Duncan: Save Money with Prison Reform, Give It to Teachers


US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke to the National Press Club on Wednesday concerning his vision for what he calls a “historic bet” on the power that schools can have over prisons. Duncan explained that if states and communities could find alternative ways to deal with perpetrators of nonviolent crimes instead of incarceration, $15 billion a year would be saved, reports Caitlin Emma of Politico.

Duncan suggested that this sum could go to giving teachers in the neediest fifth of all schools in each state a 50% raise.

“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 will say. “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.”

The idea is closely related to President Obama’s push for criminal justice reform which is aimed at stopping excessive sentences for nonviolent crimes. Obama met with six Oklahoman prisoners earlier this year, and the prisoners described their early lives. They were people who made unremarkable mistakes, and the president said the only difference was that they did not have the support , the second chances, the resources that could have allowed them to weather these problems.

Duncan also said that the country needs to take a long look at the disparity in student discipline, and not just obvious bias. He mentioned the child who was holding a clock that was mistaken for a bomb and said that more often “It’s far subtler stuff, buried in invisible privileges and expectations we’re not even aware we hold.”

Duncan also spoke of the school-to-prison pipeline, the path that leads from high school and goes directly to jail, particularly for young men of color. He added that a quarter of a million students are turned in to law enforcement each year, many of whom are young men of color or disabled children. And most disturbing, says Duncan, is that they are being arrested during the school day, in school buildings, and mainly for nonviolent behavior.

This issue results in the crippling of a child’s future, Duncan said. He explained that the majority of black men who have not graduated from high school and are between the ages of 20 and 24 are not working – they are imprisoned. Currently, one-fifth of black men in the US will receive a college degree, but one third, according to predictions, will serve prison time.

The secretary’s ideas also relate to teacher retention. More than 40% of new teachers stay on the job less than five years, says the National Education Association, which it says costs the US approximately $2.2 billion a year. It also affects students’ chances of having an experienced teacher’s instruction. Not only would the $15 billion raise teacher salaries, it would also create five mentor teacher positions at each high-poverty school.

The department does not have the authority to impose such changes on the state level or in the local districts, and it has few incentives left, especially as the Obama administration comes to a close, according to Lauren Camera of US News and World Report.

Still, Duncan seems passionate about ending the school-to-prison pipeline. Todd Cox, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think-tank, responded to Duncan by agreeing that lack of opportunity puts many on road to prison.

“It is critical that we make removing barriers to these opportunities a priority if we are going to ultimately stem the tide of mass incarceration,” he said.​