Spending on incarceration v. education tells the tale of our broken political system’s misguided priorities


By David Sheridan, graphics by U.S. Dept of Education

State and local spending on prisons and jails has grown three times as much as spending on K-12 public schools over the past three decades.

This is the stunning conclusion of a new report from the U.S. Department of Education.

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Commenting on the report, Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama was unusually blunt: “These misguided priorities make us less safe, cost us an exorbitant amount of money and betray our core values. Where there are fewer resources for schools, job training and economic development, cycles of poverty and incarceration continue unabated.”

The Department of Ed report notes: “Investing more in education, particularly targeted at-risk communities, could achieve crime reduction without the heavy social costs that higher incarceration rates impose on individuals, families and communities.”

The picture of state and local spending on incarceration v. higher education also tells the tale of misguided priorities. Over the past two decades, state and local spending on colleges and universities has been nearly flat while spending on prisons and jails increased 89 percent.

Prison v. Higher Education funding

Money saved by reducing incarceration rates, through measures such as prison reform and rehabilitation for drug offenders, could be invested in schools which serve poor and minority children to reduce class sizes, expand student counseling and health services, and upgrade rundown facilities.

In addition, restoration practices which foster healthy relationships and promote positive discipline in schools will help reduce incarceration rates by closing the school-to-prison pipeline, freeing up funds for greater investment in education.

Spanish teacher Erika Strauss Chavarria reports that time she has spent implementing and advocating for restorative justice has been worth it. “It’s all about my students,” says Chavarria who’s been teaching for six years. “Restorative justice and other efforts to keep students in school also make good economic sense. Losing even one grade of high school students, the UCLA study found can cost taxpayers more than $35 billion a year.”

Reader Comments

  1. I was standing in line at a burger joint and overheard two GOP faithfuls discussing their party’s plans for the privatization of our public schools. When one asked the other how this was going to come about, they said, “Starve the Beast!” Exact words.
    I recently saw this astute quote from Noam Chomsky:
    “That’s the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”

  2. The school to prison pipeline begins before the cradle, when children’s brains are developing.

    We need to address the disengagement piece which begins in early elementary school. Often these children are removed from the general education environment and placed in special education classrooms as students with emotional or behavioral needs. Many do not exhibit academic needs. And these young students are often placed in these classrooms for extended periods of time far in excess of the time it takes to de-escalate behavioral outburst.

    These classrooms are simply not adequately resourced to provide the services these children need. Special education teachers are not mental health counselors. Instead these children need real-time interventions in their general education classroom, a person assigned to provide care and coaching in the moment (not a resource officer), school-parent partnerships to coordinate teaching students to regulate emotions both at home and at school, and wrap-around services.

    Often behavioral outbursts arise because young children have difficulty completing academic tasks. These children need intervention services that are tightly-aligned to need. Instead schools often remove these students from the general classroom environment and place them in special education classrooms for long periods of time, far in excess of the time needed to teach the missing skills.

    When children are removed from the general education environment for long periods of time, even when placed in a special education setting, they lose learning opportunities that cannot be made up. Over time these gaps continue to widen and our children gradually disengage from school for longer and longer periods of time.

  3. Mario,
    The point you’re missing is that it’s a vicious cycle where the incarceration rate will continue to rise unless children are given the support they need at a young age. There are numerous studies showing the lifelong effects of poverty on children… It costs society more long-term. We’re putting the cart before the horse by spending more on prisons than education.

  4. There is nothing stunning about the disparities in funding. Prisoners require round-the-clock supervision. Also, since they are incarcerated, the state has to provide for all their need, including medical and social. In addition, unlike teachers, guards work exclusively with dangerous people, so their compensation and benefits are higher. You can not compare the costs of running a prison with those of running your typical public school, they are completely different institutions, with completely different goals. Not only that, but accepting that we are, in some nebulous way, responsible for the ill-named school-to-prison pipeline, we are taking responsibility for a societal problem, way outside our ability to solve.

  5. In an age where our district is unable to pass our school budget at the bare bones minimum to utilize a skeleton crew of staff to educate our students, our communities are not seeing the impact this will have on the future. For example, the middle school I work in was broken into last week–for the third time in three months. My classroom was broken into twice. Well, authorities were able to catch the culprits with the use of technology. The thieves/vandals were former students with a history of substance abuse problems. We knew these problems existed when they were in middle school. Unfortunately, we did not and do not have the resources to adequately help these at-risk students–even when we can see the writing on the wall if we don’t help them. The result for our school and these kids? Thousands of dollars of loss to a school who can’t afford pencils and an arrest/prosecution for these students. Will they get help yet? That remains to be seen. However, my guess is that our prison dollars will go toward them.

    I strongly support funding comprehensive K-12 health and physical education, PBIS, quality after school activities with transportation and creative enrichment opportunities to empower our youth to make positive life decisions.

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