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Two years after the Governor and State Legislature cut nearly $1 billion from education, they’ve decided to start pumping money back in…to prisons.  This year’s budget provided a 2.3% rise in spending on Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts, or $71.67 per student. Meanwhile the state’s Corrections and Probation agencies got a 4.3% bump, or $991.55 per offender (PA Dept. of Corrections & PA Department of Probation and Parole).  The $85 million boost to the prisons and probation departments would more than fill the hole caused by cuts to school districts in the four suburbs: Bucks, Chester, Montgomery and Delaware Counties are down a combined $74 million in state education aid since 2011.

Districts in all four counties have raised local property taxes, some for the third straight year, but that has not been enough.  Statewide, 70% of public school districts have raised property taxes while furloughing tens of thousands of teachers and 3 out of 4 school districts plan to reduce instructional programming.  As State Rep. Bizzarro points out in the Erie Times-News, we can’t blame this on a lack of federal stimulus money.  “The state budget finds money to make up for federal cuts affecting the Corrections Department to the tune of $187 million.  In fact, expired federal funds were replaced almost dollar for dollar with state funds for other agencies.  However, this has not been done for education.”

It will be met with cold comfort that the state is spending $400 million on a new prison complex right outside the city (Forbes).  Being built to replace Graterford prison, the DOC will be able to house 300 additional prisoners.  That’s $1.33 million per prisoner.  That’s a hefty sum that stands in stark contrast to the state’s Dept. of Education (PDE) moratorium on approving new school building construction or reconstruction applications for 2013-14 (PSBA).  

According to the PDE, Planning and Construction, known as PlanCon, was $20 million short for 2012-13 school construction projects, $160 million short through 2013-14, and has a current backlog of $1.2 billion.  This shortage of capital funds for schools versus the open spigot for prisons is particularly troubling since a 2011 Pew study found that half of Philadelphia schools were built before World War II and the average building is now old enough to collect Social Security.  If only the state thought as much of its students as it did as its prisoners.

If you think the state has its priorities askew, you’re not alone.  “John E. Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s secretary of corrections, said the state cannot afford to keep building prisons,” reported the Philadelphia Inquirer.  He went on to tell the Inquirer’s Karen Heller, “We fully expect to see a reduction of 3,600 inmates in the next five years. ”So why is it our schools that are forced to deal with cutbacks?  This is not a partisan issue.  Republican State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (Bucks-Montgomery) agreed, “We shouldn’t be building any new prisons, but these are well on their way.”

So here are the numbers that really matter: “On any given day, about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates,” reported the New York Times.  A Columbia University study found that we could save $209,000 in prison and other costs for every potential dropout helped to complete high school.  Thanks to budget cuts, many local high schools found themselves short guidance counselors when they opened this year.  It doesn’t take the Secretary of Corrections to figure out that every dollar you “save” from cuts to education just gets spent on corrections.

“The contrast between a willingness to spend on state prisons versus a willingness to spend on schools is stark,” writes Forbes.  “It should make us think.  Is a new prison really the best way forward?”  It’s pretty clear, the answer is no.