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Shutting down the school-to-prison pipeline

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education indicating that state and local funding for prisons has grown three times faster than funding for pre-K-12 education offered a sharp reminder of how decades of law-enforcement policy based on mass incarceration have warped the nation's priorities. In far too many cases, the nation's prisons have become the dumping grounds for America's failure to adequately invest in its children's future.

As The Sun's Liz Bowie reported, total spending on schools nationally still substantially exceeds that spent on prisons. But the rate of growth for the latter has increased sharply since 1980, while school funding remained essentially flat over the same period when adjusted for inflation. Since 1980, state and local spending for primary and secondary education has doubled from $258 billion to $534 billion, while spending on corrections quadrupled from $17 billion to $71 billion. That divergence in many ways reflects the country's misplaced reliance on "get tough" anti-crime policies that in fact helped create the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline" many states are now struggling to reverse.

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Maryland has done better than many states in maintaining its commitment to adequately fund elementary and secondary education. Spending on prisons here, which increased from $467 million in 1980 to $1.7 billion in 2013, rose only twice as fast as school funding over the same period, which grew from $5.3 billion to $12.1 billion, including a substantial commitment to increased state funding during the 2000s. But that hasn't allowed the state to escape the consequences of a fundamentally misguided policy. While Maryland boasts some of the best school systems in the country, it's also plagued by persistent achievement gaps along racial and class lines between its highest and lowest performing districts.

In Baltimore City, the problem of the "school-to-prison" pipeline is particularly acute owing to the city's high rates of unemployment, poverty and crime. Maryland's school funding formula rightly recognizes that the city schools need special help to meet these challenges, and state lawmakers increasingly have come around to the Obama administration's view that investing more in education for disadvantaged children and youth in high-poverty schools, coupled with reforms to the criminal justice system, could substantially reduce crime and recidivism rates.

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Last year former Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on states to invest in teachers rather than prisons. He argued that the $15 billion in potential savings that could be achieved by diverting just half of the nation's nonviolent offenders from prison into alternative school programs would be enough to give every teacher and principal in the country's highest need schools a 50 percent salary increase and also make it possible for their students to get an education that prepares them for success in life. If Maryland isn't following that precise model, it is at least taking steps in that philosophical direction thanks to a bi-partisan consensus on criminal justice reform. This year's Justice Reinvestment Act, a collaboration of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly, is designed to reduce the population of non-violent offenders in state prisons and to funnel the savings into programs to prevent crime and improve ex-inmates' prospects upon re-entry.

The reality, as presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett noted this year, is that "mass incarceration does not make us safer. Yet for three decades, our country has prioritized spending on prisons instead of classrooms. We can no longer afford this failure to invest in opportunity, only to lock up people once they've dropped out of school and turned to crime. These misguided priorities make us less safe and betray our values, and it is time we came together as a country to invest in our people and their capacity to contribute to society."

The U.S. has just 5 percent of the world's population, yet it is home to 20 percent of the world's prison population. For more than 30 years we've been locking up more people proportionately than any other country on the planet, yet our efforts have not made us any safer. Instead, they've starved our schools and communities of the resources they desperately need if they are to continue turning out young people who have the skills to be competitive in the global marketplace.

Yet despite all the evidence, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has made "getting tough" on crime" his signature approach to law enforcement. America has already been down that road and it's a dead end. It's time to turn the page on the failed policies of the past and invest instead in our future.

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