The Similarities Between the Charter School Movement and the War on Drugs
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Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.
In the United States, the intersection of the criminal justice system and public schools has intensified in the wake of school shootings, prompting similar solutions from supposedly opposite ends of the political spectrum. As noted in a New York Times editorial, "The National Rifle Association and President Obama responded to the Newtown, Conn., shootings by recommending that more police officers be placed in the nation's schools."
As the editorial points out, however, research tends to show that police in the hallways creates schools-as-prisons and students-as-criminals, increasing, rather than eliminating, the problems. In another piece, Chloe Angyal highlights the disturbing connection between incarceration and education:
Punishment rates in schools mirror the rates in the 'real world' - though what could be more real than entrenched discrimination in our schools? - and in fact, contribute to those real world figures. The Civil Rights Project report notes that the abuse and misuse of suspensions can turn them into "gateways to prison." Even if that were not the case, even absent a school-to-prison pipeline, the situation would be grim enough. What this report reveals is a disregard for the well-being of marginalized populations that, were it directed at other groups, would never be allowed to stand. If a quarter of white middle school boys were being suspended every school year, and if pretty white ladies were being frisked on the streets of Manhattan, there'd be an uproar.
While the term "a nation at risk" tends to be associated with the 1983 report on US education from the Reagan administration, the early 1980s also spawned an era of mass incarceration, built on claims that the United States was also a nation at risk because of illegal drug sales and use, identified by author Michelle Alexander as The New Jim Crow:
In October 1982, President Reagan officially announced his administration's "War on Drugs. At the time he declared this new war, less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the country. This fact was no deterrent to Reagan, for the drug war from the outset had little to do with public concern about drugs and much to do with public concern about race. By waging a war on drug users and drug dealers, Reagan made good on his promise to crack down on the racially defined "others" - the undeserving. (p. 49)
Within a year of each other, then, the Reagan administration launched a war on drugs and a crisis response to public education. Just as Alexander details the masked intent behind the war on drugs, John Holton exposed A Nation at Risk as less about education reform and more about political agendas.
We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom; encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools; support vouchers; leave the primary responsibility for education to parents; and please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. Or, at least, don't ask to waste more federal money on education - "We have put in more only to wind up with less."
For three decades, the War on Drugs has led to mass incarceration, primarily impacting African American males, the racially defined "others," and the education reform movement based on high-stakes accountability has targeted "other people's children" in ways that suggest market-oriented education reform is a school-based component of the New Jim Crow grounded in the criminal justice system.