Tracing the school-to-prison pipeline (Education Dive)

By Kate Schimel

Earlier this year, in an essay for the Arkansas Law Review, Western State University law professor Tracie R. Porter took the education system to task.

“The school environment should be conducive to learning, which cannot occur when the facility looks more like a prison than a classroom,” Porter wrote. She wasn’t speaking metaphorically. The essay, titled "The School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Business Side of Incarcerating, Not Educating, Students in Public Schools," was an examination of the money supporting harsh school disciplinary practices that drive students out of the classroom and into jail cells.

Prison lobbies pour large amounts of money into advocating for harsh punishments for small crimes — and for zero-tolerance discipline policies, which carry steep punishments for students who commit small infractions. While not all districts go to this extreme, there have been documented cases of police referrals for incidents as small as violating dress code or stealing a soda from a teacher’s lounge. Such practices feed the phenomenon known as the school-to-prison pipeline, which sees predominantly minority students channeled into the juvenile or adult criminal justice system.

In some states, that can mean big money for juvenile prison operators run by private companies. Almost 40% of students who are committed in the United States end up in a privately run facility. A Huffington Post investigation of Youth Services International, a private juvenile prison operator, found that the company managed more than $100 million in contracts for the state of Florida and poured thousands of dollars into campaign contributions for elected officials. That, in spite of the fact that the company had a track record of abuse and mismanagement.

According to Porter, that sort of financial gain is due to aggressive lobbying on the part of prison operators, an unwillingness to invest in education on the part of government officials, and the cheap labor incarcerated people provide.

“If the government placed more resources into programs that seek to curb misbehavior instead of spending billions of taxpayer dollars on building a prison industry, students in public schools would have a real chance of becoming valuable contributors to society,” Porter writes.

Can money be a fix, rather than an impediment?

But in some places, the tide has started to turn as increasing attention focuses on the ways the pipeline affects students. As a result, districts are reconsidering their school disciplinary and policing policies. Denver, for example, worked with community groups and local law enforcement to restructure student discipline and who should respond when they act out.

Some states have also begun to consider grants that would turn the private funding model on its head. Instead of leveraging funds from private prison operators, some states and districts are considering leveraging private investors’ money. The model, called Pay for Success, is essentially a long-term investment in achieving better student outcomes. Private investors, along with districts and schools, put money toward programs like preschool and summer school that help prevent behavioral and academic struggles down the line. The government pays back the funds if the program succeeds at preventing negative outcomes down the line.

The Pay for Success system has also been applied to youth recidivism at New York's Rikers Island in an effort to prevent students who have already spent time in a juvenile detention center from returning. States like Utah and Colorado are testing the waters, implementing small Pay for Success programs to see if they work or contemplating larger legislation.

What can educators do?

School administrators can play an important role in stemming what Porter calls the pipeline's “water main.” For one, they can overhaul zero-tolerance discipline policies and seek out alternatives. But they can also organize educators and community members to have a larger discussion about how to change the underlying attitudes that produced the policies and to advocate in state legislatures.

“It’s key that administrators buy in,” said Keri Smith, the state coordinator for Padres & Jóvenes Unidos’ End the School to Jail Track initiative. The organization worked closely with Denver to overhaul its memorandum of understanding with local law enforcement and reduce suspensions and expulsions for black and Latino students.

She suggests spending time listening to community members, examining your district or state’s particular problems, and discussing the issue publicly.

“When school administrators step up and say they want to do something, a lot more people will do it,” Smith said.