Visions of a School-to-Prison-Back-to-School Pipeline at TFA’s 25th Anniversary
Policy leaders, including acting Education Secretary John King, stressed the need for significant reforms to put an end to the school-to-prison pipeline and to support the reentry of young people into the education system after incarceration. During a gathering for Teach for America’s 25th anniversary, King urged education advocates and journalists to take action and tackle the problem. The issue refers to discipline policies that disproportionately target students, particularly young men of color, resulting in suspensions, expulsions, and involvement in the criminal justice system.
This event coincided with congressional efforts to pass sentencing reform legislation, a key priority for President Obama in his final year in office. Former Secretary Arne Duncan proposed redirecting funds that have been used for incarceration towards raises for teachers in the most impoverished communities, as his last proposal before stepping down.
Cami Anderson, former superintendent of Newark schools and moderator of the panel, acknowledged that education reform advocates have played a role in the problem. Despite widespread interest, this was the first time Teach for America had included the issue on its convention agenda. Anderson highlighted the support for zero-tolerance discipline policies and schools that exclude the most challenging students as problematic, not just within Teach for America but also within other education reform groups.
During the gathering, King emphasized that the school-to-prison pipeline is interconnected with broader racial issues in America, such as police brutality against young black men and high unemployment rates among people of color. Consequently, solutions must be comprehensive in addressing these problems.
The first step in finding a solution is to ensure that public schools provide an education that each child deserves, not just in terms of quality, but also through inclusive measures like high-quality preschool, a well-rounded curriculum, and comprehensive services for children living in poverty.
Additionally, there needs to be a focus on establishing supportive systems that facilitate a diverse teaching force, fair school financing, and open dialogues about the challenges that come with diversity.
Finally, there should be a "prison to promise system" that helps reintegrate ex-offenders into the education system after their release from jail. Essentially, this means creating a pathway for those caught in the school-to-prison system to return to school.
King expressed his satisfaction that Congress is discussing criminal justice reform but disappointment that the conversations seem to center primarily, if not exclusively, on reducing sentences. He highlighted the importance of prison reform, specifically addressing violence and sexual assault within prisons, ending solitary confinement for young people, providing education and job training opportunities for incarcerated individuals, and reforming policies that prevent ex-offenders from accessing housing and employment.
"It’s not enough to focus solely on sentencing reform; we need systemic reform as well," said King. Without educational opportunities within the corrections system, individuals may receive shorter sentences but will likely return to prison if there is no path to opportunity.
Other panelists emphasized the importance of supporting individuals in prison or transitioning out of the corrections system. Amy Roza, director of the Goucher Prison Education Project, discussed how her organization brings professors from Goucher College to correctional facilities in Maryland, offering regular classes and allowing students to earn college credits. This project is also the first recipient of an experiment by the Education Department that enables incarcerated individuals to access Pell Grants for higher education programs.
Roza explained that access to college credits, along with other education and job training programs, reduces recidivism rates and sets individuals on a path away from prison. However, she added that this service is not just about reducing recidivism, but also about returning stolen opportunities to those who deserve them.
"This type of situation is utterly disgraceful, and yet if we continue to exclude them from the discussion, we will never be able to bring about any change," she remarked.
According to her, the efforts to reform the school-to-prison pipeline have been too narrow-minded, primarily focusing on prevention and putting an end to disciplinary practices that result in exclusion. "In order to truly effect change, we must acknowledge that the school-to-prison pipeline extends beyond just suspensions and expulsions. My children cannot afford to be expelled or suspended because it would hinder their ability to continue their education."