Education in the United States is entering a critical junction where lawmakers are increasingly being forced to divert education funds to prison construction and maintenance. During the 1980s and 1990s, a period of unparalleled economic growth, state spending on prisons grew six times the rate of spending on higher education, according to a recent report issued by the Justice Policy Institute. In many states, such as New York and California, more Black men are admitted every year as prisoners than graduate from the state universities. The atrocity of such statistics is largely fueled by the American "War on Drugs, " which has done little, if anything to stem the tide of illicit drugs, but has instead resulted in an overworked criminal justice system and a ballooning prison population of non-violent offenders. Exacerbating the problem is the drug provision of the Higher Education Act, passed in 1998 by the United States Congress, which delays or denies federal financial aid for higher education for any student convicted of a misdemeanor or felony drug offense. This provision, it appears, promotes a downward spiral of poverty by hindering many of those in most need of the benefits of an education from attending universities, and thus increasing the likelihood that they will return to prison and continue a life of hardship.
While the importance of education as a way to deter crime may not be evident to contemporary United States legislators, it was quite obvious more than 100 years ago to one of the most renowned American authors, Samuel Clemens. Often better known by his pseudonym Mark Twain, Clemens insightfully suggested in a speech given in 1900, "Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won't fatten the dog." Victor Hugo, a leading French Romantic writer of the 19th century expressed the same basic belief even earlier than Clemens, succinctly noting, "He who opens a school door, closes a prison." In fact, the significance of education as a way to improve society and decrease criminal activity is a concept that repeatedly appears throughout history, extending at least as far back in time to the days of ancient Greece and Rome. Yet, such a seemingly self-evident notion has somehow evaded the comprehension of exceedingly too many policymakers. In Florida, for instance, where the public education system is ranked as one of the worst in the country, the state legislature has a long record of ignoring the value of education and funneling an ever-increasing amount of money into the prison system. Perhaps just as disturbing, however, are the occurrences of legislators portending to be concerned about education, but then not ensuring proper measures for improvement or embarking on programs that undermine public schools.
The Florida state constitution calls for a "high-quality system of free public schools," but recent endeavors by the state government have made the achievement of this aim even less likely than it was formerly. For example, Florida's Department of Education is now heavily invested in privatizing education through voucher and tuition tax credit programs, which channel millions of taxpayer dollars into homeschooling, private schools, and religious institutions, an activity that not only diverts critical funds from public schools, but may also be in violation of the state constitution. These same programs also are void of any sufficient means of oversight or accountability, despite superficial policy changes that were adopted in 2003 at the behest of the state's Education Secretary. The poor supervision of Florida's voucher programs is clearly indicated by the appalling corruption that has developed among those involved with the programs so soon after their implementation. Indeed, several legal investigations into matters such as fiscal mismanagement and forgery of parental signatures on voucher checks are already underway and in early 2004, one of these investigations resulted in the filing of a criminal charge and an arrest of James Isenhour, the operator of the scholarship funding group known as the Silver Archer Foundation. Isenhour was accused of stealing more than $268,000 in voucher money, which he allegedly funneled to other companies, his lawyers, and his own pockets.
Although the state government of Florida is willing to spend ample amounts of money towards school privatization, the funds to support the proven educational reform of class size reduction are hailed as impossible to supply. In November 2002, Florida voters approved the notorious Amendment 9, an initiative that limits the number of students in the state's public school classrooms. These class size reductions were supposed to be financed by the state legislature and phased in over a period of eight years. However, Florida's governor, Jeb Bush, has adamantly opposed the measure, and within a month of its passage, Republican state Senator Anna Cowin filed legislation that would rescind the amendment. Though this legislation was not initially passed, many in the state fear that Amendment 9 will never be implemented. Yet, even if the state succeeds in convincing the populace that there is not sufficient revenue to reduce class sizes through measures such as building new schools, educators can still fall back on alternative, less costly, plans to seek solutions for overcrowded classrooms. These include: (1) Double sessions that would allow students to attend class in shifts. (2) Multi-track calendars that have up to five different groups of students attending the same school. The school would be open year-round to accommodate the students. (3) Restructuring grade levels to ease overcrowding at middle and high schools by keeping ninth-graders in middle schools and sixth-graders in elementary schools. (4) District-wide rezoning that allows maximum utilization of existing facilities.
Another educational issue that should be a concern for all of us is the lack of emphasis on science education in American schools at a time when we are creating a technology-based culture that will require a substantially more educated work force in the upcoming years. Our response to this problem thus far seems to ironically have consisted of a reduction in the amount of funding for schools and a total circumvention, or at least reduction, in the emphasis on science and technology educational programs. Moreover, in some states, key scientific concepts and theories are in the process of being eradicated from school curricula. For instance, in August 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education voted in favor of science standard revisions that eliminated almost all mention of evolution, the Big Bang theory, fossilization, and any other concepts that involve geologic time or cumulative changes, such as plate tectonics and erosion. Such a neglect of scientific literacy essentially amounts to cultural suicide. In order for our society to successfully compete with the global community in the 21st century, the United States must overcome social divides and deal effectively with education. In Japan and Europe, students are exposed to science education at a very young age and are required to attend school for longer terms than students in the United States. So what will be the end result if our children continue to neglect science and technology and instead focus on a choice between Bart Simpson and MTV? It doesn't take a Ph.D. to figure out this one.
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