The state of the State
Hard truths and truisms: crime and education
By MICHAEL D. KLEMENS
Question: Identify the Illinois politician who said, '"We can spend money now to educate children, or we can spend more money later to keep them in prison."
Answer: Almost all of them.
Spending for prisons has been on the rise in Illinois; spending for schools has been level at best. The notion that spending more for education would reduce prison costs later has been pushed by educators and education-minded lawmakers seeking new school funding. It has become almost a truism around the Capitol.
A new state study gives education-minded lawmakers more ammunition. Education and Criminal Justice in Illinois, released by the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority on September 15, contained nothing to dispute the truism and little that is surprising.
The authority surveyed new inmates admitted to four state prisons during the summer of 1990. It focused on men, who comprised 94 percent of the admissions, finding that more than 70 percent had failed to graduate from high school.
According to the survey, dropping out was most likely to land white males in prison. Among the incoming inmates, 72 percent of whites had dropped out of school, compared to a 16 percent dropout rate for the entire white male population. For black inmates 72 percent dropped out, compared to a 42 percent dropout rate for all black males. For Hispanics the dropout rate was 77 percent among inmates and 43 percent among all Hispanic males.
The authority researchers also asked inmates why they had dropped out of school. They found:
• 34 percent who said they were incarcerated for juvenile offenses, expelled for fighting, involved in drug or alcohol abuse, or victims of gang violence.
• 24 percent who said they left school to take a job.
• 22 percent who left school because they felt they did not fit in.
• 20 percent who left because of emotional or social problems or pressure from friends who had left school.
The inmates identified their mothers as the persons who most often tried to persuade them to stay in school. In only 12 percent of the cases had school personnel counseled them not to leave school.
A second part of the study involved a look at crime in Illinois schools. During the final weeks of the 1989-1990 school year, researchers surveyed 2,693 students in 31 high schools and 1,379 teachers in 28 of those schools.
Researchers concluded that schools are not havens from crime and violence. Among students, 44 percent reported the schools at least as unsafe as the neighborhood. Among teachers, 25 percent reported schools at least as unsafe.
Theft was the most common crime. However, 8.5 percent of students reported being attacked physically and 16.2 percent reported an attempted attack. Another 4.7 percent reported being robbed and 8 percent reported an attempted robbery. Among teachers, 3.6 percent reported physical attacks and 15.3 percent reported attempted attacks. Another 2.4 percent reported being robbed and 2.5 percent reported attempts to rob them.
No weapon was involved in 62 percent of the attacks on students. A gun was involved in 7.9 percent and a knife in 9.1 percent of cases. The rest involved clubs or pipes. There was no weapon in 91.3 percent of teacher attacks, a gun in 1.4 percent and a knife in 3.6 percent of attacks.
The survey uncovered considerable apprehension on the part of students and
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teachers. Approximately 25 percent of students and 18 percent of teachers reported that at times they felt someone would hurt or bother them. One teacher in five reported avoiding being alone in school after hours. Nearly 25 percent of students and 33 percent of teachers reported that gangs pose a serious problem in the school neighborhoods. And 25 percent of students and 50 percent of teachers reported that street-gangs recruit members in schools.
Besides establishing the tie between dropping out of school and going to prison and raising questions about the safety of schools, the study looked at causes of misbehavior in students. Researchers identified:
• increasing numbers of drug-exposed infants.
• changing family structure manifested in a rising divorce rate. A third of children born in the last decade will live in a step-family before they reach 18.
• increasing numbers of teenage mothers.
• increasing numbers of children living in poverty. In 1969 11 percent of children came from families living below the poverty line. In 1990 the number was 20 percent. Low-income children make up 28 percent of the Illinois public school population and 66 percent of Chicago public school students.
• increasing numbers of neglected and abused children.
• increasing amounts of violent entertainment, particularly television programs.
There is nothing astounding in the report, although the detail in the study may well give those of us who criticize the schools a well-deserved boot in our consciousness.
The plain fact is that students from higher income families do better than those from lower income homes. The survey quotes G. Alan Hickrod, the Illinois State University school finance expert: "The greater the percentage of low-income children, the lower the expected test scores in the district. This is not a hypothesis; it is far more like an empirical law, albeit a very cruel law."
The answer is simple. Reduce poverty and the schools will improve. But reducing poverty is expensive, so expensive that no Illinois politician is likely to embrace the notion. Do not expect to hear any time soon the truism: "We can spend the money now to eliminate poverty, or we can spend money later to run prisons."
October 1991/Illinois Issues/9