Proposal: Shift $15 Billion in Prison Spending to Teacher Pay

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Breaking the links between educational inequity, mass incarceration, and unrealized economic potential is the focus of a proposal by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan challenging state and local governments to change their mindset on funding priorities.

Duncan is recommending that states and localities repurpose $15 billion of the much larger amount they currently spend on correctional facilities and instead pour it into teacher salaries.

Two-Pronged Approach

More specifically, the money would be saved by redirecting half of non-violent criminal offenders away from prison, and used for substantial pay hikes for teachers working in the highest-poverty schools. Such a strategy would also help both attract and retain high-quality teachers, Duncan said.

According to calculations released by the U.S. Department of Education, using data from the 2011-12 school year and other federal sources, teachers in 17,640 schools would qualify for such a pay raise. The redirected $15 billion would represent a 21 percent reduction in state and local spending on correctional facilities, according to the department, and a 56 percent increase to the $26.9 billion in salaries for those high-poverty schools. The department's calculations don't specify how many teachers would get a salary increase.

In a speech at the National Press Club last week, Duncan argued that the plan wouldn't merely give a boost to underfunded schools, but would change the fortunes of many of the 250,000 students who are referred by schools to the police and the millions of others who are suspended every year. Instead of being pushed out of schools and onto a course that leads to prison for many of them, he said, they would be better prepared for academic success, graduation, and a productive adult life through their exposure to good teaching.

"With a move like this, we'd not just make a bet on education over incarceration, we'd signal the beginning of a long-range effort to pay our nation's teachers what they are worth," Duncan said in his prepared remarks. "That sort of investment wouldn't just make teachers and struggling communities feel more valued. It would have ripple effects on our economy and our civic life."

Bold Action Urged

Duncan's plan wouldn't deal with federal dollars, however, only state and local money, and lays out no mechanism to ensure that the $15 billion would be shifted from prison spending to schools.

In response to questions about his proposal, Duncan acknowledged that no state or locality has agreed to pursue what he's proposing. But he stressed that there's "emerging bipartisan support" for making significant changes to the current criminal-justice system.

Duncan also stressed that while he recognized that such work would take time and involves more factors than just public schools, his plan presented the problem in stark terms and provided a correspondingly bold approach.

"Do you want to tweak it around the edges, or do you want to do something transformational?" Duncan said.

Groups in the educational and civil rights communities reacted positively to Duncan's proposal.

The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, called Duncan's plan a "wise prescription" that "will help break this [school-to-prison] chain once and for all." And American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten responded in part by highlighting her union's Racial Equity Task Force, set up to address structural racism in education, economic, and criminal-justice systems. Weingarten also took the opportunity to call for a new focus "on engaging students rather than just testing them."

Duncan's prison-to-school funding proposal fits neatly into President Barack Obama's recent push to highlight what he sees as problems with the criminal-justice system.

Obama, for example, recently appeared in a documentary produced by the online news outlet Vice about prisons, and in July became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. That same month, he commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders serving time in federal prisons. Incarceration rates in federal prisons have fallen for the first time in three decades. That focus on criminal justice has also extended to education issues. In 2011, for example, the administration launched the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, which was designed to change discipline policies that the Education and Justice departments said create a large number of referrals from schools to the criminal-justice system.

Administration Priority

In 2014, new discipline guidance was released by the Education Department aimed at addressing what the department said were inequities in how schools' policies were applied to different racial and ethnic groups. Former Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time the new guidance was released that schools should address "exclusionary" policies, in which many students are suspended or expelled for nonviolent incidents, helping to feed the school-to-prison pipeline.

'Bet ... on Great Teachers'

In his remarks at the National Press Club, Duncan also touched on these issues also, saying that until Americans acknowledged that "poor black and brown children" can contribute to society and provide them with the people and resources to help them overcome often difficult circumstances, the current school-to-prison pipeline will continue.

"When we bet on the transformative power of great teachers, we cannot lose," he said.

Related Blog

The interest in these issues isn't confined to Washington. For example, a law signed earlier this year by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, is designed to limit suspensions and expulsions. Suspensions of up to three days are allowed if students pose a threat to others or could disrupt school operations. (Local school boards retain discretion over what these terms mean in practice.) Suspensions or transfers to alternative schools can only be imposed after other disciplinary and restorative options are exhausted.

The original Illinois legislation faced opposition from the state principals' group, which later shifted to neutral after the bill was altered.

Vol. 35, Issue 07, Pages 14, 16

Published in Print: October 7, 2015, as Plan Would Shift $15 Billion in Prison Spending to Teacher Pay
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