The Cost of School-to-Prison Pipeline: Racially Biased School Suspensions Cost Taxpayers $35 Billion Each Year

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Students at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, Calif.
Students at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles.

The increasingly harsh, zero-tolerance policies adopted by American school systems in the last decade have led to record numbers of suspensions, expulsions and school-based arrests in the nation’s most vulnerable populations. Low-income, African-American youths continue to disproportionately face the negative consequences of such strict practices.

Black students in the U.S. are three to four times more likely to be expelled or suspended than their white peers, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Researchers know that suspensions directly increase the risk of students dropping out later in high school. Only 72.5 percent of Black students graduated high school at the end of the 2013-2014 school year, compared to 87.2 percent of whites.

And these well-documented racial disparities in school discipline come with a hefty price tag, a new report suggests.

UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies used a longitudinal study tracking suspensions among a nationwide cohort of 10th graders to further explore the relationship to future drop out rates. Researchers estimated that 67,000 of those students went on to drop out of high school.

“People without a high school diploma earn less, have more health problems, and are more likely to get into trouble with the law,” said Dr. Russell W. Rumberger, study co-author and professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “That means less tax revenue and higher health care and criminal justice costs for all of us,” Rumberger added.

The fiscal penalties are staggering: $35 billion.

Although the number seems excessive, officials say the estimate is actually quite conservative.

“We looked at data from just one cohort of 10th grade students. Multiply that with 10th grade cohorts from additional years and costs will easily exceed $100 billion,” Center Director Daniel J. Losen said in the report’s official release.

“The High Cost Of Harsh Discipline And Its Disparate Impact” additionally examined suspensions in two of the country’s most populous states, California and Florida. In California, 10th grade suspensions pushed the number of high school dropouts up by 10,000, while in Florida, 9th grade suspensions resulted in 3,500 more dropouts.

In order to quantify economic loss, the study utilized estimates from a report by Clive Belfield of Queens College, which showed that over a lifetime, every additional dropout incurs a $163,000 loss in tax revenue and costs taxpayers $364,000 more through social institutions, like medical care and criminal justice.

The report backs up growing evidence of the key role school districts play in maintaining the path to incarceration for Black youths.

Kids who spend too much time outside of the classroom — via out-of-school suspensions and expulsions — eventually find their way into the juvenile justice system.

The Obama Administration sought to rectify years of damage caused by No Child Left Behind with new bipartisan legislation.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law last December, abandoned the cookie-cutter, standardized test models forced on schools in favor of targeted strategies that more accurately reflect the needs of their surrounding communities.

In schools where certain groups of students consistently under-perform, districts must implement tailored intervention programs to narrow achievement gaps. Schools not showing significant improvement will be held accountable to state-level education regulators, which will, in turn, answer to the federal Education Department.

The study’s authors had three recommendations for policymakers and educators:

  • Include suspension rates when evaluating school performance. “Given the clear link between suspension rates and graduation rates, fewer suspensions should be considered an indicator of school success,” the report reads.
  • Start collecting and analyzing suspension data.
    “In order to identify the most effective school discipline approaches, schools and districts should collect and report information about suspension and expulsion, not only in total, but also disaggregated by race, disability status, gender, and other categories.”
  • Channel resources into more effective disciplinary programs that will keep kids in school.
    “The study demonstrates that investments in alternatives to suspension will pay for themselves many times over. However, that initial investment is needed to implement alternative practices and ensure that teachers and administrators are trained in their use.”
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