the evidence clearly shows the profound impact they have on the life chances of children.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight about the systemic opposition to resource redistribution for educational equity:

  • In Maryland, a task force argued that 100% equality in school funding was "too expensive" and instead proposed a goal of 75% equality, which still allowed for a 25% gap that "assures that [schools] will sail in opposite directions" in terms of resources and quality.

  • Affluent suburbanites often concede that the education system is "a bit unjust" but argue that "that's reality and that's the way the game is played" - indicating an acceptance of the unfair status quo that benefits their children.

  • Conservatives are described as reducing America to a "tight and mean and sour" vision where "liberty and equity are seen as antibodies to each other", resisting efforts to redistribute resources for greater equity.

  • Wealthy districts are said to be "fighting for the right to guarantee their children the inheritance of an ascendant role in our society" by resisting efforts to redistribute resources, even if framed as defending "liberty" or "local control."

  • In San Antonio, 23 years after the Rodriguez case, per-pupil spending still ranges from $2,000 in the poorest districts to $19,000 in the richest, demonstrating the entrenched resistance to equalizing resources.

  • The Wall Street Journal is criticized for using arguments about "diminishing returns" to caution against spending more on poorer schools, while not applying the same logic to limit spending in wealthy districts.

The key theme is that wealthier communities and institutions strongly resist efforts to redistribute educational resources more equitably, in order to protect the advantages and privileges enjoyed by their own children, even at the expense of broader educational equity.

Underfunding and Its Deep Impact

The book powerfully illustrates the devastating impact of chronic underfunding in urban school districts. This lack of adequate resources manifests in crumbling facilities, scarce supplies, and an inability to attract and retain high-quality teachers. As a result, students in these underfunded schools face significant educational disadvantages compared to their peers in wealthier districts.

The disparities in funding are staggering. For example, a high school class of 30 students in the impoverished city of Chicago receives around $90,000 less per year than a similar class in an affluent suburb. This massive funding gap translates to vast differences in educational opportunities and outcomes.

The consequences of this systemic inequality are dire. Understaffed schools struggle to provide students with even the most basic educational services. High teacher turnover and lack of resources undermine student learning and achievement. Ultimately, this chronic underfunding perpetuates a cycle of poverty and limited social mobility for students in these under-resourced urban districts.

The book makes clear that addressing this crisis requires bold, equitable solutions that go beyond simplistic calls for "changing parent values." True educational equity demands that we provide all students, regardless of their zip code, with the resources and support they need to thrive. Anything less condemns generations of children to an unequal and unjust educational system.

Here are specific examples from the context that illustrate the key insight about the dire consequences of underfunding in urban schools:

  • The Journal argues that higher spending brings "diminishing returns" and that after a certain point, it only makes a "slight" difference. However, this argument is applied to limit funding for poor schools, rather than the wealthy schools that spend $12,000 per student.

  • Chicago public schools spend only $5,500 per high school student, compared to $8,500-$9,000 per student in the wealthy suburbs. This $90,000 annual difference per 30-student classroom is described as "quite startling" and "blatantly unfair."

  • Due to lack of funding, Chicago schools often lack enough substitute teachers, leading to thousands of students being left without a teacher on certain days. The high dropout rate is even seen as a "blessing" since there would not be enough teachers otherwise.

  • A principal in Camden, New Jersey laments that as soon as teachers become proficient, they leave for higher-paying suburban schools, creating constant staffing shortages. She asks wealthy suburban parents to "trade" with Camden students to see the unfairness.

  • The book describes how the underfunding leads to a "failure by design" - students learn only how to pass tests, not how to think, and many drop out after starting college, unable to compete with their better-resourced suburban peers.

The context paints a stark picture of how severe underfunding cripples urban school systems, depriving students of quality teachers, facilities, and educational opportunities compared to their wealthier counterparts. The examples illustrate the deep, systemic impact of this inequity.

Racial and Economic Isolation Compounds Challenges

The racial and economic isolation of urban schools perpetuates educational inequality. These schools, often serving predominantly minority and low-income students, are segregated from wealthier, whiter schools. This dual system of education creates vastly different learning environments and opportunities.

