School Cuts And Reforms Feed The Prison Pipeline

Jeff Bryant

As educators close out this school year and go into planning mode for the next, what many of them truly dread is the fiscal nightmare being handed to them by miserly state governments who’ve decided to balance their budgets on the backs of helpless school children.

According to a new survey conducted by the American Association of School Administrators, three-quarters of school districts will be eliminating jobs in 2011-12, sending nearly a quarter of a million of the nation’s public school educators and their support staff into the ranks of the unemployed.

Now that state legislators and governors have passed their decrees, someone has to do the actual dirty work of deciding who, what, and how to slash from the payroll and withhold from the starving public. So many school administrators are grasping for unheard of straws.

One creative idea coming from a New Jersey school district is to charge student teachers fees to do their internships.

Another stroke of genius comes from the city of Riverside, California where administrators found themselves with a sparkling new “high-tech” high school on their hands but then weren’t given adequate resources to staff it. A helpful tip from school leaders in Florida: get rid of art and music teachers for low-income kids.

But the funding idea that truly takes the cake comes from a school superintendent in Michigan who wrote the state’s conservative governor Snyder requesting to have his school converted into a prison. It’s pretty hard to argue with his logic:

[ . . . ] I’m proposing to make my school a prison. The State of Michigan spends annually somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 per prisoner, yet we are struggling to provide schools with $7,000 per student. I guess we need to treat our students like they are prisoners, with equal funding. Please give my students three meals a day. Please give my children access to free health care. Please provide my school district Internet access and computers. Please put books in my library. Please give my students a weight room so we can be big and strong. We provide all of these things to prisoners because they have constitutional rights. What about the rights of youth, our future?!

The letter got handed around a lot (see here, here, and here)with noteworthy comments about the raw deal that our country continues to give to poor kids. But what’s especially striking in the letter is where the superintendent crosses the line from irony to deadpan clarity with his plea to “please provide for my students in my school district the same way we provide for a prisoner. It’s the least we can do to prepare our students for the future…by giving our schools the resources necessary to keep our students OUT of prison.”

It’s all too fitting that the superintendent’s direct comparisons of schools to prisons comes on the heels of a report from the NAACP questioning our nation’s misplaced priorities that favors incarceration over education. Echoing the report’s alarm, Lindsay McCluskey, President of the United States Student Association, writes at Huffington Post that the US has the enviable position of being the world’s leading prison warden, with 2.3 million people behind bars, outdistancing even China that has a population four times greater than ours, yet imprisons one million fewer people, “even with its draconian criminal laws.”

The relationship of schools to prisons is inextricable. In an article by Sam Dillon, one of the few real education journalists still writing at the national level, researchers at Northeastern University found that “on any given day, about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates.”

Not only do dropouts more frequently end up in jail, but they’re far more apt to be unemployed. The report, Dillon highlights, “puts the collective cost to the nation over the working life of each high school dropout at $292,000.”

But dropout rates alone don’t tell the whole story of how mistaken policies governing the nation’s public education system end up feeding the “School to Prison Pipeline.”

As the American Civil Liberties Union explains, “For most students, the pipeline begins with inadequate resources in public schools. Overcrowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers, and insufficient funding for ‘extras’ such as counselors, special education services, and even textbooks, lock students into second-rate educational environments.” (emphasis in orginal)

Worsening the situation are “zero tolerance” policies that call for harsher penalties, such as suspensions and expulsions and involvement of law enforcement, for school infractions, regardless of the intent of the student and the circumstances involved.

Recent reports from Philadelphia and Texas, have concluded these strong discipline policies tend to “push out” the most difficult students and much more often turn school infractions over to the criminal justice system for resolution.

Accountability mandates from the so-called reform movement have also done much to feed the School to Prison Pipeline. As this recent report from a collaborative effort involving research, education, civil rights and juvenile justice organizations concluded, academic “get tough” policies such as the current emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests that originated with No Child Left Behind “have led to more students being left even further behind.”

“By focusing accountability almost exclusively on test scores and attaching high stakes to them,” explains George Wood of the Forum for Education and Democracy, “NCLB has given schools a perverse incentive to allow or even encourage students to leave.”

Adds FairTest’s, Monty Neil, “NCLB has led to the dramatic narrowing and weakening of curriculum. Because so much of the school day is focused on test preparation instead of well-rounded instruction, more students become alienated, making the jobs of teachers even harder.”

Given these “perform or else” mandates that “reformers” want to continue to enforce on schools, school leaders in fact are often rewarded for pushing out their more academically troubled students. For instance, the Chicago Tribune recently published an article lauding high school principal Kenyatta Stansberry for “get tough” policies that led to a dramatic “turnaround” on state test scores. Stansberry “affectionately nicknamed ‘the Marine,'” has indeed put into place a new school climate that has led to significantly higher test scores and better attendance, and she certainly is to be admired for that. What gets buried in the nineteenth paragraph, however, is that “she talked to neighboring principals to take in her most difficult students. Thirty percent of Harper students would end up leaving.”

Then deep into the copy on page two is another detail:

The school found 213 students — nearly a third of the student body — behind in credits, and when the school announced that social promotion was essentially ending, and 18-to-20-year-old seniors would be held back, many students pulled out. In all, the school estimates it lost 161 students — 104 of them transferred to other schools, and 34 signed up at Youth Connections alternative schools.”

So is that how schools should be more “accountable?” By relocating problem students elsewhere? No doubt all those “difficult students” end up somewhere. And while it might be reasonable to challenge the merits of “social promotion,” there’s little doubt that some of those students who were pushed out for not measuring up will get “socially promoted” anyway — to prison.

And although Tribune reporter, Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, was competent in presenting these facts, shouldn’t she have at least explained the importance of them? And also maybe been less blatantly enthusiastic about this “miracle turnaround?”

In a similar vein, President Obama just rewarded a Memphis, Tennessee high school with an in-person commencement address because of how well the school had performed in the administration’s signature Race to the Top initiative, due in part to the school’s success in reducing dropout rates. But when intrepid edu-blogger, Gary Rubenstein took a closer look, what he found was that “the ‘miracle’ seemed to be one of creative math.” As the ever useful Valeri Strauss highlighted from Rubenstein’s post, one of the ingredients in the school’s abilities to improve graduation rates was a high rate of student attrition (25 percent!) that occurred during the same time, including some 200 students “who were less likely to graduate.”

It’s time for political leadership in this country to wake up to the reality. Deep cuts and harsh mandates pushed onto our schools end up costing elsewhere. Much like how businesses try to externalize the costs of the waste and pollution they cause onto government clean-up efforts, our current leaders in state houses and DC are trying to externalize the cost of education, especially when it applies to poor, high-needs children. And we all end up paying more somewhere else down the line.

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