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Schools vs. Prisons: America's Losing Battle

“Build schools, not prisons!”

It’s a familiar refrain this election season. And while it’s not even close to the most controversial statement made thus far on the campaign trail, it’s nevertheless sparked debate about the power of engaged school communities to prevent crime.

In many parts of the country, this issue has opened the door for heated (to put it mildly) conversations about the role of race and class in America, from the criminal code to rehabilitation to the proverbial chicken-and-egg argument: Do poor schools lead to more crime or does more crime lead to poorer schools?

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to these questions. But recent data show where we, as a nation, tend to be focusing our resources. (Spoiler alert: it’s not in our schools.)

A recent U.S. Department of Education report shows that corrections spending in this country has grown exponentially compared with public school spending. The findings, first reported by Education Week, raise some interesting concerns about our national priorities as we barrel toward November’s presidential election.

Let’s be clear
As a country, we currently spend more on public education than corrections—$534 billion to $71 billion, respectively. It’s the rate of spending in recent years that critics call into question.

While spending on public schools has doubled since 1979, corrections-related spending in this country nearly tripled in that same timeframe.

Take a look at individual states and the numbers are starker still. In Texas, for example, corrections spending spiked by some 850 percent in that timeframe. And, in other states, corrections-related spending doubled that of public education.

Such trends have raised an alarm among public education leaders, including U.S. Secretary of Education John King.

“For far too long, systems in this country have continued to perpetuate inequity,” King said in a statement introducing the report. “We must choose to make more investments in our children’s future. We need to invest more in prevention than in punishment, to invest more in schools, not prisons.”

King’s predecessor, Arne Duncan, tried to reprioritize school spending by proposing a $15 billion shift from corrections to schools to boost teacher salaries. But that measure never got off the ground.

Why wait?
This is a big, hairy, complicated issue that politicians in Washington aren’t likely to come to terms about on their own (no surprise there).

Of course, you can always advocate for school funding increases—hold meetings, start a petition, write your Congressperson. But that takes time. And, as you know by now, it doesn’t always pay off.

Still others suggest the best way for educators to reduce the need for prison funding and, conversely, to increase the amount of money available to schools, is to keep students from entering the correctional system in the first place.

So, how does that work exactly?

One idea: Devise a system by which you can more easily identify those at risk of falling behind, dropping out, or getting into trouble.

To do this, you might want to start by asking students what their biggest challenges are, both inside and outside of school. Consider conducting a survey. Or create a safe place online where students can go to report personal challenges or issues that threaten to get them off track.

You could also offer private meetings after school, or a phone hotline where students can seek advice. Where possible, consider providing students, and their families, with health and other services to enrich their lives. The community-based schools movement is one example of this.

What steps are you taking, inside and outside of school, to engage at-risk students? Tell us in the comments.

Want to engage students and parents in constructive conversations about risks or challenges presently impeding their success? Here’s one way to do that.