In the isolated urban schools, students face significant challenges - from crumbling facilities to lack of resources. Meanwhile, the wealthier schools provide their students with ample funding, modern amenities, and enriching programs. This stark disparity denies equal access to quality education.

The isolation compounds these challenges, trapping students in under-resourced schools with limited pathways to success. Without meaningful integration and equitable funding, this cycle of inequality will continue. Addressing the root causes of racial and economic segregation in education is crucial to achieving educational equity.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight about how racial and economic isolation compounds educational challenges:

  • The author observes that "in no school that I saw anywhere in the United States were nonwhite children in large numbers truly intermingled with white children." This racial segregation is pervasive in urban schools.

  • The author visits an elementary school in Anacostia, a predominantly Black neighborhood, and describes the poor conditions - a "dirty" school with no playground, holes in the walls, and a flooded basement cafeteria with rats. The student Tunisia expresses feeling "ashamed" of her school's appearance compared to wealthier, whiter schools.

  • The author contrasts the Anacostia school with the affluent Fairfax County schools, which a student named Gregory describes as having "a golf course there. Big houses. Better schools." This stark contrast illustrates the economic isolation of urban, minority-serving schools.

  • A teacher at an urban high school describes how the curriculum is entirely focused on test preparation, with 8 months spent on tests and only 2 months left for actual instruction. This "failure by design" perpetuates the disadvantages faced by students in these isolated, under-resourced schools.

  • A student named Shalika recounts her experience being the only Black student in a wealthier, whiter school district, where she was ostracized by her peers and received a racist note telling her to "Go back to Africa." This anecdote demonstrates how racial isolation compounds educational challenges.

In summary, the context provides numerous examples of how the racial and economic isolation of urban, minority-serving schools creates a dual system of education that perpetuates inequality, with students in these schools facing severely disadvantaged conditions and educational opportunities compared to their wealthier, whiter peers.

Key Insight: Legal Rulings Fail to Bridge Educational Inequality

Major court decisions like Rodriguez v. San Antonio ISD and Milliken v. Bradley have reinforced existing educational inequities rather than addressing them. These rulings demonstrate the limitations of legal solutions in achieving true educational equity.

The Rodriguez decision upheld the unequal funding of schools based on local property wealth, allowing disparities between rich and poor districts to persist. Similarly, the Milliken ruling exempted suburban districts from participating in desegregation efforts with cities, perpetuating racial and economic segregation in schools.

Despite some local legal victories, these have often led to legislative obstruction and rearrangement of funding formulas that merely reconstruct old inequities. Even when courts find funding systems unconstitutional, as in California, conservative backlash can undercut attempts to equalize funding across districts.

The failure of legal rulings to bridge the gap in educational opportunities between wealthy and disadvantaged communities underscores the deep-rooted nature of this problem. Achieving genuine educational equity requires confronting entrenched interests and power structures that benefit from the status quo, which court decisions alone have proven insufficient to overcome.

Here are examples from the context that support the key insight that legal rulings have failed to bridge educational inequality:

  • The Texas case in Rodriguez v. San Antonio ISD approved unequal schools, and the present case accepted segregated schools, leaving black children in Detroit "worse off than under Plessy."

  • Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented, saying the Court's decision was "a giant step backwards" and would lead to "two cities—one white, the other black."

  • The combined effect of the Texas and Detroit cases "was to lock black children" into segregated, unequal school systems.

  • In Massachusetts, budget shortfalls have forced schools in low-income areas like Lawrence and Malden to drastically cut teachers, courses, and resources, while wealthier districts remain unaffected.

  • Court-ordered "equity" in school funding often falls short, aiming for only 75% equality in Maryland rather than true equity, which "assures that [ships] will sail in opposite directions."

  • Despite court rulings, suburban districts in New Jersey fiercely resisted efforts to redistribute resources to poorer urban districts, seeing it as a "nightmare" and a threat to their children's educational advantages.

  • The Supreme Court's decision in Rodriguez v. San Antonio ISD in 1973 halted the drive to equalize public education through the federal courts, allowing existing inequities to persist.

