Prison vs education spending reveals
May 29, 2007
It has been said that a government's budget isn't only a statement of
priorities, but also a reflection of a society's values. California's
proposed budget reveals skewed priorities and hollow values.
For the first time, and unique among large states, California will soon
spend more on its prisons than on its public universities. It has been
projected that over the next five years, the state's budget for locking up
people will rise by 9 percent annually, compared with its spending on higher
education, which will rise only by 5 percent. By the 2012-2013 fiscal year,
$15.4 billion will be spent on incarcerating Californians, as compared with
$15.3 billion spent on educating them. Yet, despite this historic increase
in prison funding, leading legislators -- including supporters of the
increase -- and even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office agree that this is
simply throwing good money after bad, given the rank mismanagement plaguing
California's corrections system.
But they'll spend the money anyway.
More prison spending will mean better pay for the highest paid, most
politically influential prison personnel in the nation, as well as more
prisons, but no one is certain it will result in a better corrections
There's no uncertainty, however, about the benefits that flow from
investing in education. Nothing predicts future success better than a good
education, and nothing guarantees failure more than the lack of one. "Today,
education is perhaps the most important function of state and local
governments," the U.S. Supreme Court stated in its landmark Brown vs. Board
of Education decision. "It is the very foundation of good citizenship ... .
In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to
succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education."
Studies have ratified the truth of those words, more than 50 years later.
According to a recent report by Northeastern University, the median annual
earnings in 2004-2005 of young black men with a bachelor's degree were 2.5
times those of high school graduates and 14.5 times higher than those of
high school dropouts.
The correlation between the lack of educational opportunities and
imprisonment could not be more direct. The same study found that
18-to-24-year-old male high school dropouts had an incarceration rate 31
times that of males who graduated from a four-year college. If you're a
young black male with no high school diploma, it's worse: You're 60 times
more likely to end up behind bars than your classmates who earned a
Despite these realities, we not only continue to feed the prison system
at the expense of funding education, we've also blurred the lines separating
the educational and criminal justice systems, creating a school-to-prison
pipeline with a predictable and steady flow. Police have become an
increasing presence in our public elementary, middle and high schools.
Schools are spending millions of dollars to hire their own police forces or
contracting with local authorities. Kids are routinely searched before being
allowed into the building, under surveillance by video cameras in hallways
and subjected to random searches of their backpacks and lockers.
Behavior that used to warrant a trip to the principal's office can now
result in a trip to jail on charges of assault. Kids not old enough to drive
have been arrested for behavior ranging from throwing a temper tantrum to
talking during school assemblies and violating the dress code. It's kids of
color who bear the disproportionate brunt of these zero-tolerance policies.
Something is clearly wrong when the government's most effective
affirmative-action program is the preference people of color receive when
entering not college, but the criminal-justice system, and when the state's
budget proposes to build up prisons instead of universities.
Who is going to make it right? Even public officials who know this budget
priority is wrongheaded refuse to fight it, preferring to pander to prison
personnel and afraid of appearing "soft on crime." The Rev. Martin Luther
King Jr. once observed: "Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?'
Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' Vanity comes along and asks
the question, 'Is it popular?' "
"But," King added, "Conscience asks the question 'Is it right?' "
Perhaps we should ask our legislators and the governor the same question.
Maya Harris is the executive director of the ACLU of Northern
This article appeared on page B - 5 of the
San Francisco Chronicle