Texas Prison Spending Up Three Times School Rate. Oh, Sure, That'll Work.

Reality check. That’s all. I just thought you might like to know that Texas now leads the nation in spending more on prisons than schools.

To be sure, we spend more on public education in Texas than we used to. State and local expenditures for pre-K thorugh 12th grade increased by 182 percent between 1980 and 2013. Wow. Pretty good, eh?

But, not wow. Look how our spending for keeping people locked up increased in the same period. That went up by 850 percent. Ouch.

That’s how we get our Number One rating. According to a recently published study by the U.S. Department of Education, Texas chalked up the highest percentage point difference in the nation between increases in expenditures for education and increases in expenditures for incarceration over a three-decade period. Our spending on prisons went up by 668 percentage points more than the increase in school spending.

Wait a minute. We had population growth in that period, did we not? So how did that affect it?

In fact, when you look at our expenditures on a head-count basis, we either did a little bit better or a little less horribly but still very horribly if you think it’s very horrible to lock everybody up instead of teaching them to read.

In per capita terms, the growth in spending on education in Texas in that period versus the growth for incarceration allows Texas to drop down to only fourth most horrible in the nation, behind Wyoming, South Dakota and West Virginia. And how much comfort, exactly, should we draw from being behind those three horribles?

Wyoming has a total population of just over half a million souls – more than Arlington but less than El Paso – so I’m not sure how Wyoming is even a bench-mark for us. South Dakota and West Virginia are more populous but are still dueling banjo states. In terms of serious states with serious populations, I would say we’re still seriously horrible, even on a per capita basis.

And it’s not as if it works. The same Department of Education study cites research showing that a 10 percent increase in incarceration rates produces a drop in crime rates of only about two percent.

Other research, meanwhile, shows that a ten percent increase in high school graduation rates can produce a decrease in crime rates of as much as nine percent. So in the simplest terms, prisons are an extremely inefficient mechanism for reducing crime and making people safer than effective schools.

The other major phenomenon the study points to – maybe the most important thing in it – is a kind of pressure-cooker effect that has to do with who gets locked up. In terms of where the hammer falls and how hard, we’re talking about very specific communities and geographical areas concentrated in poor urban minority neighborhoods.

Authors of a Columbia University study in 2006 coined the term “million dollar blocks” to describe places where government spends $1 million a year or more to incarcerate residents of a single city block. A point worth pausing on is that most of those people will go back to that same block the day they get out of prison, where their presence will help to re-poison an already poisoned well.

If we fail to find an effective key to that problem, if we cannot find a way to put that basic syndrome into remission, then those million dollar blocks can only continue to metastasize as social cancers.

The point of the Department of Education study – and they are, after all, the Department of Education – is that education is a far cheaper and more effective means of turning young people’s lives around than prison. The study found that two-thirds of state prison inmates are not high school graduates. Nationally, black males between the ages of 20 and 24 who lack a high school diploma have a higher chance of being incarcerated than of finding a job, the study found.

Nobody is saying that getting a hardened criminal to earn a high school certificate will turn him away from the life of crime to which he is already committed. Nobody is saying we should not lock up dangerous criminals. 

But if we go up to about 6,000 feet and look down, the path we are on now is clearly not sustainable. I told you here yesterday about a conversation I had recently with Dallas civil rights organizer Peter Johnson in which he described a culture of nihilism among young black residents of very poor inner city neighborhoods in Dallas.  Johnson was also talking about Micah Johnson, no relation, the man who murdered five Dallas police officers and wounded seven others on the night of July 7. Micah Johnson appears to be the product of a more middle class, suburban and diverse milieu than the young urban poor people Peter Johnson described to me as nihilists, but a larger point still stands in what Peter Johnson had to say. You can’t neglect a social cancer anywhere in the body politic and expect things not to get worse.

Right now we seem sometimes to be lost in the whirlwind. Sure, sure, giving everybody a better education would do a lot of good in the long run, but what do we do right now, in the short run?

And, yet, if we continue to do everything in the short run, acting out of a kind of slow-burning impacted social panic, do we not just make everything worse in the long run? How do we break out of that cycle as a state, a city, a community of human beings?

Right after the police shootings downtown, I told you about an initiative to re-examine discipline policies in the public schools in Dallas, especially as they relate to minority kids, who make up 93.2 percent of the student population in the Dallas Independent School District.

Dallas school board member and former board president Miguel Solis is working with experts around the country, including some in the White House, who say they have evidence that school careers begin to go south for minority kids, especially boys, as soon as they encounter school disciplinary systems, which is often pretty soon.

Again, no one is saying kids who behave badly should escape discipline. But Solis is looking at research that says there are ways to discipline kids from disadvantaged backgrounds that actually get them to behave better instead of worse. Wouldn’t that be something?

The traditional culture of discipline, heavy on corporal punishment, shaming and out of school suspension, basically tells the kid, “You’re stupid, and we hate you, but you can probably find some kids who think the way you do if you go to prison.”

How does that help?

Solis’ interest in school discipline is but one splinter in an entire woodpile of effort directed these days to turning around the lives of poor kids in Dallas. Shield your ears for one instant from the din of ideology around charter schools, and you can’t help seeing that the entire charter school movement is an attempt to re-write the life narratives of poor kids.

Some charter schools are no good. Some are miraculously good. But taken altogether, the charter school movement is dramatic evidence of a commitment to finding that key I mentioned earlier.

After I spoke with Solis, his name popped up in a New York Times story about the way Dallas has dealt with difficult police/community relations over the years, especially the question of fatal encounters. Solis told the Times about attending a colloquium in Cambridge, Massachusetts where discussion turned to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Dallas.

Solis said people at the conference were saying to him, “‘Tell us about how you guys led the nation on an epidemic that we’ve never faced in our land.’”

He told the Times, “And I’ll bet if I went back to Cambridge in a couple of months they’d want to know how we faced this issue [police shootings] as well. We have had miserable times in Dallas. And at every one of those miserable times we could have stopped and let the misery define us, but we don’t. We persevere.”

There is no reason to believe we cannot or will not go after the Gordion knot of segregation, school failure and crime with the same determination and perseverance. We already know we can do this kind of thing. That’s three-fourths of getting it done.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze