Opinion

Cash flow alone won’t reverse the school to prison pipeline

Education Secretary could learn some lessons from Louisiana

States are arresting learning because of their investments in prisons.

That’s why Education Secretary Arne Duncan has proposed that state and local governments reduce student arrests and use the savings to raise the salaries of teachers in high-need schools.

Let’s be clear both on what we need and on what moving funds to increase teacher salaries will actually do.

We don’t need teachers in general to stay in the most challenging districts; we need more black and brown teachers to stay in urban areas.

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The Albert Shanker Institute recently released a report titled The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education that found the overall share of minority teachers increased from 1987 to 2012, but a high attrition rate for teachers of color negated those gains. The share of black, brown and Asian students outpaced the recruitment of teachers from those populations resulting in a significant underrepresentation of teachers of color relative to the students they serve.

What urban districts do need are incentives for great teachers to stay in the most challenging schools. Pay raises help keep quality teachers in under-resourced environments with a high percentage of low-income students.

While I agree that teachers deserve more money than they receive, research shows that money doesn’t make you a better teacher. So to be clear, the money is more about retention than performance.

Schools must still improve working conditions and find more quality teachers.

The Prison Pipeline

Moving money from jails to schools requires putting prisons out of business by reducing the size of local and state prison facilities. How can a Secretary of Education do that? Louisiana and New Orleans offer an interesting case study.

In Louisiana the for-profit, criminal justice system engines economies of small towns and parishes (counties) by funneling the overflow of city prisoners to state facilities. According to data collected by in the Urban League of Greater New Orleans’ State of Black New Orleans, African Americans comprise 32 percent of Louisiana’s population, but they account for 67 percent of the state’s prison population. New Orleans and the Orleans Parish Prison incarcerate more people per capita than anywhere else in the world. Ninety percent of its prison population is African American, and one out of seven black males in New Orleans have either been in prison, on parole or on probation.

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However due largely to public pressure to reduce the size of the prison and by cutting the number of arrests for non-violent crimes, Orleans Parish Average Daily Prison Population dropped from 6,300 in 2005 to 1,900 in 2015.

“Pre-Katrina municipal arrests for non-violent offenses were approximately 70 percent of all those arrested. Subsequent to the new ordinances, the trend has completely reversed itself and now 70 percent of those municipal charges are initiated by the issuance of a summons,”according to the State of Black New Orleans. The number of people in jail can be reduced even further, and money can be redirected.

This happened because of justice advocates and citizens without titles, not educational leaders.

Communities can’t trust states that built entire economies from incarcerating people of color to see the light and reinvest in the same people who were stripped of their citizenship and humanity. Racism would see that money spent elsewhere. Also, sheriffs’ political strength is bolstered by the revenues that towns are generating off the backs of people who more often than not committed a non-violent crime. This is why Duncan needs greater support than what he received for Common Core.

Teachers unions as well as the education reform lobby must work together from the direction of communities that have been devastated by the prison industrial complex to move legislation to make Duncan’s bully pulpit plan work. Duncan’s plan must come from the rest of us.

We should assume the lopsided arrest rates among black and brown folk contributed to the underrepresentation of teachers. To restore communities, states must mainly invest in in those neighborhoods that have been most burdened by the criminal justice system. Too often reform enriches those who were already in power, minimizing the economic, social and educational impacts on the people who need it most. In this case, restorative justice means making prisoners, potential prisoners and local students into teachers.

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First things first, stop incarcerating black people to make other people profit. This is a tall order for an education secretary. Duncan has made ostensibly successful efforts to curb the school to prison pipeline since the Obama administration sent to educational leaders a Dear Colleague guidance letter on civil rights and discipline.

But Duncan is out of his jurisdiction. If the charges of federal overreach for Common Core weren’t loud enough for Duncan, then his eventual prison reduction plan will certainly turn up the volume.

Just as the stakes of Common Core compelled teachers and families to buck the perceived federal involvement, sheriffs, prison personnel and mayors who see prison as an economic development plan will do the same. As jails and prisons strip away talent, breadwinners and parents from some communities (usually black or low-income), they enrich others. As Michele Alexander illustrates in The New Jim Crow, the business of incarcerating people, particularly black people, is booming.

It’s common sense to invest in schools rather than prisons, but it wasn’t sense that created the prison industrial complex. Secretary Duncan can raise a solution, but the rest of us must deconstruct the racist thinking that’s built into the brick and mortar of our prisons. If we really believe in black lives, we will replace jails with schools and universities.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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