Friday, July 15, 2011

A Product of Our Environment?

"The problems of failing neighborhoods might be blamed on failing schools." - David Guggenheim

I often sit in deep thought analyzing the complexities of our economy and its connection to the American school system. Saturday evening I watched an episode of Lockup, a show I never watch and quite frequently gripe about for it's staring presence on MSNBC's weekend lineup. Something compelled me to not turn the channel and for a good reason. The words of a an inmate sparked me to make a connection between the US economy, the US unemployment rate of 9.2%, the education system, poverty, the prison system, crime and the competitiveness of the US within a global economy.

DelShaun Bloodworth, 22, is an inmate in Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Boston, Massachusetts. He is currently serving time for armed robbery and after a plea bargain is set to serve two years in prison. The interviewer, in an attempt to understand the mind frame of DelShaun and other inmates like him, asked about his views on education and the school he attended. DelShaun replied:
"when the teacher told me to sit down, I told her the shut the @#$% up."
I was blown away by this statement. As a child, I wasn't that bad. Every now and then I would answer adults back and do things I was told not to do. Overall, I was just a little rebellious and someone who was guaranteed to misbehave every now and then. With my minor incidents, my great-aunt always would repeat a phrase to me and my cousins whenever we would get out of line"keep it up, that's why they're building more jails for you kids." I always thought she was crazy for using this phrase and didn't quite understand what she was saying.

In college, I took a sociology course and learned about a system we have in place that uses test scores from poor performing schools to determine the future prison population. My great-aunt was right! Fast-forward and we have Mr. Bloodworth and his fellow inmates. It's apparent he came from an environment that was a product of poor schools. I am pretty sure that he was not the only student to display such a remorseless disregard for authority figures. I am also sure that nothing was done to aid DelShaun or students likes him. If only someone or something was in place to help DelShaun stay on the correct course. The system has a higher purpose and unfortunately young people like DelShaun are the pawns needed to allow this system to remain in existence.

According to a Pew Study conducted in 2009, in fiscal year 2008 states spent a record $51.7 Bn on corrections, costing an average of $29K a year per inmate. Here is where it gets interesting. DelShaun is located in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, so it's safe to assume that is where he resided prior to his incarceration. Based on my own random research I came across St. Rose School, a private school located in Suffolk County. The school has an annual tuition of $3300 including fees and is home to grades Pre-K through the 8th grade. Over ten-years DelShaun’s tuition would have been about $33,000. On average an inmate spends four-years incarcerated, so DelShaun would have cost the taxpayers of Massachusetts $116,000, over four years. DelShaun had already spent over a year in prison before his plea bargain, so it’s safe to assume his term, at minimum, was four-years. After ten-years at St. Rose, DelShaun would have $83,000 left over to complete his undergraduate studies and even have a little left over for graduate school, should he wish to pursue additional educational goals. It's that easy people! If we took half of the $51.7 Bn spent on corrections and diverted it to local schools, imagine how quickly we would close the education gaps and ultimately making us a STRONGER nation.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the United States has the highest incarceration rate and prison population of any country in the world. Currently the unemployment rate sits at 9.2% and there are approximately 3M job openings, however our nation lacks skilled workers to fill those positions. Incarceration and unemployment go hand and hand. Reverse 3M prisoners into 3M skilled workers who were properly educated and are competitive on a global scale; even in this economy, you would see a lower unemployment rate, increased revenue to the treasury and a faster recovery. So, not only does our practice of excessive incarcerations make no sense economically, it is literally draining the nation of resources, productivity and growth. If we keep this up, we will only see a further decline in the US economy.

Here is where our government has failed us. We’ve missed the central issue and continue to engage in false debates about tax cuts and the deficit. The solution to all of our problems is simple – Education. If we properly educated our nation from early childhood through college age, we could eradicate poverty, significantly reduce crime and strengthen the workforce with highly skilled individuals, reduce the deficit, lower unemployment and have a higher percentage of high school graduates. With all of this in place, we could certainly excel and surpass other nations in math and science. We would be a nation of inventors and innovators. The country would be economically sound. It's so simple, why can’t policymakers see this? When test scores of poor performing schools are released, don’t build prisons, pour additional money into those schools and make the necessary changes to ensure that the kids are learning and will be equipped to be global competitors and productive citizens. Stop putting science and math majors on Wall Street; put them in labs, classrooms, hospitals and non-profits.

I refuse to believe that we are a product of our environment. Our neighborhoods and communities are products of our education system.

How would you rate the American school system on a scale of 1-5 (1-lowest;5-greatest)?
Is incarceration smart and/or sustainable economics?
Could we attribute our high percentage of incarcerations to the recession and recovery?
What immediate steps could policy-makers take to begin addressing this issues?
How does all of this directly impact your community?

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