The key point is that even when courts have ruled in favor of greater educational equity, powerful interests have resisted and undermined these efforts, demonstrating the limitations of legal solutions alone in bridging deep-seated educational inequalities.


Let's take a look at some key quotes from "Savage Inequalities" that resonated with readers.

Placing the burden on the individual to break down doors in finding better education for a child is attractive to conservatives because it reaffirms their faith in individual ambition and autonomy. But to ask an individual to break down doors that we have chained and bolted in advance of his arrival is unfair.

The quote means that it's unjust to expect individuals to overcome obstacles in accessing better education when society has already put up barriers, making it difficult for them. It's like asking someone to break down doors that were deliberately locked before they even arrived, which goes against the conservative belief in individual autonomy and self-reliance.

Research experts want to know what can be done about the values of poor segregated children; and this is a question that needs asking. But they do not ask what can be done about the values of the people who have segregated these communities. There is no academic study of the pathological detachment of the very rich...

The quote highlights the unequal focus on addressing the values of children in poor, segregated communities, while ignoring the values and actions of the wealthy people who have contributed to their segregation. It calls attention to the lack of scrutiny on the detachment of the rich and emphasizes the need to consider their role in perpetuating inequality.

Equity, after all, does not mean simply equal funding. Equal funding for unequal needs is not equality.

The quote means that providing the same amount of funding for all schools, regardless of their specific needs, does not ensure equality. Meeting different needs requires varied levels of support, so true equality involves allocating resources based on individual requirements rather than applying a uniform approach.

Comprehension Questions

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How well do you understand the key insights in "Savage Inequalities"? Find out by answering the questions below. Try to answer the question yourself before revealing the answer! Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. What was the primary judicial decision in 1954 that aimed to end racial segregation in public schools?
2. What is the contrast between the legal expectations from the Brown v. Board ruling and the practical realities in urban schools?
3. How do the conditions described in the under-resourced, predominantly non-white schools demonstrate the consequences of persistent segregation?
4. What does the indifference or resistance from certain influential people toward school desegregation indicate about societal attitudes?
5. What implication does proposing separate schools or classes for specific racial groups have on the state of racial integration in the education system?
6. How does the concept of local control in school governance often lead to inequalities between affluent and poorer districts?
7. What limitations do local school boards face in managing their districts?
8. Why is the argument for local control often seen as a smokescreen in public education?
9. Why do affluent communities oppose redistributing educational resources?
10. What arguments are commonly used by wealthier districts to justify opposition to equitable resource distribution?
11. How does the zero-sum mentality affect the redistribution of educational resources?
12. What broader societal issue does the opposition to redistributing educational resources reflect?
13. What are the visible impacts of chronic underfunding in urban school districts?
14. How does the funding disparity between urban and suburban schools affect educational opportunities?
15. What are the broader social implications of underfunding schools in economically disadvantaged areas?
16. What solutions are suggested to address the issues arising from underfunding in urban schools?
17. Explain the concept of 'failure by design' as it relates to underfunded schools.
18. How does racial and economic segregation in urban schools affect educational opportunities for minority and low-income students?
19. What impact does the isolation of urban schools have on the quality of education received by students?
20. Why is addressing the causes of racial and economic segregation important for achieving educational equity?
21. What is the impact of legal rulings on educational equity according to the Rodriguez v. San Antonio ISD decision?
22. How do the Rodriguez and Milliken decisions highlight the limitations of the legal system in addressing educational inequality?
23. What are the consequences of schools in wealthier areas responding defensively to court-ordered resource redistribution?
24. How effective are court orders in achieving 100% educational equity, based on the example from Maryland?
25. Why might conservative backlash follow judicial attempts to equalize funding across school districts?

Action Questions

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"Knowledge without application is useless," Bruce Lee said. Answer the questions below to practice applying the key insights from "Savage Inequalities". Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. How can you advocate for policies that promote true integration in your local schools?
2. What steps can you take to promote and support equity in educational resources within your local school district?
3. How can you help raise awareness about the disparities hidden by 'local control' in education within your community?
4. How can you actively support policies that promote educational equity in your community?
5. How can you help address the issue of underfunded schools in your community?
6. How can you advocate for equitable funding and resources in your local school district to support schools that serve predominantly minority and low-income students?
7. How can you contribute to initiatives or support policies aimed at promoting educational equity in your community?
8. What steps can you take to raise awareness about the limitations of legal interventions in solving educational inequalities?

