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The Learning Disabled Education Expert

Jonathan Kozol's crusade to prevent school reform.

Dec 31, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 16 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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Jonathan Kozol is back. The leftist education expert has been promoting his latest book--Letters to a Young Teacher--preaching his gospel on NPR stations, at radical churches, and at book stores across the country. He is a seductive figure in the pulpit, spreading a message of antagonism to every education reform. Though he claims that American schools are part of a domestic system of apartheid, he campaigns against charter schools, vouchers, testing, and any attempt to circumscribe the power of the teachers' unions.

Kozol's impact has been enormous. The national phenomenon of judges' compelling states to change their tax codes to increase funding for schools in poor districts was driven by the widespread credence given to his 1991 book Savage Inequalities, which sold over 250,000 copies in hardcover alone. As the Manhattan Institute's Marcus Winters noted, "Not only are many of his books bestsellers, but they have become staples on education-course syllabi. Even education researchers think his work has value: He has been cited 1,790 times in journals counted in the Social Science Citation Index, quite a feat for a popular author." Among those who praise him are Marian Wright Edelman, Bill Moyers, and Howard Zinn. When teachers' unions across the country fight voucher proposals, he is the first--often the only--authority they quote. But it is not only education professionals that Kozol has influenced. His 1967 account of his first weeks and months working as a teacher, Death at an Early Age, sold more than two million copies.

Necessarily, there have been many honors. Kozol is one of the few nonpoliticians to receive the National Education Association's annual Friend of Education award. (He won it before Bill and Hillary Clinton, before Paul Wellstone, and even before Ted Kennedy.) He has also won the National Book Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, the Conscience-in-Media Award of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, plus the Guggenheim (twice), Rockefeller, Ford, and Field fellowships.

This past summer Kozol was the subject of dozens of newspaper and magazine profiles for his "partial hunger strike" to oppose congressional extension of the No Child Left Behind program. And he doesn't stop at education causes; he is one of the token intellectuals signed onto, a celebrity group calling for the president's impeachment. His name is listed just between top-40 radio personality Casey Kasem and actress Jessica Lange.

One of Kozol's relentless campaigns is against charter schools--public schools run independently of local bureaucracies and often without the involvement of teachers' unions. Research on charter schools has shown that they often produce better results, and at lower cost, than regular public schools. What's more, competition from charter schools appears to prompt improved performance from regular public schools with which they compete for students and funds--as charter school advocates predicted. Kozol will have none of this.

In the September 2005 Harper's, he went on the attack. In an essay entitled "Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid," Kozol observed:

Many educators make the argument today that given the demographics of large cities like New York and their suburban areas, our only realistic goal should be the nurturing of strong, empowered, and well-funded schools in segregated neighborhoods. Black school officials in these situations have sometimes conveyed to me a bitter and clear-sighted recognition that they're being asked, essentially, to mediate and render functional an uncontested separation between children of their race and children of white people living sometimes in a distant section of their town and sometimes in almost their own immediate communities.

The possibility that some educators and politicians may merely wish to make these schools better worries and frustrates Kozol. For him, creating good schools in black neighborhoods for primarily black student populations isn't a good thing--and it shouldn't be the goal--it's a form of "apartheid."

Kozol particularly derides the education research of John Chubb and Terry Moe, whose groundbreaking work suggests that improving individual schools can lift student performance, irrespective of a student's socioeconomic background. This work is both important and controversial, and it's consistent with claims that Kozol himself has made throughout his career as a self-styled advocate for poor children that the conditions of schools are important. Yet Kozol dismisses their research out of hand as it argues for a market in education. He is a committed enemy of educational choice, and that matters more than data. Indeed, he has consistently suggested that collecting data on student performance is itself a serious problem.