Ending the Myth that U.S. Spends More on Incarceration than Education

by Christopher Paslay

Have you heard the news?  America spends more money on locking-up its citizens than on educating them.  The NAACP’s recent report, “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate” makes this assertion.  It examines incarceration and education data in six cities, Philadelphia being one of them (click here to read the report).     

My wife, who does clinical counseling for the Philadelphia Prison System, has made this very claim herself.

Hey Chris, she said the other night at the dinner table, did you know that the state spends more money on prisons than on schools?

The idea that Pennsylvania invests more in its jails than in its classrooms is quite alarming.  The only problem is, of course, is that it’s not true.      

An actual look at state financial data reveals that in 2010, Pennsylvania spent 10 times more on education than on prisons.  Ten times more.  According to PA’s 2010-11 Enacted Budget, the Commonwealth spent $1.6 billion on Corrections (which included General Government Operations, Inmate Medical Care, Inmate Education and Training, and State Correctional Institutions), as opposed to $10.1 billion on Education. 

For the record, in 2010-11, PA spent $4.8 billion on Basic Education Funding; another $1 billion on Special Education; $318 million on Penn State University; $214 Million on community colleges; $164 million on Temple University; $160 million on the University of Pittsburgh; plus another $3.6 billion on 75 other educational programs and interventions, such as state libraries, teacher professional development, adult and family literacy, school food services, Head Start, and youth development centers, just to name a few.  

This is just at the state level.  At the local level in 2010, the city of Philadelphia spent 12 times more on schools than jails—$239 million on prisons and $3.2 billion on education.  This ratio is consistent in most cities and states across America.    

But these actual numbers aren’t being reported.  The Philadelphia Inquirer’s recent story headlined “NAACP blasts U.S. trend for spending more on incarceration than education” opened with the following line: “In his 1984 presidential run, the Rev. Jesse Jackson took issue with the nation’s priorities—spending ever more money on imprisoning people than on educating them.”

Both Jackson and the NAACP might want to open the books and take a better look at city and state budgets before suggesting America is scrimping on education.  I say this, of course, as a dedicated Philadelphia public schoolteacher who knows firsthand the value of education. 

America should continue to invest in education, and it must continue to finance those high poverty urban districts most in need; schools are indeed a beacon light of hope for many communities.

Those communities that take advantage of their schools, that is.  Tragically, about 40 percent of Philadelphia public school students pass up a multitude of programs and learning opportunities by dropping out of school every year.  This is a common trend in urban districts throughout the nation. 

Which further weakens the NAACP’s argument that America doesn’t have its priorities straight.  Our nation, in fact, does care about school.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of many urban communities; the fact that only 30 percent of Philadelphia public schoolchildren eligible for free breakfasts are currently taking advantage of them is a case in point.

Instead of Jackson and the NAACP railing against the system, as they do so often, a bigger effort must be made to make education a priority in urban areas.  Granted, unemployment, institutional racism and a general feeling of hopelessness undoubtedly plague many blighted neighborhoods, but we can still strive to instill in the poor and disenfranchised core values and principles that ultimately transcend skin color and politics; and organizations such as the NAACP should be leading the charge.

Funding for incarceration might be on the rise in the U.S., but what about the deterioration of family values?  The NAACP might want to address the startling statistics reported in the Educational Testing Service’s 2007 policy report titled “The Family: America’s Smallest School,” authored by Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley, which found that 44 percent of births to U.S. women under age 30 are out-of-wedlock; that only 35 percent of Black children live with two parents; that 59 percent of Black eight-graders spend at least four hours watching television a day; and that 20 percent of American schoolchildren misses three or more school days a month.

The reality is, education can’t work if communities don’t invest their own time and take advantage of interventions.  While America should continue to fund public schools, our country must take an honest look at its own attitude toward education, and develop a national resolve to better generate a culture of learning.

5 thoughts on “Ending the Myth that U.S. Spends More on Incarceration than Education


  2. Let’s get real, our prison system is broken and ALL the money being spent on prisons and incarceration could be – SHOULD BE being spent on the betterment of health, education and natural resources – for a start. One of the most quotable statements that President Clinton has ever made is “that we need to re-examine our entire policy on imprisonment, there are too many people in prison who are there for non-violent offenses – mainly drug related charges that are directly related to there own drug problems”. Heeelllooooo?

  3. From what I see, the report says states spend more on prisons than on *higher* education, not education in total, though it does discuss the impact increased prison spending has on education funding in general. Easy to see how this would end up misquoted all over the place, though.

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