National Press Club

Education Secretary Duncan advocates shifting money from prisons to teacher salaries

October 1, 2015 | By Lawrence Feinberg |

Education Secretary Arne Duncan called for redirecting funds for prisons to teacher salaries at a Sept. 30 National Press Club luncheon.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan called for redirecting funds for prisons to teacher salaries at a Sept. 30 National Press Club luncheon.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged states and local communities to break the “school-to-prison pipeline” by cutting in half the number of non-violent offenders sent to prison.

The estimated $15 billion in annual savings should be used to give 50 percent salary increases to teachers in high-poverty schools, Duncan said at a National Press Club luncheon on Sept. 30.

Duncan joined President Barack Obama and other administration officials in deploring the nation’s large prison population, which is disproportionately comprised of African Americans.

He said his proposal to shift funds from prisons to teacher salaries would send a signal that “we believe in great teaching early in our kids’ lives rather than courts, jails and prisons later.”

Even though some may see his new proposal as “improbable or impractical,” Duncan said it was “essential” as part of the nation’s response to the “issues of race and class” that have come to the forefront in the wake of widespread disorder in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore after the deaths of unarmed African Americans in encounters with police.

“One out of every three black men in America is predicted to go to prison at some point in their lives,” Duncan said, “while just one in five of them receives a college degree. We must do more to change the odds.”

Duncan acknowledged that the federal government does not have authority to shift funds from prisons to schools but he said the Education Department might initiate a small pilot program to encourage it.

Last month, Duncan announced a small program to offer federal Pell grants for college expenses to prisoners under his authority to conduct experiments despite a 1994 congressional ban on such aid.

“Whatever we can do to give people second chances or third chances, we should do,” Duncan said.

Duncan’s new proposal for halving the number of non-violent offenders in prison drew a skeptical response from Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, president of the Major City Chiefs association, according to the Washington Post. Manger said a major cut in the prison population might increase violent crime and jeopardize communities.

Although he favored releasing some non-violent offenders who can benefit from mental health services and job counseling, Manger said many have been imprisoned as a result of plea bargains in which more serious charges have been dropped or have previous criminal records.

"You don't have to be a liberal romantic," Duncan said, to favor favor shifting funds from prisons to schools. He noted that many conservatives as well as liberals now believe the U.S. incarceration rate is too high. He said many young offenders commit more serious crimes after being imprisoned on relatively minor charges.

Schools play an important role in creating this situation, Duncan said. They suspend about 3.5 million students per year and refer about 250,000 per year to the police. Disproportionate numbers, he said, are “children of color — particularly boys — and…students with disabilities.”

Duncan said the $15 billion saved by a 50 percent cut in nonviolent offenders in prison should be targeted for teachers in the 20 percent of schools with the highest poverty rates in each state. This would benefit 17,640 schools, Duncan said, and would help “attract and keep more great talent in the most challenged schools.”

In his speech, Duncan suggested that big pay increases should be given to all teachers in such schools, but later, in response to a question, he repeated his long-standing view that “student learning has to be part of evaluating teachers” and determining pay not only through tests but by “multiple measures.”

In a question and answer period after the speech, Duncan said the chances that Congress would replace the No Child Left Behind law, now eight years overdue, became much harder after House Speaker John Boehner announced he would resign at the end of October.

Duncan said he still hoped for a bipartisan measure that Obama could sign but said the situation now is “very disappointing.”

Over the past few years, Duncan has responded to the legislative impasse by waivers and incentive programs that Republicans and other critics have called over-reaching. Duncan said they have led to higher state standards and student achievement.