Schools Are Broke, but Prison Budgets Are Up 89 Percent

The U.S. has seen nearly 30 years of increases in funding to lock people up while education budgets stagnate.
(Photos: Getty Images; Derek Bruff/Flickr)
Jul 13, 2016· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

By now, studies providing evidence of the school-to-prison pipeline—disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates for poor and minority students that increase the odds they’ll end up behind bars—aren’t shocking. But the amount of money the nation has paid to erect that pipeline is stunning.

A new U.S. Department of Education report says state and local government spending on jails and prisons increased three times faster than spending on elementary and secondary education during the last three decades. The picture is even worse when it comes to public colleges and universities.

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“At the postsecondary level, the contrast is even starker,” wrote the report’s authors: From about 1989 to 2013, “state and local spending on corrections rose by 89 percent while state and local appropriations for higher education remained flat.”

The spending spree on prison cells instead of classrooms underscores how the nation has become preoccupied with security even though crime rates have fallen during that time period for most of the country, according to the report.

The study pointed out that while prison funding soared, public education funding in most states remained level, decreased slightly in the best-case scenario, or plunged by as much as 300 percent in the worst-possible outcomes.

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That’s despite a clear link between undereducation and likely criminal behavior. Studies show that “a 10 percent increase in high school graduation rates may result in a 9 percent decline in criminal arrest rates,” the report’s authors wrote.

“Where we make investments in social policies is where we see outcomes in social policy,” Jason Ziedenberg, director of research and policy for the Justice Policy Institute, told TakePart. “The sheer investments in incarceration at the expense of schools is all borne out here” even though statistics show more incarceration doesn’t lower crime.

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Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said the buildup of the prison system has its roots in shortsighted policy decisions made in the 1990s. But black and Latino young people—who are overrepresented both in incarcerated populations and in groups of children forced to attend school in struggling districts—will likely be left behind in the new, education-is-a-prerequisite economy.

“The whole structure of class and race has been institutionalized,” Carnevale said, noting that being “denied” a quality education limits a person to low-paying service jobs and an inability to break generational poverty. “We built this,” he said.

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From about 1979 to 2013, for public prekindergarten through high school, “expenditures increased by 107 percent (from $258 to $534 billion), while total state and local corrections expenditures increased by 324 percent (from $17 to $71 billion)—triple the rate of increase in education spending,” according to the report.

“Over the same 33-year period, the percentage increase in state and local corrections expenditures varied considerably across the states, ranging from 149 percent in Massachusetts to 850 percent in Texas,” the report’s authors wrote.

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Ziedenberg said if only a portion of the money that was spent on prisons had been redirected toward education, it would have had “a significant impact” on the nation, alleviating a system that is “under strain.” Even though the Great Recession happened amid the time period the education department studied, “we didn’t shutter a whole lot of prisons,” he said.

At the same time, well-funded education budgets “could have a real public-safety impact” by reducing crime, creating a better-educated workforce, and smashing the schools-to-prisons pipeline, Ziedenberg said. “It can have all kinds of positive outcomes for the whole American community.”

But Carnevale said that’s a tough sell for political leaders in a cut-first, invest-maybe-later mood.