Shift billions in prison spending to teachers, says Education Secretary

Speech touches on subject of Center 'prison pipeline' investigation

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Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaking Jan. 31, 2011, at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

John Bazemore/AP

In a high-profile speech Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged states to shift a healthy share of local and state correctional spending on nonviolent offenders to teachers—especially to raise teachers’ salaries at high-poverty schools and help stop the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Duncan, speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, outlined examples of students who’d committed no serious crimes but were nevertheless directed into the criminal justice system. He spoke of a boy in Denver who drew graffiti on a school bathroom wall, and who was sentenced, for vandalism, to pick up trash on a highway with adults. When the boy later tried to become a police officer, Duncan said, “the department turned him away for that youthful mistake.”

Duncan explicitly linked students’ brushes with police and prosecution with disengagement from education—and increased risk that those kids will founder at school and end up in jail as adults. 

“Every day, as a society,” Duncan said, “we allow too many young people to head down a road that ends in wasted potential. Sometimes we are complicit in the journey. We need to do more to change that.”

In April, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity analyzed national data collected by Duncan’s department in an effort to find out how often individual schools refer students to law enforcement agencies. The Center’s state-by-state analysis of 2011-12 academic year data found that Virginia’s public schools collectively referred students more often than schools in other states.  A sampling of local Virginia police data showed that student arrests were mostly for relatively minor misdemeanor allegations—including disorderly conduct committed by middle-school age kids. 

The Center report featured the case of an autistic 11-year-old Virginia boy—Kayleb Moon-Robinson—who was charged last fall with disorderly conduct for kicking a trash can at school. Just weeks later, the African-American sixth grader was arrested and charged with felony assault on a police officer after a school cop grabbed Kayleb for leaving class without permission and Kayleb struggled to break fee.  Kayleb’s case remains in juvenile court.

Kayleb was told in court that he could face an order into detention if more complaints about his behavior were made at school.

In his speech, Duncan urged additional investment in schools so they can build counseling and support systems for troubled kids, as well as better training for teachers and staff. Specifically, Duncan said further training is needed to help school staff recognize and resist racial profiling of students. Data shows that suspensions and referrals to law enforcement fall disproportionately on children of color. 

One of every three black men in America is likely to go to prison “at some point in their lives,” Duncan said, a statistic that “leaves us with no choice. We as a country must do more to change the odds.” 

Children in wealthier communities across the nation benefit from greater spending on their schools, based on local and state funding formulas, he said, and these disparities are leaving lower-income minority children with fewer educational resources. 

“It’s criminal, it’s criminal,” Duncan said, that schools serving lower-income communities—such as those he once led as head of Chicago schools—receive funding per child that can amount to only half what’s  spent on children in richer areas nearby.

Duncan outlined a challenge. He urged states and localities to develop alternatives to incarceration for half  the people who get imprisoned for nonviolent crimes in their jurisdictions. Savings of upwards of $15 billion a year could be distributed to “highest-need” schools. The money could boost teacher salaries and attract skilled teachers who would want to stay rather than flee troubled schools.

“That kind of investment wouldn’t just make teachers and struggling communities feel more valued,” Duncan said. “It would have ripple effects on our economy and civil life.”

Duncan said during him tenure in Chicago that he was troubled because “too many” students were ending up in jail. He was stunned when an inquiry showed that most of these students were getting arrested during school hours and inside the city’s schools. Most arrests in Chicago schools, he said, were for nonviolent misdemeanors.

“I know no one…had set out to criminalize the behavior of our students, or to start them down a path of incarceration. But those were the facts,” Duncan said. “Those calls to police, to put kids in jail?  We were making them.”

The Center’s report in April revealed other cases of charges against kids in Virginia schools that critics in the juvenile justice system argue are inflated. A public defender told the Center that one such case involved a 12-year-old girl who was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstruction of justice—all in connection with a schoolyard scuffle.

The girl had clenched her fist when an officer grabbed her, and that became the foundation for charging the child with obstruction of justice, the defender said. Another case involved a 15-year-old girl who pushed a girl in the bathroom at school and kissed her. The teen ended up charged with sexual abuse—which put her into court facing prosecution on a serious charge.  

Duncan said Wednesday that “in the last three decades, state and local correctional spending in this country has increased almost twice as fast as spending on elementary and secondary education. Ask yourself: What does that say about what we believe?”

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