Teaching Profession

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

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 06, 2015 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

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.

A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as Plan Would Shift $15 Billion in Prison Spending to Teacher Pay

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Seamless Integrations for Engagement in the Classroom
Learn how to seamlessly integrate new technologies into your classroom to support student engagement. 
Content provided by GoGuardian
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Be the Change: Strategies to Make Year-Round Hiring Happen
Learn how to leverage actionable insights to diversify your recruiting efforts and successfully deploy a year-round recruiting plan.
Content provided by Frontline
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Critical Ways Leaders Can Build a Culture of Belonging and Achievement
Explore innovative practices for using technology to build an environment of belonging and achievement for all staff and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession What Teachers of Color Say Will Actually Work to Diversify the Profession
In a new survey, teachers of color pick the most effective recruitment and retention strategies.
6 min read
Image of a teacher in front of a high school classroom.
Drazen Zigic/iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession Q&A Why Teachers Are Going on Strike This Fall—and What Could Come Next
A labor expert explains what's driving the recent teacher strikes.
7 min read
Teachers from Seattle Public Schools picket outside Roosevelt High School on what was supposed to be the first day of classes, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Seattle. The first day of classes at Seattle Public Schools was cancelled and teachers are on strike over issues that include pay, mental health support, and staffing ratios for special education and multilingual students.
Teachers from Seattle Public Schools picket outside Roosevelt High School on Sept. 7. Teachers went on strike over issues that include pay, mental health support, and staffing ratios for special education and multilingual students.
Jason Redmond/AP
Teaching Profession Q&A A Teacher Who 'Refused to Be Party to Censorship' Tells Her Story
The teacher was targeted for sharing links to online libraries with students amid district book challenges.
8 min read
Books packed up in a cardboard box.
Patrick Daxenbichler/iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession Teacher Showers: Helping Hand or Symptom of a Profession in Trouble?
It's a boon to new teachers, but others worry about it reinforcing the idea that teachers should pay for things out of pocket.
4 min read
At Olivia Aston’s teacher shower, guests ate wafer cookies shaped like pencils.
At Olivia Aston’s teacher shower, guests ate wafer cookies decorated like pencils.
Photo courtesy of Olivia Aston