The Power of Choice in Severing the School-to-Prison Pipeline

A dollar invested in schools, it is often suggested, is a dollar saved on prisons. But as RiShawn Biddle and Gloria Romero point out in an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, that theory only works if the education money is invested in quality schools that work for kids. Too often, they argue, our education investments go to schools that don’t serve their students well, particularly in high-poverty communities.
Unfortunately, too many policymakers have failed to draw the incontrovertible link education plays in fostering the school-to-prison and welfare pipeline. The United States spends $228 billion on criminal justice because we badly spend $595 billion on our abysmal schools. In California, 70 percent of prison inmates do not have a high school diploma. We need to alter the discourse and directly address how both our public education and criminal justice systems affect poor and minority youths.
Students in high-poverty communities are more likely to live within the attendance boundary of an underperforming school than students in more affluent communities. Without school choice, these children are trapped. And when their schools also have discipline policies that default to suspensions and expulsions, their shot at a bright future diminishes even more.
Traditional school discipline policies exacerbate this. Poor, black and Latino children are suspended at disproportionately higher rates than white and middle-class peers. Overusing suspensions enables districts to obscure underlying reasons for misbehavior, including struggles with literacy. A 2006 Stanford study found that a third-grader who is functionally illiterate is more likely to engage in behaviors leading to suspension and expulsion. The average American prison inmate has literacy scores 18 to 22 points lower than the average non-incarcerated adult, according to a national assessment.
Giving parents the power to choose the school that’s right for their child—that best meets their academic and social/emotional needs—helps break the school-to-prison pipeline.
School and criminal justice reformers should unite to address prisons and schools as flip sides of the same coin. Our children desperately need an overhaul of both. Until then, none of us can breathe.
Michael Vaughn
Michael Vaughn was the founding Communications Director of Education Post. Prior to that, Mike worked for 18 years in the communications offices of two urban school districts. He served in a variety of communications roles for the Chicago Public Schools starting in 1996, shortly after Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of CPS, and eventually served as the district's Communications Director until ...

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