• The School-To-Prison Pipeline, And The People Who Profit.

    The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

    While the United States is still somewhat civilized in that metric, in comparison to places like, say, Mexico, Turkey or North Korea, we're doing our damnedest as a nation to change that, for the worst. The U.S. continues to trend southward on the list of "first-world nations you'd actually want to live in." When it comes to healthcare, education, advances in technology, per-capita income, amount of leisure time and general happiness, we're falling farther and farther behind our European and Asian contemporaries. At least we'll always be numero uno when it comes to military strength and expenditures...

    When kids talk about their schools, quite a few will liken them to prisons. Not because they just don't plain like school (who does when you're a kid?), but because the schools have, for the most part, have replicated the rigid, regimented and highly controlled environment that resembles most maximum security prison environments. In many cases, you can thank zero-tolerance measures and building architects who design most new schools to be cinder-block enclaves with limited access and limited distractions. That means no windows and few entry and exit points save for the fire escapes. And they'd get rid of those, too, if they could.

    I had the pleasure of going to a high school that was built in a hillside during the late 1950s, as a Cold War-era solution to surviving a nuclear attack and the resultant radiation fallout that followed. It didn't help that it was just a few miles away from a rather important military installation with a lot of stuff that made it nuke-worthy by Soviet standards. As a result, you had a hexagonal structure surrounded by other hexagonal stubs buried in a hillside, with no classroom windows. As this school was quite old by the time I attended, the HVAC and ventilation system was usually FUBAR and any decent temperature or fresh air regulation had to be done by opening the emergency doors in the classrooms that were lucky to have one. However, this school wasn't "urban" enough to warrant metal detectors and the school didn't seem to embrace the "zero-tolerance" policies with the fervor schools do today. Other schools I went to before that were built as most schools were before Brutalist architecture and the need for controlled environments came into vogue.

    Not only do you have the buildings as instruments of control, you also have the adherence to class schedules, the assigned lunch seating, the requirement to travel to and from as a group at the appointed times, etc. I understand this is all necessary for young minds that have yet to handle independence with the measure of respect and good judgement that most kids have yet to develop, but I can't help but notice how the entire school environment resembles the corrective institution in a growing number of ways. It's a feeling you can't really put your finger on, but you know it's there.

    The need for control and regimentation is manifested by students who act out because they're either bored or frustrated. Since the public school experience is largely regimented out of necessity (or laziness, in many cases), there's no way that a school teacher can fine-tune the curriculum to accommodate a student for whom the standard method of learning simply does not work. Lots of people require hands-on experience and end up doing better in trades and careers that feature tactile and tangible experiences. And since public schools usually lack the funds, will and foresight to identify underlying problems that could result in a miserable school experience for a kid, those problems are either ignored or doped away with copious amounts of Adderall or Ritalin. For others, they act out, and the zero-tolerance policies come into play.

    Private schools are a whole 'nother kettle of fish. I had the opportunity to go to quite a few when I was a young kid, specifically a small, church-run school in the middle of a "distressed urban environment." The entire experience was different from any public school I've been to at that point -- the classroom experience was less restrictive and regimented. There was less stress, even though the environment was just as competitive (or far more, in many cases) as other ordinary public schools. Fewer fights, fewer disruptions and more opportunities for a custom-tailored educational experience that actually benefits kids. But it was expensive, and single parents with other household expenditures can't swing the private school bills as well as financially established families, and those are few and far between in most urban areas.

    So, where am I going with this? Well, the Tea Party made plenty of public institutions targets in their scheme to dismantle and replace them with privatized entities. Actually, it isn't so much the Tea Party orchestrating this as they are simply the dumbassed foot soldiers doing the bidding of the real power brokers funding the so-called "grassroots" organization. Public schools are one of those targets.
    (More after the jump)

    I don't think the Powers That Be™ ever liked the concept of public education. Public schools that actually teach kids how to think for themselves, as well as mold and shape them for their eventual careers outside of school, serve as competition to the privately educated scions of the wealthy. There's no fun in seeing your privately tutored and Harvard-educated son being bested by some common slob who earned an equally solid education in public schools and state university. It's embarrassing, to say the least. So the key is to keep the plebs as dumb as possible so they remain available for manual labor and other grunt work by making education unavailable, either by pricing it out of their reach or making it so dysfunctional that the only thing they'll learn coming out of it is a disdain for the educational institution. Only the Powers That Be™ should have access to education.

