California can end school-to-prison pipeline with more choice

A classroom inside the Sacramento County Juveniel Hall. School choice advocates say that traditional public schools send too many children behind bars.
A classroom inside the Sacramento County Juveniel Hall. School choice advocates say that traditional public schools send too many children behind bars.

As the nation focuses on the state of the union and how we make ourselves a better nation, one fact is inexplicably never addressed: If we are to get people back to work, we need to not only have jobs available but trained workers available to take those jobs.

Unfortunately, too many policymakers have failed to draw the incontrovertible link education plays in fostering the school-to-prison and welfare pipeline. The United States spends $228 billion on criminal justice because we badly spend $595 billion on our abysmal schools. In California, 70 percent of prison inmates do not have a high school diploma.

We need to alter the discourse and directly address how both our public education and criminal justice systems affect poor and minority youths.

This is the fifth National School Choice Week. With more than 11,000 events across the country, it provides parents and supporters a chance to highlight how all forms of choice – charter schools, online learning, home schools, private schools and others – improve a child’s education and ultimately their future.

Too many traditional public schools funnel too many children into our criminal justice system, accounting for 3 of every 10 cases referred to juvenile courts in 2011 – the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement. Yet juvenile court judges are ill-equipped to deal with matters that should be handled by schools.

Traditional school discipline policies exacerbate this. Poor, black and Latino children are suspended at disproportionately higher rates than white and middle-class peers. Overusing suspensions enables districts to obscure underlying reasons for misbehavior, including struggles with literacy.

A 2006 Stanford study found that a third-grader who is functionally illiterate is more likely to engage in behaviors leading to suspension and expulsion. The average American prison inmate has literacy scores 18 to 22 points lower than the average non-incarcerated adult, according to a national assessment.

According to national data, 74 percent of high school seniors are not proficient in math and 62 percent not proficient in reading. The result is staggering: 42 percent of students at two-year colleges and 39 percent at four-year colleges take remedial courses to learn what they didn’t in high school.

For school reformers, we must speak out on the injustices that curtail our children surviving into adulthood. Alongside our advocacy for expanding choice, we must also support reforming laws on police use of deadly force, eyewitness testimony and prison conditions.

At the same time, criminal justice reformers should picket failing schools, protesting their failure to educate poor and minority kids who are the most vulnerable to being fast-tracked to prison.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was arrested protesting Eric Garner’s death in New York, but remains opposed to vouchers enabling kids to escape the city’s failing schools. Her symbolic arrest generates news, but folks also must stand up for parent trigger laws empowering families to transform failing schools and expand school choice.

Reformers should support providing parents with real choices to escape failing schools. Undoubtedly, school choice options are on the rise and public support for educational opportunity continues to increase.

Today, a monolithic education delivery system is being shaken, giving parents more choices to meet their children’s schooling needs. Twenty-four states offer parents state-funded opportunity scholarships, refundable tax credits, education savings accounts or corporate-funded scholarships for private schools.

School and criminal justice reformers should unite to address prisons and schools as flip sides of the same coin. Our children desperately need an overhaul of both. Until then, none of us can breathe.

Gloria Romero, a former majority leader in the California Senate, is director of the California Center for Parent Empowerment. RiShawn Biddle is editor of Dropout Nation, an online outlet on education reform.