October 07, 1991 12:00 PM

NOT LONG AGO, AUTHOR AND CHILDREN’s advocate Jonathan Kozol received a phone call from a boy he’d met while researching a book on an infamous Manhattan welfare hotel. Kozol was used to fielding calls from kids—”typically from teenagers, just to tell me what’s going on in their lives,” he says. But this one was different—it was about the woeful condition of the boy’s school. “He told me that he had 50 children in his homeroom,” says Kozol, “but there were only 40 desks. He also said he’d spent the entire year without a science text.”

Sparked by that phone call, Kozol set oil on a two-year “journey” through the nation’s public schools—visiting with children in some 30 neighborhoods, rich and pool”, from New York City to San Antonio. He wanted to see for himself whether the dichotomy between blacks and whites, haves and have-nots—which he had described in his 1967 prize-winning book Death at an Early Age—still existed. His conclusion is Savage Inequalities, a searing indictment of the country’s education, to be published later this month. “It was a haunting experience to go back and see what had happened,” says Kozol. “Virtually everywhere I went, the schools were more separate and less equal than they had been 25 years ago.”

Kozol’s images haunt the reader as well: In Chicago an eighth-grade class reads from textbooks in which Richard Nixon is still President.

In East St. Louis, Ill., schools close down because sewage is flooding into the buildings.

In the South Bronx 1,300 black and Hispanic children crowd into a nearly windowless skating rink converted into a school, even as white kids in affluent Riverdale—a short bus ride away—enjoy classrooms complete with gaily decorated windows, computers and planetariums.

With his new book, Kozol has become a celebrity once again. He recently traveled to Washington to discuss the plight of public education with members of Congress. And Publishers Weekly, the industry’s principal trade magazine, took the unprecedented step of publicizing his book on its front cover, a space reserved for advertising.

It is Kozol’s belief that U.S. schools never will be equal as long as they are funded through local property taxes. A case in point: In the late ’80s New York City spent about $5,500 to educate each of its schoolchildren, while just beyond the city limits the wealthy Long Island community of Great Neck spent some $11,000.

Kozol would have the states collect taxes for education and spread the money evenly across their disparate school populations. “States now provide, at most, half of local funding,” says Kozol. “They should pay 80 percent of the bill. The federal government, which now pays about 6 percent, should add another 20. Property tax is nothing more than a form of hereditary privilege for the children of the fortunate.”

Kozol should know. He was reared in affluence—the son of Boston psychiatrist Dr. Harry Kozol (who testified in the Patty Hearst trial) and Ruth Kozol, a social worker. Jonathan attended public schools in Newton, Mass., before going to prep school, Harvard and Oxford. He returned to Boston in 1963. Caught up in the civil rights movement, Kozol took a job teaching in the black Roxbury section of Boston—and discovered a calling. “I found I loved being with children,” he says.

But his school was so crowded that Kozol and his fourth-grade students didn’t have a classroom and shared the auditorium. To kindle an interest in literature in a school where lily-while Dick-and-Jane texts and corporal punishment were still being handed out, Kozol began to read poetry by Robert Frost and Langston Hughes. He was fired the next day for teaching poems that were “too advanced.”

“I was hired to teach in Newton for twice the salary,” says Kozol. “It was an extraordinary contrast.” Instead of 35 students, he had 19—and his new principal loved poetry. “It gave me a sense of what money buys and how unfair life is for poor children,” he says.

The contrast, which led to the writing of Death at an Early Age, has had the impact on Kozol of a primal experience. Through the years, it has shaken eight books out of him, most of them about the plight of poor children. When Kozol is not traveling around the country, venturing into neighborhoods where many whites fear to tread, he is hiding out in his old farmhouse in Byfield, Mass., north of Boston, where he lives with his mixed-breed pooch, Doggie.

Married in 1969 to a fellow civil rights activist and divorced in 1974, Kozol nearly married again five years ago. But he spent so much time writing his book about the welfare hotel that the relationship tell apart. “”I was never home,” he says, “and when I was, I fell haunted. I’m not an easy person for a woman to live with. I do like children a lot. If I don’t gel married, I’ll adopt them.”

Which raises a pertinent question—what would Kozol do if he had kids? Would he move to Newton or Great Neck to ensure they got a first-rate education? “I’m as vulnerable as any of my friends,” he reflects. “I don’t think I would, but there’s no way to know. It’s a terrible thing for this rich society to present middle-class people with the choice of betraying their child or their ethics. A nation as wealthy as the U.S. doesn’t need to pose that question.”


MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City

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