Teenage Students Speak Out: Fund Schools NOT Prisons

On Tuesday, April 26, Crystal and I boarded a bus to Harrisburg with other students, parents, and teachers to demand that Pennsylvania prioritize education funding over prison expansion.

Crystal and I are students at Kensington Urban Education Academy, a public high school in North Philadelphia. We come from diverse backgrounds and face the everyday struggles of being teenagers in the Philadelphia School District, such as poverty, violence, and lack of school resources.

We went to the rally - organized by the Pennsylvania NAACP - because our school is already lacking resources, and budget cuts would make these conditions worse. The rally was a great experience for both of us. It was uplifting to be surrounded by the strong presence of unity, and to know that everyone there understood how the budget cuts would affect our future and education. We know that if the budget cuts are approved, many of our teachers will be laid off and our already limited resources will be further decreased, such as counselors, after school tutoring, school supplies, and extracurricular activities.

Governor Corbett wants us to believe he has no other choice. Speaking in Chester recently, the governor defended his $550 million in cuts to basic education by blaming the disappearance of federal stimulus funding. "I don't have this money," he said. "The state doesn't have this money. The federal government is not sending it."

There is one major problem with the governor using this argument to defend his education cuts. While the governor cannot muster the political will to replace temporary stimulus funding for our schools, he seems to have very different feelings about filling the exact same kind of gap in the state's prison budget.

In their 2011 Costs and Population report, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) requested an 11% increase in their operating budget for the coming fiscal year. To justify this request, the DOC argued that such a boost in state funding is needed to replace the $172 million in federal stimulus funds that runs out this year. Governor Corbett seems to agree; he has proposed raising the DOC's budget by $186 million, or almost exactly 11%. Apparently, when it comes to prisons, the governor believes it is the state's responsibility to cover budget gaps left by the withdrawal of temporary federal funding.

Over the last thirty years, the number of people in prison across the state - and the cost of incarcerating them - has skyrocketed. In 1980, there were 8,243 people in state prisons in Pennsylvania. In 2010, there were 51,321. In 1980, the DOC had an annual operating budget of $94 million. By 2010, that operating budget had ballooned to $1.7 billion. If we continue to stand by and do nothing as prison growth continues unchecked, we can expect the DOC operating budget to top $2 billion soon - very possibly by next year.

As escalating incarceration rates have put increased pressure on state governments, many states are looking to roll back harsh sentencing policies as one way to achieve cost savings. In New York, for example, the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws have been scaled back to reduce the use of overly severe mandatory minimum sentences. Other states are looking to early release and alternatives to prison for technical parole violations to decrease their prison populations. Similarly, many states are focusing their resources on jail diversion and alternatives to incarceration.

The Sentencing Project recently released a report on four states that have implemented reforms aimed at reducing their prison populations over the last decade: Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York. Contrary to common fears about the impact these measures will have on public safety, crime rates have steadily decreased in all four states during the same time period.

As our neighbors in New York and New Jersey have realized, there are real alternatives that decrease prison costs and enhance public safety. Instead of learning from the success of other states, Pennsylvania is planning to add over 5,000 new prison beds by July 2014.

Senator Stewart Greenleaf recently introduced SB100, known as the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which would allow Pennsylvania to build on the progress of other states. This proposed legislation would enhance re-entry efforts that support families and neighborhoods, implement alternative sentencing practices, and transition more prisoners with non-violent offenses and short-term sentences into community corrections programs.

Building stronger community supports to keep people out of prison is central to decreasing our country's reliance on mass imprisonment. Investing money in education instead of incarceration will limit class size, reduce conflict in schools and slow the pace of students being pushed out of the school district and into the prison system. The governor's proposed budget will do the opposite - push more young people out of school and into newly built prisons.

On Thursday, May 19th, Crystal and I again boarded a bus to attend a rally and march for educational justice, this time in Washington DC and organized by the Alliance for Educational Justice. We understand that the fight for quality public education is not only happening in Philadelphia and that it is important to build a movement with other concerned students, parents, and educators.

As students in the Philadelphia School District, our future heavily depends on the proposed cuts to the education budget. We both want to become lawyers. However, if the budget cuts do go through, it would make our hard work less valuable because grants, student loans and scholarships would be harder to attain.

We believe that the motivation we get from our teachers is key to our success. If it weren't for them making the lessons fun, interactive, and their constant "you can do it" attitude, school would not be worth coming to and most of the students wouldn't learn. A quality education needs investment from both teachers and students. Governor Corbett's budget cuts will take away our teachers, leaving us and their other students behind to stray away from school.

When he proposed drastic cuts to basic education funding, Governor Corbett told us that "education cannot be the only industry exempt from recession." What he left unsaid is that his budget proposal does make one industry exempt from the recession: Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections.

(Written with assistance of Hanako Franz, Sarah Morris, & Hannah Zellman; members ofEducation Not Incarceration-Delaware Valley.)

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