    Meanwhile, the Tea Swillers dislike public education, but in their own way. The teachers are often seen as babysitters, thanks to their role of having to balance the task of educating other students with the need to play surrogate parent to kids whom their own parents have failed to raise properly. Combine this with the common 8am-to-3pm timetable and the misconception that these are all the hours the average teacher works and you get the meme that teachers are somehow "lazy freeloaders" who aren't worth their "union guaranteed salaries," nevermind the average pay for a school teacher is trending downwards towards fry-cook territory. I guess its the fact that most teachers are unionized (to keep school districts from screwing them over any further in favor of inflated administrator salaries) and tenured (to keep them from being treated as disposable commodities) that ticks the Tea Swillers off. Jealousy over job security and the misconception of teaching being an easy job is the fuel for the Tea Swillers' anti-teacher fire.

    Bad things happen when you do your damnedest to make sure the average teaching salary for K-12 education squares up with the salary of a part-time McDonalds cashier. Between dealing with unruly and surly kids for 7 hours a day, five days a week, while spending countless hours before and after that preparing daily lesson plans, grading assignments, arranging and coordinating field trips, attending PTA meetings and dealing with the occasional pissed-off parent, versus dealing with customers ranging from relatively sane to mentally unhinged for 8 to 12 hours a day, 4 to 6 days a week, with the luxury of forgetting about your job once you come home for the day, most people will opt for ringing up Big Mac combos. Only those with either a genuine love for teaching or the misconception that it's easy work will bother to teach.

    In urban areas, the average Tea Swiller's disdain for their tax dollars funding children other than their own, falling property values caused by suburban flight and urban infrastructure decay and a constant lack of funding due to a dwindling tax base caused a perfect storm where education in urban areas was left hanging by a thread. If the quality of education doesn't deteriorate, then the physical condition of the schools do, as shown by the former H.D. Woodson High School in Washington, D.C., after over two decades of neglect and patchwork repairs. Deteriorating infrastructure, combined with uncaring and overworked staff, outdated materials and a general atmosphere of neglect and dismay creates a psychological effect, one that tells urban students that they're not important enough to be properly educated. This, compounded on top of the feeling that you're already in prison or being prepped for prison life -- if your environment looks like a prison, if you see and hear people talk about going to prison, if people constantly tell you you'll probably end up in prison and you're treated as a prisoner, sooner or later you will internalize that and eventually end up in prison.

    To keep their children from experiencing the misery of underfunded and overtaxed schools, many are moving into suburban and exurban enclaves with better-funded school districts. Others are toying with the concept of "neighborhood schools," obstinately to give their kids the experience of going to a school within walking distance of their homes. In reality, it will effectively lock many urban students out of receiving an education in a normal, functioning school, especially if voluntary transfers based on ethnicity are done away with.

    A dysfunctional school system no one bothers to fix produces children who effectively denied the opportunity to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to function in the world beyond the school doors. These same students are introduced to the judicial system as a result of zero-tolerance policies or their introduction comes later on after a period of criminal activity. Black students are particularly at risk, given the opinion held by some that these kids are simply being prepped for prison life, anyways. At any rate, these students eventually become unwilling customers of penal systems, most of them public, although privately owned institutions are popping up at a fast pace.

    Private prisons are big business. The number of people held in private federal and state facilities increased by 120 and 33 percent, respectively. Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, two of the largest private prison firms in the U.S., made a combined $2.9 billion in revenue in 2010. Steadily increasing amounts of federal funding create an incentive to to lock up as many people as possible -- after all, the U.S. spent over $74 billion on prisons in 2007. High profit margins come from spending only the bare minimum needed to keep prisoners going, with minimal oversight from government authorities, allowing companies to cut corners and compromise the safety of both prisoners and employees. Communities and cities enamored with the prospect of gaining a few hundred new jobs and well-needed tax revenue encourage these companies to build new prison complexes. When they build prisons, prisoners will fill them, even if they come from out-of-state.

    The money that should have gone towards improving the educational system is instead funneled into increasingly private-owned penal institutions that receive federal funding for each prisoner in their care. Law enforcement and judicial officials get the chance to appear "tough on crime" to their constituents. Education continues to suffer until it is finally subsumed by private for-profit outfits. K-12 schools are then transformed into market entities that will, out of necessity, focus on educating those with the means to pay for their education, leaving scores of impoverished children to either find schools willing to educate them either for free or at a reduced cost, or simply be left out in the cold. If the latter happens, rest assured they may end up in a private prison at some point of their lives.

    A lack of education greatly increases the chances that a young person will fall into a life of crime and eventually be incarcerated. I'm sure the private prison industry doesn't mind their future customers coming from failed educational institutions that were starved and sabotaged in a variety of ways. The private recipients of failed public educational institutions aren't concerned with former students being fed into the pipeline, since those students were never their customers in the first place. The Tea Swillers get to see public education funding shrink until it fits into a bathtub, more jobs from the prison industry and their desire to see urban students progress from books to bars. Everyone profits except the person being denied a decent education and subsequently incarcerated later in life.