Does Moving Money From Prisons to Schools Really Make Sense?

Will we forever be stuck shaking our heads at the annual cost to lock up a prisoner compared to the annual cost to educate a child and saying that since we’re going to pay the money anyway why don’t we pay it up front by better funding our schools and then maybe more students will graduate and become productive citizens instead of dropping out and becoming criminals?

Will we forever be stuck shaking our heads at the annual cost to lock up a prisoner compared to the annual cost to educate a child and saying that since we’re going to pay the money anyway why don’t we pay it up front by better funding our schools and then maybe more students will graduate and become productive citizens instead of dropping out and becoming criminals?

It’s an easy argument to make and understand, sounds sensible, illustrates our backwards priorities, and yet nothing gets done to make it happen. So, yes, the question could well be eternal.

Yet, as often as I’d heard prison and school funding compared and shaken my own head, I needed to hear it in local terms before I thought about it in concrete terms.

That happened at the recent Let’s Talk Ed conference  in Tucson. Nínive Calegari, founder of the Teacher Salary Project  dropped two bombs. Each year in Arizona we pay around $24,000 per prisoner and around $8000 per student. Furthermore, if all the nonviolent prisoners in Arizona were released and the savings passed on to teachers with high risk populations, those teachers’ salaries would rise by over 70%!

The next day I tried to imagine what a simple, practical, solutions-oriented legislative proposal would look like. But I needed to do some research, and everything I learned turned my thinking on its head.

First, comparing the cost to cage a prisoner for a year with cost of teaching a student for a year misleads. It’s not that the data are incorrect, but yearly costs shouldn’t be used because while prisoners are behind bars for 365 days a year, students are only in school for 180 days. A better side-by-side comparison is the daily cost of each, which amount (in Arizona) to about $66 per prisoner and about $44 per student.

But the cost per day doesn’t give a good comparison either because prisoners are locked up 24 hours a day, but students are typically in school for 8 hours. So, in a consistent side-by-side comparison, Arizona pays about $3 per hour per prisoner and about $6 per hour per student. (According to a map on the Teacher Salary Project site, the hourly ratios in Arizona are quite typical, but the actual dollar amounts vary greatly by state.)

Now education has to be the best deal going. The average high school graduate in Arizona, who was educated for $6 per hour, makes a median wage of $16 per hour for a 40 hour week. (That’s also the nation-wide median.)

But, whereas $24,000 sounds like ridiculous price to pay to keep someone behind bars for a year, $3 per hour doesn’t seem too bad. And data support the claim. The Arizona Sentencing Report  documents that a typical non-violent criminal commits a felony per month, with an average cost of $1900. So in a year the criminal has cost victims and insurance companies about $23,000; thus, keeping the criminal off the street practically pays for itself.

But still, even if the above analysis is dead on, isn’t it still better to prevent crime and the attendant financial cost and suffering in the first place? And doesn’t reallocating money from prisons to schools make sense to meet that end?

The first question is a prototypical no-brainer: Of course it’s better to prevent crime. But consider the second question. How could the marginal value of an additional dollar spent on education to collaterally prevent crime possibly exceed the marginal value of an addition dollar spent on corrections to reduce crime directly?

The conventional wisdom of advocates of preventing crime collaterally look at the high rate of drop-outs in prison and the high rate of prisoners with learning disabilities and say if we had only spent more money educating these souls they would have had better options than crime.

But consider this – Research by David Berliner demonstrates that outside factors, particularly poverty, have much more influence on a student’s academic achievement than good schools do. So what chance do good schools stand against those same factors when we try to mitigate anti-social behavior that leads to crime?

So I’d say the conventional thinking is backwards. If we would spend more corrections money for better policing, counseling, family support, just and alternative sentencing, and so on, our communities and families would be more stable and our at-risk youth would be better equipped, emotionally and socially, to succeed in school and enter adult life free and productive.

To put it bluntly, I’d wager that a better corrections system helps schools more than better schools help corrections.

Now, none of the above, not a single word, should be taken to mean that education in Arizona and similar states are properly funded or that teachers are properly compensated.

Rather, my argument is only that reallocating money from prisons to schools might backfire, and instead of forever asking why we don’t reallocate the money, we should look for solutions to our underfunded education system elsewhere.

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