Why Are Prisons More of a Priority than Schools?
By Kevin P. Chavous
Earlier this month, a DC teacher was talking with a fourth grade student who told the teacher he would be dead or in jail by the time he was 20. Forget a job or career, the boy had no concept of growing old. When the teacher started to show the boy the true life expectancy statistics, he was in shock. Just 10 years old, a life past 20 was a reality he had never imagined.
For years, folks have been circulating a bad rumor that states and prison management companies look at fourth grade test scores to determine their prison growth needs in the future. Is it true? Not sure. But without question, there is a direct correlation between education and incarceration.
According to the National Dropout Prevention Center, 82% of the inmates currently housed in our federal prisons are high school dropouts. The average cost to care for those inmates is $55,000.00 per inmate. In contrast, we spend on average approximately $10,500 per student in our K-12 education system. And, as our prisons are consistently overcrowded, far too many of our public school districts have schools that are barely half full.
While whether or not prison management companies use a jurisdiction’s fourth grade test scores to predict areas of future growth is important. Even more important is the fact that our schools are in such dire straits that it’s even feasible that prison management companies are in fact using student test scores to determine growth opportunities.
Isn’t it sad that this obvious connection between prisons and schools hasn’t jump started more of a sense of urgency among our leaders? Instead, policymakers are promoting modest reform proposals designed to ‘kick in’ some years later. Folks, our kids can’t afford to wait years for the school system to reform.
Tragically, children from our most challenged neighborhoods know they aren’t a priority and, as a result, like that 10 year-old boy, don’t expect much from themselves. There’s a lot to be said when these very kids have friends in prison who are receiving a far better education than they are outside of prison. What messages are we sending when we spend more money on educating kids in prison than on our kids struggling on the outside?
So how do we change this misplaced focus within our government, which now spends more to incarcerate its citizens than it does to educate them?
In my view, the first step is in making the education of our children the top priority of our nation and our leadership. Priority that goes beyond platitudes and soundbites. We need to develop a countrywide obsession with ensuring that all children reach their maximum educational potential.
Second, state and government leaders need to force better integration of social services with educational offerings. Many charter school community hubs do this well. The best example is Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone where all families and mothers-to-be receive an assortment of family social services in addition to quality education options. Good schools work in challenged neighborhoods because they understand how to integrate all of these services together.
Finally, we need to be bold. Let’s enthusiastically embrace any and everything that will help a child learn, without equivocation. Let’s also aggressively fight to keep all those negative influences out of a child’s life — particularly in publicly funded institutions. And as it relates to schools, we should unapologetically reward our good teachers and ferret out the bad ones.
While I don’t purport to have all the answers, I do know that we must reassess our priorities so that our kids have access to a quality education that can dramatically improve their life trajectory.
It may take time, but the culture can change can occur quicker than we think. But we must start now. No 10 year-old in this nation should feel as though they are more likely to live a life in prison than a life filled with possibilities that only a high quality education can bring.
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