The Problem with Prisoners vs. Students.

English: Concertina razor wire at a prison

Last May Ithica Public School’s Superintendent Nathan Bootz wrote a letter to Governor Snyder that was printed in the Gratiot County Hearld.  Someone copied that letter into an email and soon after it went viral.  Mr. Bootz’s letter was discussed in the traditional media and also in many blogs like this one.  If you missed it somehow, the letter basically asked the Governor to treat students the same as prisoners.  While the Governor was cutting per pupil tuition to less that than $7,000 a year, the cost of imprisoning a person remained between $30,000 and $40,000 a year according to Mr. Bootz’s letter.  

First of all, I admire the courage of Mr. Bootz.  Too many superintendents have been afraid to take action on behalf of their students.  This lack of action by many superintendents has left teachers with the duty of educating the legislature and the public.  The problem with this scenario is that many Republicans in the legislature discount the opinion of teachers because most are members of a union.  Legislators do listen to superintendents though, and Mr. Bootz’s letter was effective in bringing attention to the education funding debate.   

I agree with Mr. Bootz’ssuggestion that properly equipping and funding Michigan’s public schools would prevent some people from falling through the cracks and entering the prison system.  Yes, that would save a lot of money down the road.   However, the only way to save a lot of money in the short term, in either the prison system or in the education system, is to take it out of the hide of the workers.  Since the largest expense in both prisons and schools is the cost of the people who work there, money can only be saved by reductions in jobs, reduction in hours, and reduction in compensation.   As one prison employee said to me recently, they are trying to “pit us against each other” in this debate.  The “us” being workers against workers instead of workers against those who want to employee workers for less and less.  

When we look at prison funding, let us consider treating the problem (too many prisoners) rather than the symptom (too much cost).  Besides prevention through quality public education, we need better rehabilitation programs (education, counseling, job skill training) and quality jobs for those who are successfully rehabilitated.  We should also reconsider any law that puts people in prison for non-violent offenses. 

When we look at education funding, let us consider our priorities.  If we want to help children succeed, we need to properly fund public education.  Proper funding ensures small class sizes, adequate materials and supplies, sufficient professional development for staff, time for teachers to design and plan lessons, and compensation that would entice quality people to enter the profession.  We also need to make sure that kids don’t start school behind, which is all too common for children who grow up in poverty. 

What won’t help the education system, the prison system, or Michigan’s economy is an argument that pits workers against workers.  What workers should do is unite against tax cuts for wealthy business owners at the expense of the rest of Michiganders.  What is good for the few, is not good for the many.  The problem is, too many of our elected officials are part of the few.

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