Chapter Notes

Looking Backward: 1964–1991

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Racial Segregation in Schools: The author was shocked by the persistent and intensified racial segregation in public schools, even decades after the Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared segregated education unconstitutional. Most of the urban schools the author visited were 95-99% non-white, with little integration of white and non-white students.

  • Lack of Urgency to Address Segregation: The author found that many influential people and officials seemed to view racial segregation in schools as a "past injustice" that had been sufficiently addressed, and showed little inclination to actively work on this issue. The author was often given the impression that inquiries about this matter were not welcome.

  • Failure to Address Underlying Inequalities: The author observed that national reports on education reform focused on symptomatic issues like low test scores and high dropout rates, but rarely addressed the underlying inequalities and segregation in the school system.

  • Proposals for Segregated Schools/Classes: The author noted that some cities were considering or implementing proposals for separate schools or classes specifically for Black male students, which the author saw as a step back towards the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson, rather than the vision of integration from Brown v. Board of Education.

  • Demoralized and Impoverished School Environments: The author was dismayed by the bleak, prison-like conditions of many of the inner-city schools, surrounded by housing projects, barbed wire, and a pervasive sense of despair. The author wondered why children were expected to learn in environments that no adult would accept for themselves.

  • Lack of Student Voices: The author observed that the voices and perspectives of the students themselves had been largely missing from the national dialogue on education reform, despite the fact that the children often had insightful and trenchant observations about the realities of their school experiences.

1. Life on the Mississippi

  • Dire Living Conditions: East St. Louis is described as an impoverished, heavily polluted, and neglected city, with issues such as lack of basic services (garbage collection, sewage treatment), high rates of poverty and welfare dependency, and widespread environmental contamination from nearby chemical plants.

  • Racial Segregation and Isolation: East St. Louis is a predominantly Black city, physically and socially isolated from the predominantly white surrounding areas. This racial segregation is deeply entrenched, with white communities actively maintaining the separation.

  • Failing Education System: The public schools in East St. Louis are severely underfunded and in disrepair, lacking basic resources like textbooks, functional facilities, and qualified teachers. This is contrasted with the well-equipped schools in the nearby white suburbs.

  • Lack of Economic Opportunities: The city's economy has declined, with the major industries and employers having left, leaving few job prospects. This has contributed to high rates of poverty, crime, and social problems among the residents.

  • Neglect and Abandonment by Authorities: State and local authorities are depicted as largely indifferent or hostile to the plight of East St. Louis, unwilling to provide the necessary resources and support to address the city's problems. The residents feel abandoned and excluded from the broader society.

  • Resilience and Aspirations of the Children: Despite the dire circumstances, the children of East St. Louis are shown to have a strong sense of community, racial pride, and aspirations for a better future, even as they confront the harsh realities of their environment.

  • Systemic Racism and Structural Inequalities: The chapter highlights how the problems of East St. Louis are rooted in a long history of racial discrimination, segregation, and the exploitation of Black communities by powerful economic and political interests, creating entrenched structural inequalities.

2. Other People’s Children

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Stark Inequality in School Funding: There is a massive disparity in funding between wealthy suburban school districts like New Trier High and poor urban school districts like those in Chicago. New Trier spends around $9,000 per student, while Chicago high schools spend only around $5,500 per student. This leads to vastly different educational opportunities and outcomes.

  • Segregation and Isolation of Urban Schools: The urban schools in Chicago are overwhelmingly segregated by race and class, with the poorest and most disadvantaged students concentrated in these schools. This isolation from wealthier, whiter communities compounds the challenges these schools face.

  • Lack of Resources and Staffing Issues: Urban schools like those in Chicago often lack basic resources like textbooks, science equipment, libraries, and extracurricular activities. They also struggle to attract and retain high-quality teachers, with many relying on inexperienced or unqualified substitutes.

