Education is considered the great equalizer. Armed with a good education, a person can achieve anything. In practical terms, an educated person is 3.5 times less likely to be incarcerated than their uneducated peers, making education a significant determining factor in the likelihood to offend and be imprisoned. Opening schools then should, as Victor Hugo once said, close prisons. Right? Not necessarily.
The opening of schools can lower delinquency rates given all other factors being equal. However, all other factors are not equal. Institutional racism continues to send an inordinate number of people of color to prison, regardless of their educational status. Opening schools to reduce incarceration rates only addresses one of the factors leading to imprisonment. Not only does institutional racism decrease the effects of opening schools by lowering the quality and capacity of such schools, but also plays a larger role in the likelihood of imprisonment for people of color than educational attainment.
Even highly educated people of color are at risk of imprisonment regardless of their education status. Institutional racism exists throughout the judicial and prison system from the inequality of racial profiling among police, a lack of representation of black citizens on juries, unequal sentencing and racist algorithms used by judges to determine parole and likeliness to reoffend. Regardless of education, black men are disproportionately imprisoned for crimes for which white men are not: while black men represent 13% of drug users in the United States, they make up 36% of drug arrests and 46% of drug-related incarcerations (1). This discrepancy is often caused by tendencies to stop and question or search black men more often than white men. Thus, black men in public spaces are arrested for possessing drug paraphernalia that would never have been discovered had they not been stopped and searched for looking ‘suspicious’ or ‘furtive’. A person’s education level does not matter as much when racial profiling and other forms of discrimination take place. This is evident in the case of Henry Louis Gates, the black Harvard professor arrested for entering his own home in a nice Cambridge neighborhood on suspicion of breaking and entering in (2).
School doors are not opened as wide for people of color. In the United States, for people of color, the educational system fails to offer the same advantages to them as it does to white students. One major factor that decreases the quality of schools that have a predominance of children of color is a lack of funding. The lower funding is both directly and indirectly linked to and perpetuates institutional racism. United States federal policy dictates that funding for public schools come mainly from property tax income. Given histories of redlining, where certain minority groups were excluded from areas by neighborhood covenants and governmental laws, and a history of the government’s failure to fund house ownership among communities of color, the continued dependence on property taxes to fund public schools furthers inequality through education.
Beyond property tax funding, a recent study found that in Pennsylvania schools with larger populations of white students tended to get significantly more funding from the government than schools with many more students of color, despite the fact that these predominately white schools typically received more funding through property taxes (3).
This gap in access to funds is widened further by more recent laws allocating funding based on student performance. Due to a preponderance of factors, children in underfunded schools from poorer families tend to perform less successfully on standardized tests than children from wealthier families and in better funded schools. Children in underfunded schools are disproportionately children of color due, once again, to histories of redlining and homeownership discrimination.
Considering the effects of race on school funding, children of color in poorer schools often do not receive the attention, supplies, and support that they need to succeed in school and obtain an education. Thus, for children of color, the opening of schools often fails to supply the requisite education that prevents imprisonment later in life.
In order to ensure the efficacy of opened school doors to close prison doors, we need to address the institutional structures that underfund schools in poor and minority neighborhoods and disproportionately arrests and imprisons people of color.