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January 19, 2009 -- Seattle Times (WA)

Stop Planning For Prisons And Start Betting On Schools

That Washington State plans for tomorrow's prison based on today's fourth-grade reading scores is a sad commentary about a policy of planning for failure, argues guest columnist Lisa Fitzhugh. She urges a reversal in the trend of building more prisons while closing schools, including in Seattle Public Schools.

By Lisa Fitzhugh, Special to The Times

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WASHINGTON state projects how many prisons to build using the high-school dropout rate. To be clear, we build jail cells for tomorrow to house children who are failing in school today. And just when we thought we might have a chance at supporting those children destined for prison, Gov. Christine Gregoire has proposed more than half a billion dollars in cuts to K-12 education. Yes indeed, we plan for failure.

Even in Seattle, we are not immune. While Seattle Public Schools announces its plan to close between six and nine schools, saving a meager $3 million to $4 million a year, the city of Seattle announces its plan to build a new jail for misdemeanants for $200 million.

District and city leaders have defensible reasons for making these choices. The district is facing declining enrollments (made worse by the closures) and significant budget shortfalls, and because King County will no longer provide incarceration services to certain types of local offenders, Seattle has to pick up the slack. Everyone's hands seem to be tied.

Our rational minds accept their arguments, and we look for actionable ways to offset the wounds of both decisions.

Yet somewhere out there is an imminent train wreck -- that is our presumed "just society" -- if we continue along the path of more jails and fewer schools. Rates of incarceration in the United States have quadrupled in the past 30 years. Of all the prisoners in the world, one out of every four is incarcerated in this country. We now operate the largest system of imprisonment anywhere.

And to make clear the massive inequity of this system, an astonishing 52 percent of African-American male high-school dropouts, versus only 13 percent of their white male counterparts, had prison records by their early 30s.

Parallel to this crisis is the failure of our schools to offer excellence, opportunity and a way out of this penal system of lost dreams. Once again, African Americans take the greatest hit, as they are relegated most often to failing schools with the fewest resources.

At this moment in time, we face a dying planet, a spiraling economy, endless wars and a disparity of resources without parallel. And still we continue to tackle the challenges in front of us with the same consciousness of the past, with each problem having its own narrow set of causes and possible solutions. Yet all around us, individuals and organizations are waking up to the need for a more ecological approach. It requires an unyielding commitment to look at whole systems through a big lens.

Too complicated? Then start where things are most directly correlated. Levels of education can predict rates of incarceration for young black males. Start with two systems we know a lot about yet somehow have not been able to make real cross-sector progress on. If we can't do it here in Seattle, one of the most progressive, creative and ecologically minded cities in the country, where can it possibly be done?

So while hands may be tied, and decisions about schools and jails already forgone, we could decide to see this moment as a turning point and put everything we have into changing a system that plans for failure into a system that places all its bets on success.

We could put aside our jurisdictional constraints and more deeply invest our time, money and true collaborative spirit into creating a system of education that truly honors the unique gifts of each student when they walk through its doors, that fosters in them all the skills they need to reach their fullest selves, and that helps open every pathway they seek out regardless of where they start.

In this same month, we in Seattle confront the juxtaposition of school closures with new jails. And we throughout this country celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and watch the ascendance of Barack Obama to highest office, two black men planted and grown on promise.

It's the promise we Americans make to all people, regardless of where they start or the color of their skin, to become who they seek to be. Given all that we know, and all that we have witnessed as humans on this planet, could there not be a more appropriate time to fulfill this promise?

Lisa Fitzhugh is the founder and former executive director of Arts Corps. She currently serves on the board of the New School Foundation.

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