  • Low Expectations and Tracking: There is a tendency among some educators and policymakers to have low expectations for urban students and to track them into vocational or "basic skills" curricula rather than college-preparatory programs. This limits the horizons and opportunities available to these students.

  • Heroic Teachers and Pockets of Excellence: Despite the systemic challenges, there are some exceptional teachers, like Corla Hawkins, who create vibrant, engaging learning environments for their students. However, these individual efforts are not enough to overcome the broader inequities.

  • Resistance to Redistribution and Reform: Wealthier suburban districts and business leaders often resist efforts to redistribute funding or resources to urban schools, viewing it as a "waste of money." This political opposition has stymied meaningful reform efforts.

  • Compounded Disadvantages and Hopelessness: The combination of educational, economic, and social disadvantages faced by many urban students leads to high dropout rates, low literacy levels, and a sense of hopelessness about their future prospects. This creates a cycle of poverty and marginalization.

  • Separate and Unequal Education System: The chapter argues that the U.S. education system has effectively become a "private school system operated in the public schools," with the best resources and opportunities reserved for the children of the wealthy and privileged.

3. The Savage Inequalities of Public Education in New York

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Stark Inequalities in Funding Between Rich and Poor School Districts: The chapter highlights the stark disparities in per-pupil funding between affluent school districts like Great Neck ($11,265 per student) and poorer districts like the South Bronx ($5,590 per student) in the New York City area. This funding gap has a significant impact on the quality of education and resources available to students.

  • Racial Segregation and Tracking in Schools: The chapter describes how schools in affluent, predominantly white areas like Riverdale are effectively segregated, with most minority students placed in "special" or lower-tracked classes. This practice of racial segregation and ability tracking severely limits the educational opportunities for these students.

  • Inadequate Facilities and Resources in High-Poverty Schools: The chapter provides vivid descriptions of the poor physical conditions and lack of basic resources (e.g., textbooks, computers, libraries) in high-poverty schools like P.S. 261 in the Bronx, which is housed in a former roller-skating rink. These substandard facilities send a powerful message to students about their perceived worth.

  • Dehumanizing Experiences of Students in Underfunded Schools: The chapter recounts the personal stories and perspectives of students in high-poverty schools, who describe feeling anonymous, overlooked, and demoralized by the stark contrasts between their schools and the well-resourced suburban schools. This highlights the psychological and emotional toll of attending severely under-resourced schools.

  • Systemic Bias and Neglect of High-Poverty, Minority Schools: The chapter argues that the persistent inequities in funding and resources for schools serving predominantly low-income, minority students reflect a systemic bias and neglect by policymakers and society. This "conspiracy of effect" perpetuates the marginalization of these students.

  • Resistance to Desegregation and Equitable Funding: The chapter explores the resistance from affluent, predominantly white communities to initiatives that would promote racial integration and equitable funding for high-poverty schools. This resistance is rooted in racial biases and a desire to preserve the advantages of the status quo.

  • Moral Obligation to Provide Equal Educational Opportunities: The chapter emphasizes the moral imperative for society to ensure that all children, regardless of their socioeconomic or racial background, have access to high-quality educational opportunities. The failure to do so represents a profound injustice.

4. Children of the City Invincible

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Disparities in Funding and Resources Between Rich and Poor School Districts: The chapter highlights the vast disparities in funding, facilities, and educational resources between affluent suburban school districts (e.g. Cherry Hill, Princeton) and poor urban school districts (e.g. Camden, Paterson, East Orange). Wealthy districts have access to well-equipped science labs, music programs, sports facilities, and other enrichment opportunities, while poor districts struggle with overcrowding, lack of basic supplies, and a curriculum narrowly focused on test preparation.

  • Consequences of Underfunding on Student Outcomes: The lack of resources and funding in poor school districts has severe consequences for student outcomes. The chapter cites high dropout rates, low test scores, and lack of college readiness among students in these districts. For example, the lead plaintiff in the court case, Raymond Abbott, was a learning-disabled student who was passed along each grade without his needs being addressed, and ended up a high school dropout and drug addict.

