Education Letter to the Editor

Against Incarceration: Opposing Views on Essay

April 15, 2008 2 min read

To the Editor:

Tom Carroll’s logic in his March 26, 2008, Commentary “Education Beats Incarceration” escapes me. He points out that we spend more money in this country to keep people behind bars than we do on education, a fact with which I cannot disagree. But then he advances the argument that if we spent more on education, there would be fewer people behind bars.

A simple way to prove the absurdity of this argument is to do some math. First, find the total number of undereducated Americans—which, according to most studies, is something like one-quarter of the total adult population, or 60 million people. Since some 3 million people are in prison (federal, state, and local combined), we can then calculate that they represent just 5 percent of those who are undereducated.

This suggests that most of the undereducated are living outside the prisons. Hence, 95 percent of those who did not do well on standardized tests are not committing crimes. Call me an optimist, but I think 95 percent is a good grade. Education has always been cheaper than incarceration by design; it is more economical.

Lori Curley Unterkoefler

Essex County College

Newark, N.J.

As the principal of a California public school, I found resonance in Tom Carroll’s Commentary “Education Beats Incarceration” for several reasons. I was particularly pleased that California was mentioned by name for its nation-leading incarceration rate. The correlation to its ranking of 47th in the nation for per-pupil spending on public schools is obvious.

My school, while not a “dropout factory,” is ethnically diverse, with 40 percent of the students being Latino. One successful intervention program that has helped this population succeed at the school is a partnership with a local community college.

The Los Hermanos Project targets Latino males who are at risk of not graduating. It not only provides study-skills instruction, but also teaches them the skills necessary for college success. Students receive both high school and college credits for attending the after-school classes. The participants have a mentor who follows them through their senior year and remains with them while they complete their community college courses, with the ultimate goal of seeing them enrolled at a four-year university. Last year, all of the graduating “Hermanos” were enrolled at Skyline Community College and registered for classes before graduation day.

Programs like this can help stem the trend toward high rates of incarceration. But these types of interventions rely on grants and donations. The only way to assure that “education beats incarceration” systemically is to adequately fund our public schools.

Jerry Brown, now the California state attorney general, has intimated recently that he will run for an unprecedented third term as governor. In doing so, he has recalled that when he was governor from 1975 to 1983, there were 20,000 people in California’s state prisons. Today, there are 170,000. Not surprisingly, in 1975, California was near the top nationally in per-pupil spending for schools.

Michael Coyne


South San Francisco High School

San Francisco, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Against Incarceration: Opposing Views on Essay