Education Law Prof Blog: New Report Focuses on Connection Between Criminal Justice and Education Policies, But the Real Problem is Education Quality

The Economic Policy Institute recently released a new report arguing that criminal justice policy is education policy.  The main thrust of the report is to point out the poor educational outcomes for students who have an incarcerated parent.  Its main findings include:

  • An African American child is six times as likely as a white child to have or have had an incarcerated parent. A growing share of African Americans have been arrested for drug crimes, yet African Americans are no more likely than whites to sell or use drugs.
  • Independent of other social and economic characteristics, children of incarcerated parents are more likely to:
    • drop out of school
    • develop learning disabilities, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
    • misbehave in school
    • suffer from migraines, asthma, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and homelessness

Those points are almost too obvious.  Of course, students with parents in jail will tend to perform worse than others, just as a students with millionaire parents will tend to graduate high school at much higher rates and go to more expensive colleges. The report acknowledges that the school-to-prison pipeline is a problem, but emphasizes that adult incarceration is making matters worse.  That is surely true, but if legislatures are not willing to fix the direct causes of poor educational outcomes, why would they address these ancillary causes?  And will addressing these ancillary causes substantially alter educational opportunity?

None of this is to disagree with or critique the suggestions in this new report.  They are on target.  But they jump a key point: states need to address problems in schools first.  Those are ultimately the ones that lead to adult incarceration and create a negative feedback loop, not the other way around.  

The source of the education problem is twofold: punitive approaches to school discipline and inadequate educational opportunities in low-income communities.  In fact, these two problems are intertwined.  As I argue here and here, school quality is, in large part, a function of discipline policy.  Until we recognize this connection, school quality will continue to lag and the school-to-prison-pipeline will proceed at full steam.  Everything else obscures the problem and prompts polemic, knee-jerk reactions.

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Derek Black

Derek W. Black is a Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. His areas of expertise include education law and policy, constitutional law, civil rights, evidence, and torts. The focus of his current scholarship is the intersection of constitutional law and public education, particularly as...