  • Resistance to Equitable Funding and Desegregation: The chapter describes the fierce resistance from wealthy suburban districts to efforts to equalize funding and desegregate schools. Suburban parents and officials argued that providing more resources to poor urban districts would lead to "mediocrity" in their own schools, and opposed proposals to combine or share resources across district lines. This resistance is framed as a clash between the principles of "liberty" (local control) and "equity".

  • Failure of the "Local Control" Argument: The chapter challenges the argument made by defendants that disparities in educational resources are simply the result of "local control" and "local choice". It argues that in reality, poor urban districts have little true local control or choice, as they are constrained by lack of funding and resources. Suburban districts, on the other hand, are able to leverage their wealth to provide vastly superior educational opportunities.

  • Importance of Early Childhood Education: The chapter highlights the critical importance of early childhood education programs like Head Start in preparing urban students for academic success. It notes that many urban students enter kindergarten and first grade already years behind their suburban peers due to lack of access to preschool.

  • Failure of Test-Driven Curriculum: The chapter describes how urban school districts have been forced to adopt a narrow, test-focused curriculum that strips away opportunities for a well-rounded education, including literature, arts, and hands-on science. This "teaching to the test" approach is seen as further disadvantaging urban students.

5. The Equality of Innocence

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Equity vs. Equality: The chapter discusses the difference between the concepts of "equity" and "equality" in education. While equity is often presented as a desired goal, the recommendations and solutions proposed often fall short of true equity, instead aiming for a form of "approximate equity" that preserves the benefits enjoyed by the privileged.

  • Dual Education Systems: The chapter describes how many urban school districts have effectively become dual systems, with a set of "better" schools that attract wealthier and whiter students, and a set of "poorer" schools that serve the majority of disadvantaged students. This dynamic is seen in cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.

  • Racial Segregation and Funding Disparities: The chapter highlights the persistent racial segregation and funding disparities between urban and suburban school districts. It provides examples of the stark differences in resources, facilities, and educational opportunities between schools in affluent suburbs and those in low-income urban areas.

  • Psychological Impact on Students: The chapter explores the psychological toll that growing up in impoverished, segregated neighborhoods and attending under-resourced schools has on children. It describes the "battle fatigue" and sense of hopelessness experienced by many urban students.

  • Challenges for Black Administrators: The chapter discusses the difficulties faced by Black administrators tasked with leading urban school districts, often under intense pressure to quickly improve outcomes despite systemic disadvantages. It highlights the high turnover and "casualty rate" among these administrators.

  • Legal Rulings and their Consequences: The chapter examines key legal decisions, such as Milliken v. Bradley, that have effectively locked in racial segregation and funding disparities between urban and suburban school districts, with devastating consequences for generations of Black and low-income students.

  • Attitudes of the Privileged: The chapter explores the mindset of affluent, suburban parents who often view educational inequities as a secondary concern or justify them as the natural order of things. It highlights their resistance to policies that would redistribute resources or opportunities away from their own children.

6. The Dream Deferred, Again, in San Antonio

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Inequality in School Funding: The chapter discusses the stark inequality in school funding between wealthy and poor districts, with wealthy districts like Alamo Heights spending significantly more per student than poor districts like Edgewood.

  • Rodriguez v. San Antonio ISD: This landmark Supreme Court case in 1973 ruled that the Texas school funding system, which resulted in large disparities in per-pupil spending, did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The decision halted the drive to equalize public education through the federal courts.

  • State Constitutions and School Funding Lawsuits: After the Rodriguez decision, parents of poor children have focused their legal efforts on state courts, which have sometimes found state school funding systems unconstitutional, though these victories have often led to limited or delayed reforms.

  • Proposition 13 in California: When a court-ordered equalization of school funding was implemented in California, a conservative tax revolt led to the passage of Proposition 13, which capped property taxes and effectively reduced funding for all public schools, undermining the goal of equity.

  • Resistance to Equitable Funding: The chapter suggests that resistance to equitable school funding is rooted in a desire by the wealthy to preserve their children's educational and social advantages, even if it means accepting "mediocrity" for the poor.

  • Perpetuation of Inequality: Despite court rulings and legislative efforts, the chapter concludes that inequality in educational opportunities and outcomes for children in poor districts like Edgewood and Lower Price Hill persists, with little prospect for meaningful change in the near future.


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