Worcester Schools Spend $500 Less Per Student Than Mass. Average
Thursday, August 15, 2013
“These dual phenomena – poor quality schools and an ever-expanding prison system make racial equality near impossible for black, and increasingly Latino, men and women in the U.S,” said Professor Melissa Weiner from the College of the Holy Cross.
Part of the issue, Weiner and other experts say, comes from the way school funding is determined – by local property taxes. Prison funding, on the other hand, is determined at the state or federal level, depending on who runs the facility. This leads to steady funding for prisons statewide, while poorer school districts receive less funding than wealthy districts.
This funding formula accounts for the drastic differences between districts. Provincetown spends the most at $31,294 per pupil in 2011, while Shirley spends the least at $9,648 per pupil. That puts Massachusetts’ Department of Corrections’ per prisoner spending at $14,201.91 higher than the state’s highest per pupil spending, and more than four times its lowest.
More harm than good
“The easy answer to why we’re willing to spend more on prisons than schools is this: We think it will make us safer,” said Barb Dougan, Massachusetts campaign director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).
“For those dangerous offenders who will never be released from prison, that may be true. But everybody else will be going home at some point. Given our recidivism rates, our current policies and practices simply aren’t making us safer. Indeed, we are failing miserably,” she said.
Recidivism rates refer to the number of offenders reentering prison after their release. According to the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, 43 percent of inmates released from state prisons in 2007 recidivated within three years.
“Critical race scholars argue that there is an explicit link between the poor quality education provided to most children of color and the rise of the prison industrial complex,” said Professor Weiner, referring to the fact that disproportionate numbers of people of color live in underfunded school districts.
Less than pure intentions
“The state also makes, or rather saves, money,” Weiner said. “Most prisons provide free or extremely reduced price labor to the state. Many prison companies contract not only to house inmates, but then also to produce everything from license plates, to produce, to school desks, while others serve as local travel agents and technical support.”
This incentivizes state’s keeping prisons full, as the economic benefit of cheap labor is more immediate than that of a well-educated citizenry that may avoid prison in the first place.
“Tough on crime slogans may sound good, but we are starting to realize that that approach is often more accurately tough on taxpayers and tough on the community the prisoner is returning to,” Dougan said.
She referred to the fact that 58 percent of male prisoners and 49 percent of females prisoners have less than a 9th grade reading level, while 56 percent of male prisoners and 40 percent of female prisoners have less than a 6th grade math level. This indicates a huge failure of the education system pre-prison, and a large correlation between education quality and rates of incarceration.
“If we invest more into early intervention and early childhood education we will be able to instill a solid foundation of teaching individuals the ability to self-regulate, while building healthy habits beginning with our young,” said Rose Pavlov, founder, president, and CEO of Ivy Child International, a Worcester-based nonprofit dedicated to positive child development. “Through early identifiers, and adequate support services we could ensure a sustainable path and plan for academic success.”
Level the playing field
Both Professor Weiner and Dougan suggest that substantial reforms are necessary to address the current inequities of the criminal justice system.
“One potential way to change the current inequity would be to fund schools the way prisons are funded, at the state level, and not based on property taxes,” Weiner said.
Dougan urged changes to mandatory minimum sentences that can result in nonviolent drug offenders being incarcerated longer than many violent offenders. Reductions in such sentencing could mean significant cost savings. She also urged an increased focus on in-prison educations programs.
“If we are going to lock people up, it only makes sense to ensure that they leave in better shape than they came in. Prisoners who leave with more education and better job skills are less likely to fall back into old bad habits,” she said.
“I understand the concern that it’s not fair for prisoners to have more access to educational opportunities than those on the outside. Obviously, we need to make sure that everyone has those same opportunities.”
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