The question Jonathan Kozol wishes to put before the American people in Savage Inequalities is a disarmingly simple one: Are we, when it comes to providing something approaching equal opportunity in education, willing to put our money where our mouth is? Or have we given up on all that? Have we decided, if only by default, that an American child has a right to exactly the level of education his or her parents can afford as reflected in the size of their mortgage payments?
Then what about the children left behind in the places vividly evoked by Kozol, places like East St. Louis, Ill., Chicago's South Side, Camden and Jersey City, N.J., the slums of San Antonio, the South Bronx? Children who attend schools with 40 or 50 kids to a classroom, a new teacher every few weeks, little or no art, music, foreign language, or advanced science courses, and too few books to go around. Schools with one guidance counselor for every 700 students; schools with holes in the roof; schools with raw sewage in the basement; schools where more than 80 percent of the students drop out before graduation. Schools that would be considered an embarrassment in Paraguay or Romania.
''These are innocent children, after all,'' Kozol writes in Savage Inequalities, easily the most passionate, and certain to be the most passionately debated, book about American education in several years. ''They have done nothing wrong. They have committed no crime. They are too young to have offended us in any way at all. One searches for some way to understand why a society as rich and, frequently, as generous as ours would leave these children in their penury and squalor for so long and with so little public indignation...Is fairness less important to Americans today than in some earlier times? Is it viewed as slightly tiresome and incompatible with hard-nosed values? What do Americans believe about equality?''
At the risk of cynicism, it is tempting to answer that when it comes to education, most Americans appear to believe what the porcine commissars on Orwell's Animal Farm believed: that some people specifically, their own children are more equal than others. They seem to feel that they are paying their property taxes to benefit their own kids, while the poor can look out for themselves. Particularly the black poor. As a psychiatrist told Kozol, white Americans are fed up with hearing about racial injustice. ''They see a slipshod, deviant nature violence, lassitude, a reckless sexuality...as if it were a character imprinted on black people. The degree to which this racial explanation is accepted would surprise you.''
Maybe so, maybe not. What's clear, however, is that the politics of white guilt and black resentment don't work anymore. Whether in Michigan, New Jersey, Texas, or California, Kozol shows that the normal response to lawsuits or legislative action aimed at forcing states to equalize spending among school districts the richest of which sometimes have four or five times more money to spend per student than the poorest has been outraged stonewalling. That and the election of politicians who claim, paradoxically enough, that money has nothing to do with quality in education. A classic American muckraker with an eloquent prose style, Kozol offers no immediate solutions, only an old-fashioned brand of moral outrage that will affect every reader whose heart has not yet turned to stone. If only that were enough. A-