by Max Brantley
Philander Smith College President Walter Kimbrough put on another edition of his Bless the Mic president's lecture series tonight and it was a smash. A full house was treated to an hour and 40 minutes of inspirational straight talk and not a little provocation from Jonathan Kozol, whose books on America's failure of black kids in urban schools have made him justifiably famous.
Most of the Little Rock School Board and Superintendent Roy Brooks were among those on hand for an entirely relevant occasion. Too bad the legislature, Chamber of Commerce and assorted others couldn't have been made to attend.
In a talk laced with personal anecodotes of his research in some of the country's grimmest schools -- places where the elfin 70-year-old still managed to unearth treasure in promising children -- Kozol challenged some of the conventional wisdom of the Arkansas day.
He offered a simple formula for better schools -- pay sufficient to make bright people want a career in education, small classes and attractive facilities. He lambasted George Bush, No Child Left Behind, high-stakes testing, charter schools, corporate schools, white flight, largely segregated private schools and, if only there'd been time for questions, I feel certain merit pay would have taken its lumps, too.
He tailored a message for Little Rock. The business community's desperate belief that a declaration of "unitary status" and an end to desegregation litigation here is a false god, he said. It will "ease the conscience of whites" and put blacks to sleep to the dangers of America's resegregating schools, but produce little in positive terms.
He said black children had never made so much progress as during tthe years following the Warren Court's insistence on integration, shamefully rolled back by the Rehnquist court. As the schools have resegregated, the "achievement gap" has widened and today more black students attend segregated schools than at any time since Martin Luther King's death. This "apartheid" is perhaps the single biggest peril to the country's children. In New York and Chicago, he said, where 10 percent of the country's black students go to school, about 70 percent of black males don't finish high school.
His message for Little Rock in the 50th anniversary year of the Central crisis: It's no time for celebration of bygone victories, but a time to look at today. He said a city that is 55 percent white but has a 70 percent black school district can call itself unitary, or desegregated, as truthfully as you can call a caterpillar a crocodile. All unitary status willl produce is a drop in state funding, he said, (maybe $30 million a year, last I heard.)
He said it was heartening to learn Little Rock had recently elected a black majority to its school board. But he said separate and unequal schools can just as easily exist -- and do in many major cities -- where black peole are in charge and they are just as "morally offensive" and "theologically abominable."
I only scribbled a few notes. I was intent on enjoying the moment. I would have asked specifically about his view on merit pay, but a long line waited for his autograph and he talked patiently to each, even as he kept scribbling near 10 p.m. on an appearance that began with a VIP dinner at 5:30 p.m.
I could have listened for another hour. He's working hard in Washington now to roll back NCLB. He's a man who gives you hope. A great night for Philander.
Dr. Kimbrough mentioned that Andrew Young, Juan Williams and Ward Connerly, the black man who's been a leading opponent of affirmative action, are on tap for lectures to come. (Kimbrough made it clear he's no fan of Connerly, but, as with Ann Coulter, he thinks he should give a stage to different voices.) It's a jewel of a series conceived and delivered by a vibrant young college leader who doesn't get the attention he deserves.
I haven't done Kozol's rich rhetoric and vivd anecdotes justice, but I just felt like I had to pay some tribute.