Friday, May 16, 2008

The School to Jail Pipeline

By Mike Zapata
As a 12th grade English teacher and education advocate living in Chicago, I have learned that in order to convince people that institutions are intertwined — my job affects your job, my lack of resources affects your right to resources — I have to argue the dollar. It has been inferred that teachers teach, especially those in impoverished neighborhoods, from the ‘bottom of their good heart’ or to ‘help society.’ This is a naive and unworkable view of the education system. So, instead, when speaking to small-business leaders, entrepreneurs, corporations, and political figures in Chicago, I rely on the two following figures:

1) According to Alternative Schools Network, ASN, the state of Illinois saves $125,000 for every student that finishes high school.
2) According to the 2007 IL state budget, it costs an average of $7,000 a year to send a high school student to school, while it costs nearly $60,000 to keep an adult imprisoned during the same fiscal year.

My students at El Cuarto Año High School at Association House, a re-enrollment, alternative high school in Humboldt Park, understand the consequences of an overvalued prison system and an undervalued education system very well.

My dad always told me to brush my teeth daily, to get an oil change every three thousand miles, to store enough food in the pantry to last through a nasty mid-February Chicago blizzard. The mark of sustained survival, for an individual as well as for a civilized society, is to be preventative. Increasingly, in our nation, we are not. And with our most important civilized asset – the education of our youth – we are fundamentally not. We are devastatingly short-sighted. To borrow a term from Chicago political writer Ramsin Canon, we are "nearly civilized', possibly barely surviving, and, if I may, we are letting our wisdom teeth rot.

We have a simultaneous crisis of education and imprisonment. This crisis is not only devastating to the institutions of our society, but to the very best elements and values of our society, which was founded on the principles of the Enlightenment. ..The light of the Enlightenment, which laid the foundation to our educational and legal institutions, was based on the inevitable equality of people, the will of the individual, collective bargaining, and eventual self-rule; all of which made it possible to limit the power of Caesars and increase the education of the working class.

However, it is becoming clear that a current lack of educational resources is leading to the bloating of our prison system (and, arguably, to the increase of the power of our Caesars. High school students have an extremely apt name for this: The School to Prison Pipeline,

In Humboldt Park I work closely with many students, predominately Latino and Black, who are working to escape the School to Prison Pipeline. The media often portrays these “urban” students as either prison fodder or as recipients of being saved. The reality – and back to our original dollar argument – is that millions of students are stuck in a section of the American Market that unforgivably offers a low-grade, cheap education and, a few years later, unforgivably puts them in a high-grade, expensive prison system when they are unable to adjust to a Market that demands higher levels of education. It is also important to note that the cost of one year of imprisonment for an adult male matches, or exceeds, the average salary of an educator as well as the earning potential of the prisoner himself. Our American students are being flushed of their most ideal and humanely available asset: an education, which is necessary to the ‘pursuit of happiness,’ the ability to collectively
bargain, and the skills to participate in the Market and the Republic.

I am not making an argument completely against the Market. The Market can work for the majority, but only if the masses have access to fair labor, fair health systems, and fair education. There are those with reasonable arguments who say an uneducated mass is the point, but let me be clear about how this crises affects you; whether in taxes, crime rates, state services, community assets (cultural and financial), or even an Enlightened sense of freedom and equality (visceral or abstract), there is a very real cost here. Your wallet and your community is worse off (i.e. nearly civilized) because millions of teenagers reside between the school and the jail.

My father, an Ecuadorian immigrant, and my mother, a Russian-Jew by descent, value the American Dream and, most of all, value public education. For them it is the greatest American experiment and asset – a good and fair education allows social mobility and access to our nation’s finest resources. I have often had faith in the American Dream, as many first generation Americans do, because I have witnessed how access to an education can work. I have also witnessed how lack of access can very easily lead a person to jail. I work daily with students who exist in the School to Jail Pipeline, but I also get paid to do so. I consider myself fortunate in that my job aligns with my core beliefs, but it is still my job, as it is the job of thousands of people in Chicago and a few hundred thousand in our nation to try and make sure the School to Jail Pipeline does not work. But often, this is not enough. This does not a true Republic make. Ask any community organizer or educator, and
they will tell you that one of the biggest impacts is the continued help of those who do not get paid to do this work: parents and community members whose fundamental, fully-civilized beliefs and actions can shift the balance away from an abusive Market or Caesar.

*Abridged version of article that appeared in with title "The Aventine Redux" Published with permission of author.

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