Priorities Check: Education vs. Incarceration

John King
John King
Jul 7, 2016 · 4 min read

“Don’t tell me your values,” Vice President Joe Biden has said. “Show me your budget and I will tell you your values.”

If this is true, and I believe it is, then, as a nation, we have to ask some hard questions about how we value education versus incarceration.

A first-of-its-kind analysis released today by the Department of Education found that, over the past three decades, state and local budgets for prisons and jails, adjusted for inflation, grew more than twice as fast as did spending on public elementary and secondary education. Even when population changes are factored in, 23 states increased per capita spending on corrections at more than double the rate of increases in per-pupil K-12 spending.

Seven states — Idaho, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia — increased their corrections budgets more than five times as fast as they did their allocations for K-12 public education.

The report shows even greater disparities between the growth in spending for corrections and postsecondary education. Between 1989 and 2011, state and local budgets for corrections expanded 11 times as fast as did the amounts allocated to public colleges and universities.

Part of what makes these trends so heartbreaking is that we have the power to reverse them. One proven way to reduce crime and incarceration rates and their related costs is by investing in proven strategies to keep students in school, make sure they graduate, and are ready to succeed after high school. More than two-thirds of state prison inmates are high school dropouts. Young black men between the ages of 20 and 24 who lack a high school diploma or a GED are more likely to be in jail than they are to have a job. Children with incarcerated parents often exhibit behavior problems and are more likely to struggle in school.

Researchers have estimated that a 10-percent increase in high school graduation rates results in a 9-percent decline in criminal arrest rates. The same increase in graduation rates would reduce murder and assault rates by 20 percent. Even a 1 percent increase in male graduation rates would save up to $1.4 billion in the social costs of crime and incarceration.

These aren’t just statistics. When I think about the lives of those who are incarcerated, I can’t help but feel disheartened. I can’t help but think about their families, spouses, sons, daughters, and parents — or about the art not created; the entrepreneurial ideas that may never reach the drawing board; the classrooms these Americans will never lead; and the discoveries they’ll never make.

But I also am optimistic that education can be a powerful antidote to the costly and socially damaging incarceration epidemic plaguing our nation. Our schools are making a difference. Graduation rates are at record highs and the national dropout rate has fallen significantly in recent years. A million more African-Americans and Latinos are attending college today, compared to eight years ago.

However, zero-tolerance policies in place in many schools are not helping. Our schools suspend roughly 2.8 million students, the vast majority of them for non-criminal activities, and refer a quarter of a million students to police each year. Students of color and students with disabilities are suspended at disproportionate rates. And we know these students can become trapped in a cycle from which they sometimes are never freed: a school-to-prison pipeline that begins with exclusionary discipline, like suspensions and expulsions, and ends with jail time.

We cannot truly be a country dedicated to opportunity for all while contradictions between what we know and what we do remain.

The Department of Education has worked closely with schools and districts to rethink discipline.

We also released a series of resources to help schools implement positive behavioral interventions and supports and change how they respond to misbehavior. With our colleagues at the Department of Justice, we’ve issued a School Discipline Guidance Package, which includes best practices and action steps schools and districts can take to improve climate and discipline.

It’s true that allocating more dollars does not always yield equivalent gains in student outcomes. But, certainly, money is not unrelated to quality. That is one reason the draft regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act require states to pay attention to inequities in expenditures as well as in other key resources, such as effective teachers and advanced classes. We need more investments in our teachers and students, and an overhaul of our criminal justice system to make sure our young people have the opportunities they deserve.

Ultimately, we hope the data we are releasing today accelerate meaningful policy conversations about spending, values, and solutions at the local, state, and federal levels. We know that education works. We know that it can and will save lives.