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Schooled in persistence

Kozol still national conscience on education

Jonathan Kozol tells this haunting little story. He and a fifth-grader in the South Bronx nicknamed Pineapple are standing together on the roof of a building gazing south toward Oz-like Manhattan. "What's it like over there?" she asks him. "Over there where people like you grew up."

If you wonder why Kozol pursues his crusade for fairness in public education, that's the answer. In his books and classroom research, Kozol spotlights, relentlessly, the things we'd rather forget, like the shameful inequality in funding and educational opportunity among school districts across the nation.

Next month, it will have been 43 years since he first stepped into a Boston public school as a young teacher to discover, then uncover, scandalous conditions there. He has been our national conscience and scold about public education ever since. If he didn't exist, we'd have to invent him.

Kozol is as out of vogue in education today as John O'Hara is in fiction. He still believes in integrated schools. His answers to the problems of public education cost large money, and he thinks the federal government should run the whole thing.

He is better at identifying problems than solving them, which can be maddening. That said, his anger is bracing: "I'm sick of Democrats genuflecting to an agenda of Republicans since Ronald Reagan came in."

He still leads with his heart. He sees red when the rest of us see pink. His emotionally powered arguments never change, which is both his strength and weakness. To fans, he is the patron saint of teachers, a man who will not compromise his values. To others, he is a relic of the '60s, a man given to the cri de coeur over economic reality. A man rather like Ralph Nader without the ego disorder.

Kozol doesn't look 70, but he is. He still carries a whiff of campus about him: Corduroy jeans, blue sneakers, floppy brown hair. He has been on a partial fast since the Supreme Court in late June all but banned voluntary school desegregation plans -- a decision he bitterly opposes. He is a slight man to begin with and had no fat to give away. His belt is working overtime to keep his pants up. I tell him he should eat.

"I come back here and fast to recharge my batteries," he says about his monastic life alone in a small house in a small community north of Boston. "It enables me to transcend the depression of political disappointment."

Kozol came to prominence in 1967 with his classic "Death At An Early Age," which won the National Book Award, about his first year teaching in a horrid Roxbury elementary school. (He was fired for introducing a Langston Hughes poem to his kids.)

His new book, "Letters To A Young Teacher," offers support and counsel to a new teacher in a Boston elementary school who, like him, faced the brutal challenges of inner city classrooms.

He knows local property taxes cannot shoulder the increased burdens he demands, like cutting classroom size, and expects states to take over public education at some point. "Eventually, not in my lifetime, states will cede education to the government," he predicts. "Not for social justice but national survival."

He is appalled at what's happened to education since he broke into teaching:

"Separate but equal remains the shameful order of the day almost everywhere. The Rehnquist court progressively dismantled Brown [the 1954 Supreme Court Decision outlawing racially segregated schools]. Now even voluntary integration programs are constitutionally suspect.

"The nation has not simply reverted to Brown but in a sense back to Plessy [the 1896 decision permitting segregated schools]," he continues. "We are more segregated than ever. I believe the Warren Court was right. Dr. King was right. Thurgood Marshall was right. The notion of separate but equal is the oldest failed experiment in US social history."

Love him or hate him, few whites today dare as he does to challenge the position held by many black urban families that good neighborhood schools, even if they are overwhelmingly of color, are the answer.

He fumes at Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's caustic take on integration: "He says, 'Our kids aren't going to get any smarter just because they sit next to white kids. That's an insult to us. Just give us good black schools, good black role models, more money. You folks out in Wayland, don't worry. We won't ruin any garden parties out there.' "

It's the cognitive isolation in de facto segregated urban schools that bothers Kozol. "It's not a matter of assimilating white culture, but gaining access to mainstream opportunity," he says. "To be in a school where some of the kids know that Belgium is part of Europe, that Spain is that odd-shaped thing south of France.

"The thing with integration is not to compare it to perfection but to apartheid," he adds.

On Sept. 19, Kozol will discuss his new book in a forum at Harvard's Memorial Church.

He'll be surrounded that evening by his people -- teachers, students, other true believers of all stripes. He will paddle with the tide once again.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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