Will the Democratic candidates talk about education justice on Tuesday’s debate stage?

Varun Gulati
Oct 14 · 4 min read

Towards the end of the first 2020 Democratic Party presidential debate, Senator Kamala Harris of California stole the show when she confronted former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on his track record and comments on segregation and school busing. The tense exchange reignited conversations about school integration and segregation in the media and at dinner tables across the country.

Former Vice President Joe Biden (left) and Senator Kamala D. Harris (right) argue about bussing during the first Democratic debate. (photo credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

But one other incredibly important education justice issue has yet to receive as much attention on the debate stages: the school-to-prison pipeline. This phenomenon, in which students are exposed to punitive school disciplinary systems that directly and indirectly funnel them into the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems, is arguably the most egregious civil rights issue in our public education system today. It results in higher drop-out rates, increased suspensions and expulsions, loss of class time that compounds into academic struggles and elevated drop-out rates, and entanglements with the law.

As a former high school teacher in a high-need public school in New Orleans, Louisiana, I have seen how educators are often unfortunately expected to be the heavy hand of school discipline that feeds this pipeline. Most notable are the rigidity and severity of punishments — from detentions for not tucking a shirt in, to suspensions which are arbitrarily doled out under the highly subjective category of “reckless behavior.” Minor infractions often lead to outsized punishments, and too often, the students we continuously push out of the classroom eventually find themselves in much more serious trouble.

Minor infractions often lead to outsized punishments, and too often, the students we continuously push out of the classroom eventually find themselves in much more serious trouble.


This slippery slope predominantly affects disadvantaged populations along the dimensions of race, ability, and class. According to data from the DOE Civil Rights Data Collection, black students are nearly four times more likely to be suspended than non-black students. University of Maryland researchers once analyze student arrest data to find that students with disabilities represented 11% of the student population but comprised 22% of school-related arrests. They also found that students eligible for Free and Reduced Meals (FARM) are arrested at a rate 2.82 times greater than non-FARM students. Study after study, we find that the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately pushes students of color, differently-abled students, and low-income students into the criminal justice system — which makes this a monumental civil rights issue.

There is also significant economic impact: in 2017, two University of California researchers studying the negative impact of suspensions estimated that higher drop-out rates due to suspensions will cause the state to lose approximately $2.7 billion over the lifetime of just one graduating class due to increased criminal justice costs and lower taxes paid.

And of course, current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has exacerbated this problem. In December 2018, she rescinded the Obama-era Dear Colleague Letter. This broad mandate had originally outlined the investigative and enforcement authority of the Department of Education and Department of Justice related to discrimination in student discipline, and gave recommendations on issues such as trainings for school staff and alternative approaches to punitive student discipline.


Among the candidates on Tuesday’s debate stage, the strongest stances against the school-to-prison pipeline have come from Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in her criminal justice plan, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in his Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro in his People First Education plan.

If we believe education is a right, then we need our presidential candidates to talk about the school-to-prison pipeline on the national debate stage and hold each other publicly accountable to resolving this problem.

These plans generally adopt some combination of restorative justice practices, which have been shown to drastically reduce suspensions and lost classroom time, limits on subjective discipline, bans on out-of-school suspension for K — 5 students, and positive behavior support programs.

If we believe education is a right, then we need our presidential candidates to talk about the school-to-prison pipeline on the national debate stage and hold each other publicly accountable to resolving this problem. This civil rights issue not only affects the lives of millions of public school students around the nation, it also meaningfully sets the tone and culture with which we treat our future generations.

Varun Gulati

Written by

education justice organizer, former public school teacher, co-founder of UClass (lesson exchange platform), string cheese enthusiast. http://vrgulati.com

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