The return on investment in American education to individuals and to society at large has been growing in both relative and absolute terms since 1980.
It is well known that, statistically, people who are well-educated earn substantially more, pay more in taxes, are less likely to be unemployed, live longer, are healthier, and are more likely to vote.
Yet, in spite of that, our society is increasing spending on locking people up faster than it is on educating them. Our investments in punishing people for their failures are outpacing our investments in ensuring their success.
That was the disturbing finding of a first-of-its-kind analysis issued recently by the U.S. Department of Education. Over the past three decades, state and local budgets for prisons and jails grew more than twice as fast as spending on public elementary and secondary education, when adjusted for inflation. Even when population changes are factored in, 23 states increased per-capita spending on corrections at more than double the rate of increases in per-pupil K-12 spending.
Higher education also took a back seat: Between 1990 and 2013, average state and local funding for each full-time college student fell by 28 percent, while per-capita spending on corrections rose by 44 percent.
One of the major drivers of the rise in spending on corrections is that the number of people behind bars in state and local correctional facilities has more than quadrupled since 1980. The growth of this population—to more than 2 million in 2014—was due in part to laws requiring lengthy minimum sentences.
The link between incarceration and lack of education is strong. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, two-thirds of state prison inmates have not completed high school. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research also shows young black men between the ages of 20 and 24 who do not have a high school diploma or an equivalent credential are more likely to be behind bars than they are to have a job.
The Obama administration has taken several actions to reduce the ongoing cost of corrections by addressing recidivism. Last year, the Education Department announced Second Chance Pell—a pilot program that will give access to grants for postsecondary education and training programs to 12,000 incarcerated individuals who are eligible to return to their communities within the next five years.
The department also created a program in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice to provide career and technical education to students who are involved in the juvenile-justice system. Another of the Education Department’s initiatives calls on colleges and universities to rethink asking prospective students to indicate past arrests on their admissions applications, because such questions deter young people from applying. The administration’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative encourages communities to provide all children, but especially young men of color, with the support they need to avoid getting in trouble in the first place.
Mass incarceration does not make us safer. It denies our nation the productivity and creativity of millions of our people."
Educators, schools, and states can do far more than the federal government can, however, to reduce incarceration. Every year, our schools suspend roughly 2.8 million students—the vast majority of them for noncriminal activities—and refer a quarter of a million students to police. Students of color, especially black students and those with disabilities, are suspended and referred to police at disproportionate rates. These students are more likely to fall behind academically, drop out of school, and wind up in prison. The Education Department has assembled a number of resources—all of which are available online—to help educators rethink their discipline policies so that schools are not contributing to the problem.
Rethinking discipline may also require re-examining how local resources are spent. New data released this past spring showed that 1.6 million students attend schools that employ a sworn police officer but do not have a counselor on staff. That’s a prime example of misplaced priorities.
Another strategy schools can pursue is to identify students who are chronically absent and re-engage them in school. Almost one in eight students in the United States missed three or more weeks of the 2013-14 school year, which translates into 93 million school days lost. The reasons for chronic absenteeism are as varied as the challenges our students and families face—including health, transportation, and safety—and can be particularly acute in disadvantaged communities and areas of concentrated poverty. But whatever the cause, the consequences are clear: Irregular attendance can be a better predictor than test scores of whether students will drop out before graduation. Chronic absenteeism also has been linked to adult poverty, poor physical and mental health, and incarceration.
The most important thing states and communities can do for children is to invest in high-quality preschool programs, provide them with well-supported teachers, and do what it takes to make sure they graduate and succeed after high school. Researchers have estimated that a 10 percent increase in high school graduation rates would result in a 9 percent decline in criminal-arrest rates. Even a 1 percent increase in male graduation rates would save up to $1.4 billion in the social costs of crime and incarceration over the course of the graduates’ lives. Although national graduation rates have hit a record high, too many students still quit before earning a diploma in many communities.
Whatever strategies states and schools use to reduce incarceration, the payoff will be huge. Finding alternatives to jail or prison for just half the people convicted of nonviolent crimes would save upwards of $15 billion per year—which as my predecessor Arne Duncan has pointed out, would be enough to provide a 50 percent salary increase to every high school teacher working in our highest-need schools and communities.
I’m not naive. I know that allocating more dollars does not automatically produce improved student outcomes. But, certainly, money is not unrelated to quality. It costs money to build computer labs, buy materials, and hire counselors. Investing in our teachers and students is fundamentally important, as is overhauling our criminal-justice system to make sure young people have the opportunities they deserve.
The bottom line is that mass incarceration does not make us safer. It denies our nation the productivity and creativity of millions of our people. And it belies our values as a land of opportunity. We know how to address the issue. All that we lack is the commitment to doing so. It is time we came together as a country to invest in all our people and their capacity to contribute to society.
A version of this article appeared in the August 03, 2016 edition of Education Week as U.S. Secretary of Education: Let’s Educate, Not Incarcerate