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Education Opinion

Sorry, NAACP, Prisons Aren’t a Big Enough Piggy Bank

By Rick Hess — November 09, 2010 3 min read
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Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of hosting NAACP president Ben Jealous at AEI (you can watch the video or read a summary here). Ben, whip-smart and charming, is the youngest president in the NAACP’s illustrious history and is tasked with trying to lead an unwieldy board and generations-old outfit into the 21st century.

It’s a tough job, especially when it comes to education. On the one hand, he’s got aggravated parents eager for choices and frustrated with mediocre teaching. On the other hand, a key NAACP constituency is veteran educators and municipal employees who are bitterly opposed to reforming tenure, pay, or evaluation and who regard their teaching jobs as a doorway to the middle-class.

Consider how long it’s been since the NAACP drew attention in schooling for something other than protesting the treatment of black students or some proposed reform. Unlike the Education Trust or the National Council of La Raza, the NAACP is typically seen as a bastion of the status quo—as when it sued to stop 19 school closures in New York City and blasted the Obama administration’s prized Race to the Top fund.

A promising starting place for the NAACP’s venture into education reform is Ben’s effort to extend an open hand, especially as the NAACP prepares to release its new education strategy this winter. While most folks in D.C. are pursuing common ground with a lot of talk and little action, Ben reversed the formula. He took several hours to come over to AEI and talk about where the NAACP is at. We disagree on important questions, and he knew that—but he came and spent the time. And I think several folks in attendance found places from which to build. That’s healthy and productive.

Two big takeaways. First, with varying degrees of specificity and sincerity, he voiced openness to teacher tenure reform, charter schooling, merit pay, and so forth. The NAACP has been largely missing in action on these issues in recent decades, so it was intriguing and potentially promising to hear Ben signal this openness. It’s not clear how far or how aggressively he’s willing to go, but it at least opens the door.

Second, and less promisingly, Ben kept coming back to the need for more money and, especially, the vast sums available if we dial back prison spending. He repeatedly pointed out that the U.S. has remarkably high rates of incarceration, implied that our educational woes are primarily due to insufficient spending, and seemed to suggest that we can score the dollars we need by cutting spending on corrections. This take struck me as tone-deaf given the fiscal climate and disappointing results of much school spending.

It also seemed to ignore the fact that, relatively speaking, we just don’t spend that much on corrections. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), total national expenditures on corrections (including prisons, guards, juvenile detention centers, parole, and so forth) were estimated to be $68 billion in 2006, the last year for which the BJS reports data. That same year, national K-12 spending topped $500 billion. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reported last March that 26% of state spending is devoted to K-12 while just 5% is spent on corrections—and pointed out that state K-12 spending only accounts for about half of state-local K-12 outlays. As the CBPP notes, “While [corrections] costs have grown significantly over the years, overall they remain a relatively small share of state spending.”

In short, for all the energetic rhetoric, there’s just not that much money in corrections. We could slash corrections spending by half and put all those dollars into K-12 and it just wouldn’t much matter. It’d amount to, perhaps, a 5% bump in school spending. Schools have routinely enjoyed increases of that size year after year, with no evidence that it’s made a lick of difference. High rates of incarceration make a nice talking point, but the issue is little more than a distraction when it comes to school improvement.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.