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.

But then on August 2, the Supreme Court rejected the governor’s appeal of the deadline for prisoner release, and Brown subsequently announced his plan to spend $315 million this year, plus another $415 million in each of the next two years, to relieve the overcrowding by placing prisoners in leased facilities using the Prop 30 revenues. He shelved the idea of granting early release to prisoners—the only sensible solution, but one that the state’s politicians are unwilling to risk in an election year.

In fact, refuting the argument that early release means dangerous criminals overrunning California’s streets, more than half the prisoners, according to a plan the governor himself proposed earlier this year, would leave for alternative lock-ups or via attrition. Yes, some would be felons returning to their home communities, but they would eventually be doing so anyway; it is a question of when, not if. The funds would be better spent not just on schools but on programs and services for those re-entering society, so that when they do—as they will—they will be better able to manage the transition, and the community will be safer for it.

Clearly, sentencing practices need reform as well. The United States incarcerates more people under the age of 21 than any other country. Children as young as 13 have been sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. In California, 45 percent of juvenile offenders locked up for life without parole in a murder case were not convicted as the killer, but because they were present at or connected with the crime. Fortunately, SB 260, a bill to end sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders, passed the California State Assembly on September 6 and is on its way to the Senate. Similarly, last November, 69 percent of California voters chose to amend the “three strikes” law so that a low-level crime will not put someone in prison for life.

Throughout the country, states are feeling the financial and moral strain of our mania for incarceration. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of its prisoners. The media decry the declining quality of education in America in comparison with countries like Finland, which have soared in educational attainment. It’s worth pausing to consider that well-educated, low-crime Finland also has one of the lowest rates of incarceration—sixty prisoners per 100,000 people, as compared with the US rate of 716 per 100,000. The choice between money for prisons and money for schools is an easy one. If we really want to be tough on crime, we should be investing in educational opportunities for all our children.

Earlier this year, Sasha Abramsky reported on the passage of Prop 30 in the pages of The Nation.