Defenseless children photo from the Juvenile injustice series

Sometimes schools and prisons seem the same thing. But they aren't. Let's keep our kids out of them.

An argument used by some in education, most recently by a writer in the Edurati Review, is that America spends far too much money on criminal justice — including prisons — at the expense of schools. And at first, it seems valid. From the vast numbers of young black, white and Latino dropouts landing in prison to the scandals within the juvenile justice system, it is clear that improving the educational destinies of students can make it less likely for them to land behind bars. Figuring out which crimes are truly crimes worth prison time (rape, for example) and which ones are consensual acts that hurt no one but the person (physically and emotionally) and her immediate family, would also help.

But do we actually spend too much on prisons at the expense of education. Here are a few

  • Amount spent on operating and building prisons in fiscal year 2005-2006: $70 billion. Total amount on criminal justice, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics $214 billion.
  • Amount spent on K-12 by districts, states and the federal government in the same fiscal year: $528.7 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Amount spent on prison construction in 2006: $2 billion.
  • School construction spending that same year: $45 billion.

The reality isn’t so much that the America doesn’t spend too much on prisons, at least not per se; nor is it that the U.S spends too much on education. It’s that the country spends far too much on both inefficiently. This is especially true with the latter. Too much spending is caught up in a politically-driven system of teacher compensation that fails to reward high-performing teachers and pays laggards far too much. Defined-benefit pensions and unfunded retirement liabilities are sopping up much of the increases in K-12 spending. Younger teachers don’t reap the full rewards of their work until late in their careers; the high level of attrition in the teacher ranks before fifth year of service is far too high.

Given that three out of every 10 American children fail to graduate from high school, the costs of the system are far greater than the results. It’s both tragedy and travesty.

Essentially, criminal justice spending isn’t a problem. Nor is education spending a problem. Spending education funding efficiently for results is. We must do better by our children.