In a Connecticut Avenue bookstore, a bespectacled white man sounded an alarm yesterday evening about the public schools that serve black children in Washington and elsewhere. Segregation, he said, is alive and well a half-century after Brown v. Board of Education, depriving many urban black children of opportunities routinely afforded white students.
This divide, he said, compelled him to write "The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America."
Jonathan Kozol, a former Boston schoolteacher, has written 11 books over four decades in a crusade to help inner-city children that government policymakers gently label "disadvantaged." His critiques of their policies are anything but gentle, as one of his better-known titles, "Savage Inequalities," suggests.
His latest has a new target. In "Shame," Kozol, 69, denounces the No Child Left Behind education law that President Bush pushed through Congress in 2001 with help from such Democrats as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.). The law prescribes too much testing, he writes, and not enough learning.
Plenty of Democrats and Republicans still support No Child Left Behind, which requires annual reading and math testing of public school students in grades 3 through 8. But the parties split on whether Bush has given schools enough money to fix problems that the test results spotlight.
Kozol's message, apparently, has a following. At Politics & Prose, he drew a crowd of hundreds last month for a promotional event just before the book's publication. He made an unusual encore visit yesterday at the store's invitation, drawing another standing-room audience. C-SPAN cameras were on hand to transmit the talk on cable television.
"Sorry to be so grim tonight," Kozol said as he launched into a plea for "elemental racial justice." He added: "In the inner-city schools I visit, I never see white children. Segregation has returned with a vengeance."
In the Washington area, many public schools serve populations that are mostly white or mostly black, a split typical of what Kozol describes in his book through observations of 60 schools in 11 states. In Prince George's County, for example, 77 percent of students are black, 12 percent are Latino and 7 percent are non-Hispanic white. In many of the county's schools, the racial and ethnic gaps are far wider. That is also true in the District's public schools.
Kozol notes that some of the most segregated schools in the country are named for civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, 51 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown that separate educational facilities are "inherently unequal."
Few educators would dispute Kozol's central contention: that many mostly black schools are in worse shape, physically and academically, than their counterparts in mostly white neighborhoods.
"The main reason I wrote this book," Kozol said in an interview yesterday, "is to inspire Americans to look very hard at the virtually complete apartheid in increasing numbers of our school districts -- including in Prince George's County -- and to address it courageously. They should ask themselves honestly: Is this the kind of country they want to live in?"
To those who point out that segregation today is not imposed by law, Kozol replied: "Whether the causes of school segregation are residential, social factors, economic factors, whatever they may be, segregated schooling is the oldest failed experiment in American social history. It didn't work in the past century. It's not going to work in the century ahead."
Kozol's solution -- not likely, he conceded, to be enacted soon -- is to repeal No Child Left Behind, establish universal public preschool for needy children, drastically reduce class sizes in schools that serve the poorest children (to 18 or fewer students per teacher) and give white suburban schools financial incentives for a new racial integration initiative with massive, but voluntary, systems of crosstown transportation.
Kozol said he wanted to spark an urban-school uprising. "We need a movement by people who actually get chalk dust on their hands every day because they spend their lives with children," he said.
One woman at the bookstore last night said she was already enlisted. Mary Findley, a music teacher active in programs for D.C. youths, clutched a copy of "Savage Inequalities" as she waited for Kozol's talk. "He changed my life with this book," she said.