State and local government spending on prisons and jails has grown about three times as fast in the last three decades as what is allocated for elementary and secondary education, the U.S. Department of Education says.
The policy brief, which looked at data from 1979-80 to 2013-14, found that state and local government expenditures on corrections rose by 324 percent ($17 billion to $71 billion) compared with 107 percent growth for elementary and secondary education ($258 billion to $535 billion).
At the postsecondary level, the report covered a shorter time frame—1989-90 to 2012-13— but found an even greater discrepancy in the growth rates: State and local spending on corrections rose by 89 percent in those years, and state and local appropriations for higher education remained flat. Per-student expenditures fore higher education in those years actually declined.
"On average, state and local higher education funding per [full-time-equivalent] student fell by 28 percent, while per capita spending on corrections increased by 44 percent," the brief says.
The comparison between spending on schools and on prisons is relevant, the brief asserts, because of the correlation between poor education outcomes and incarceration.
"Researchers have estimated that a 10 percent increase in high school graduation rates may result in 9 percent decline in criminal arrest rates," the brief says. "A variety of studies have suggested that investing more in education, particularly targeted toward at-risk communities, could achieve crime reduction without the heavy social costs that high incarceration rates impose on individuals, families, and communities."
In drawing attention to the spending discrepancies, the education department says that redirecting funds from prisons to schools would help reduce crime.
"Reducing incarceration rates and redirecting some of the funds currently spent on corrections in order to make investments in education that we know work...could provide a more positive and potentially more effective approach to both reducing crime and increasing opportunity among at-risk youth, particularly if in the PK–12 context the redirected funds are focused on high-poverty schools," the brief states.