Skip to content Skip to navigation

Schools v. prisons: Education's the way to cut prison population (op-ed by Deborah Stipek)

May 16, 2014
San Jose Mercury News
Inspired by the recent performance of Anna Deavere Smith at Stanford, the authors of this op-ed detail how spending more on education would not only shrink the prison population, it would enable more of our children to lead fulfilling and productive lives.
Kathryn Hanson and Deborah Stipek

Victor Hugo's 19th century remark, "He who opens a school door closes a prison," still holds true today.

The relationship between education and incarceration was made starkly clear at Stanford's 2014 Cubberley Lecture, where actress Anna Deveare Smith brought to life the difficulties facing disadvantaged youth in American schools through a series of humorous, gritty and brutally honest monologues.

Deveare Smith, acclaimed for her roles on TV shows like The West Wing and Nurse Jackie, is known for bringing academic rigor to her theatrical creations. In portraying the sobering reality of disadvantaged youth caught in the school-to-prison pipeline, Deveare Smith challenged us to do better.

Read a description of Anna Deveare Smith's performance at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

The link between a poor education and incarcaration is borne out in data. Dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than high school graduates. Nationally, 68 percent of all males in prison do not have a high school diploma. Only 20 percent of California inmates demonstrate a basic level of literacy, and the average offender reads at an eighth grade level.

Many so-called dropouts who end up in jail are actually push-outs. Under the guise of zero tolerance, initiated after Columbine, students are often asked to leave school as a first response rather than a last resort. Discriminatory practices are common.

In 2011-2012, black youth represented 16 percent of the juvenile population, but 34 percent of the students expelled from U.S. schools. Black students are three times more likely than whites to be suspended. The majority of teens in the juvenile justice system engaged in non-violent crimes such as truancy or disruptive behavior.

Says Deveare Smith, "Kids [are] being yanked out of school for what would be called mischief in wealthy communities and sent to jail."

For most youth, jail is the beginning of the end of any hope for a productive life. An estimated two-thirds to three-fourths of incarcerated teens ultimately withdraw or drop out of high school.

Our failure to invest in education is costly for individuals and taxpayers.

According to Scott Graves of the California Budget Project, California is expected to spend more than $62,000 on each prison inmate in 2014-15--almost 7 times the $9,200 it will spend for each K-12 student. Over the past two decades, California spending per prisoner has increased nearly three times faster than spending per K-12 student.

Although California is up from 49th place to 37th in school spending, it receives a D+ for school financing in Education Week's 2014 Quality Counts report card.

Why pay almost seven times the amount for juvenile detention as we do to educate our youth? We know what it takes to educate students well, and the cost is substantially lower than the cost of prison.

Read the complete article in the Mercury News.

Deborah Stipek is the I. James Quillen Dean and Judy Koch Professor of Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Kathryn Hanson is the CEO of ALearn, an educational non-profit dedicated to getting underserved students to college.

Back to the Top