Protesters at a rally for Terrance Franklin. (Flickr/Fibonacci Blue)
Last fall in California, a broad coalition of community organizations, faith-based groups, advocates and unions came together to help pass Proposition 30, Governor Jerry Brown’s bid to raise taxes to increase state revenues for schools. To sell them on the initiative, Brown told voters, “Money into our schools or money out of our schools. It’s really stark…. The California dream is built on great public schools and colleges and universities.” Prop 30’s passage was a notable victory, with more than 55 percent of voters approving the measure despite a barrage of negative advertising paid for by out-of-state anti-tax groups. For the first time in a decade, thanks to Prop 30, the State of California is likely looking at a budget surplus.
But now a move is afoot that could turn the victory on its head. To the dismay of the social justice groups that celebrated Prop 30 as a step toward eliminating the state’s infamous school-to-prison pipeline, the measure could now be perverted into a means of funneling state resources away from education and into the prison-industrial complex.
The governor and legislature have agreed on a plan to direct hundreds of millions of dollars raised by Prop 30 to relieve prison overcrowding by sending prisoners out of state and to for-profit leased facilities. And so some of the same organizations that fought for Prop 30 are taking to the streets and the Internet, organizing against the governor’s new plan.
For communities of color in California and throughout the United States, the choice to fund prisons over schools has profound consequences. According to the Sentencing Project, blacks are almost six times as likely as whites to be imprisoned, and Hispanics are nearly twice as likely. African-Americans comprise less than 14 percent of the population but nearly 40 percent of those imprisoned. The gap in educational achievement between black and Latino students and their white counterparts is well documented, and it closely tracks with public investment in education. And incarceration rates are linked with poor education: an NAACP study found that neighborhoods with low educational performance also had high rates of incarceration.
No one is arguing that the California prison system is acceptable as it stands. Tough sentencing mandates and “three-strikes” rules can add years onto sentences for even minor crimes and have caused the prison population to mushroom. The US Supreme Court has deemed the conditions in the state’s overcrowded prisons “cruel and unusual” and has ordered California to reduce the prison population by 33,000 inmates in two years; this past summer, a panel of three federal judges ordered the state to release 9,600 inmates by the end of 2013. Also this past summer, prisoners initiated a hunger strike with as many as 30,000 participating. Their demands included an end to long-term solitary confinement, sufficient and adequate food, and constructive programming.
California’s education system is in deep trouble as well. A victim of the tax constraints imposed by Proposition 13 in 1978, it went from being one of the best school systems in the country to ranking thirty-sixth in Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts” report for 2012—not surprising, since it ranked forty-ninth in per-pupil spending.
It is clear that the revenue being diverted to incarceration is coming out of school budgets. Members of the Prop 30 coalition, some of whom had favored a version of the measure that earmarked the new revenue for education, had agreed to the governor’s terms—directing the new revenue into the general fund with no strings attached—because of his constant assurances that he was committed to using the money to improve the struggling education system.