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High prison rates, low-performing schools linked
By clarionledger.com
Published: 04/07/2011

Taxpayers are spending $25 million a year to imprison people from neighborhoods in two ZIP codes in west and south Jackson, a report being released states.

Those neighborhoods are home to 45 percent of the city's population, but accounted for more than two-thirds of those sent to prison in 2008.

At the same time, the Jackson Public School District has had to cut millions, eliminating 125 teacher positions.

Jackson is among the cities analyzed for a report the NAACP is releasing today titled "Misplaced Priorities," that details a link between high incarceration rates and schools that perform poorly.

"It is patently ridiculous for Mississippi to be at the bottom of education, yet close to the top in terms of incarcerating our young adults," former Secretary of State Dick Molpus, who helped found the now national organization Parents for Public Schools that began in Jackson, said. "Kids are either going to be in high school or dropouts heading into the prison system. It's shameful we continue to allow this to happen. The evidence we are doing wrong is so clear and dramatic."

The NAACP report found that in the cities of Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Houston, as in Jackson, more than 65 percent of the lowest-performing schools can be found in neighborhoods that also see the highest rates of incarceration.

"We need to be 'smart on crime' rather than 'tough on crime' and address soaring incarceration rates in this country," NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement. "Failing schools, college tuition hikes and shrinking state education budgets are narrowing the promise of education for young people all across the country. Meanwhile, allocations for our incarceration system continue to increase, sending our youth the wrong message about their future."

Jealous and others, including former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, will share the report at a news conference this afternoon and unveil a billboard campaign at certain airports: "Welcome to America, home to 5% of the world's people and 25% of the world's prisoners. There is a better way."

Since 2008, Mississippi's spending on education funding for K-12 has been cut more than $300 million. In contrast, corrections has seen state funding rise from nearly $289 million to $328 million.

Mississippi spends $4,691 a student on education, according to the fiscal year 2011 budget. In contrast, the state spends $15,634 per inmate.

Education has been cut more proportionally than the rest of the budget, said Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents' Campaign. "Education is losing ground as a priority. We need to think about this in the coming election."

Earlier this year, the state Department of Education revived its statewide dropout prevention effort called "On the Bus," sponsored by State Farm. The program is utilizing The Choice Bus, reportedly the nation's first mobile experience aimed at reducing dropouts. Half the bus, which is touring the state, is built to resemble a prison.

The bus seeks to inspire sixth-grade students to stay in school, said Wendy Polk, director of communications for the Department of Education. "It's very student-focused on prevention," she said.

In Mississippi, nearly 1 in 2 African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans fails to graduate from public high school with their class.

According to the state Department of Education, more than $1.5 billion would be added to the state's economy by 2020 if students of color graduated at the same rate as white students.

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said he sees a direct correlation between a lack of education and incarceration. "Our inmates come in at the sixth-grade reading and writing level," he said.

Addiction also plays a role, he said. "We've got to figure out a way to keep them in school, and we've got to figure out a way to keep them away from drugs. That gives them a higher likelihood they'll wind up in prison or the grave."

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