Clairelise Rodriguez is a past member of the 50CAN team. 

A new infographic by paints a scary picture of the disparity between what America spends on its prison system versus what we spend on education. In New Jersey, for example, it’s cheaper to send someone to Princeton University for a year ($37,000) than to lock them up in a Trenton jail ($44,000).

Along with showcasing other compelling stats like the productivity of college graduates compared to ex-convicts, the infographic urges people to “fund colleges, not prisons.”

But what exactly does it mean to “fund colleges”?

The recent uproar about rising college costs aside, simply giving colleges more money isn’t going to solve the problem so poignantly brings to life. The problem is that we’re paying to send people to prison when we could be paying to send them to college. Instead of investing in prisons, we should invest in “prison prevention” by giving would-be inmates resources and support to become college graduates instead.

But before we can send people to college, we have to equip them with the skills to succeed once they’re there. That’s where great public schools come in. The first step to prison prevention is making smart investments in public education so that every kid is prepared for a life of success instead of a life behind bars. 

So what does it mean to make smart investments in public education?

That’s a huge question that can’t be fully answered in just one blog post, but as a starting point here are a few examples of smart investments in public education that 50CAN advocates for:

  • High-quality pre-K. The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis estimates that every $1 invested in early learning can return up to $16 in society, if the money goes to high-quality programs that actually prepare children for school, for the kids that need it the most. This year MinnCAN successfully campaigned for expanded access to high-quality pre-K by getting Minnesota lawmakers to provide $4 million in scholarships for low-income families and enact a rating system so that those dollars are tied to quality.
  • Equitable funding for high-performing charter schools. Some of the best public schools in Rhode Island are charter schools: over the past three years, charter school gains on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) have been more than three times larger than the average Rhode Island school in reading, and more than two times larger than the average school in math. The analysis also shows that the average percentage of charter students reaching proficient on the NECAP is 11 points higher in reading and 9 points higher in math than their home districts. Yet in spite of their success, Rhode Island charter schools receive a smaller slice of the funding pie than traditional schools do. As part of this past year’s Be a Superhero campaign, RI-CAN advocated for Super Schoolhouses to give public charter schools a fair reimbursement rate for their school facilities costs.
  • Ending the last-in, first-out teacher layoff policy. MinnCAN’s issue brief, Keep the Best (For Less), shows that laying off teachers based on how many years they’ve been in the system rather than on how effective they are is costly. For example, if a district has to close a $10 million deficit, it would have to lay off 200 new teachers who each cost the district $50,000. But it would have to let go just 133 more experienced teachers who cost the district $75,000 each. Not only that, poor districts are disproportionately affected by a seniority-based layoff system, since they tend to have more new teachers.

There’s no question that we should be spending money to send people to college instead of prison. But in order to do that we need to invest those redirected dollars wisely. As my grandfather likes to remind me, it’s not just how much money you have that matters. It’s how you spend it. 


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