Prison Thinking and Schooling

Prison Thinking and Schooling

October 24, 2013 | Gara LaMarche, President, Democracy Alliance

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NCCD Board Member Gara LaMarche is a senior fellow at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. LaMarche was recently appointed as the new president of the Democracy Alliance, a network of individuals devoted to building the infrastructure needed to execute and advance a progressive agenda. This blog is the second in a series of excerpts from a lecture LaMarche gave at the University of California, Berkeley titled “Is Prison Thinking Infecting Public Policy?”.

NCCD Board Member Gara LaMarche is a senior fellow at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. LaMarche was recently appointed as the new president of the Democracy Alliance, a network of individuals devoted to building the infrastructure needed to execute and advance a progressive agenda. This blog is the second in a series of excerpts from a lecture LaMarche gave at the University of California, Berkeley titled “Is Prison Thinking Infecting Public Policy?”.

I worry that prison thinking is seeping into other spheres—nowhere more prominently or disturbingly than education.

High suspension and expulsion rates are at crisis levels. More than 3.3 million students were suspended or expelled in 2006—nearly one in 12. Only a fraction were for serious offenses. The vast majority were for things like coming to school late, talking back to a teacher, or violating their school’s dress code—yet another way schools are coming to resemble prisons. Marian Wright Edelman was the first to call this the “cradle-to-prison pipeline.” Edelman warned in 2007 “Once children drop out, or are pushed out of school, the prison pipeline is only one wrong move away.”

If these encroachments of prison thinking into the school system were limited to so-called discipline and security alone, it would be a huge problem. But they go deeper, to the very policies and language used to justify broad-scale school reform. Education theorist Bill Ayers, one of the most thoughtful and humane advocates for progressive education, linked the two when he wrote in an open letter to President Obama that “zero tolerance” for student misbehavior turns out to be a stand-in for child development or justice and a range of sanctions on students, teachers, and schools—but never on lawmakers, foundations, corporations, or high officials (they call it “accountability.)”

Former Bush education official and historian Diane Ravitch, who has emerged as the most trenchant critic of the current wave of education reform, points out that US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan predicts that “more than 80 percent of the nation’s public schools would be labeled ‘failing’ this year by federal standards, including some excellent schools in which students (usually those with disabilities) were not on track to meet the target. By 2014, if the law is unchanged, very few public schools will not be labeled ‘failures.’”

Those who marginalize and even demonize young people, particularly young people of color, are increasingly serving as a conveyor belt for the criminal justice system. While our expectations of prisons are different, we believe that schools ought to be, and are, at their best, essential institutions of democracy. If some number of children are pushed out for minor infractions and end up in the grip of the prison state, and the majority get educations that render them unfit to be independent-minded citizens, democracy is in peril.