Incarceration Nation

The Historic and Ongoing Struggle for Quality Education in the U.S.A.

By Kevin Cooper

Within the tortured history of America’s culture and politics, education and lack of education has always had a major part. During slavery, an educated slave was feared just as much by the slave master, as a slave uprising was. On all plantations, all slaves, except perhaps the offspring of the slave master were denied the right to be educated. They were not allowed to learn how to read or write or spell. They were told that they didn’t need an education because reading, writing and spelling were for white people, the privileged.

At one time or another within this country, all poor and oppressed people, no matter their culture, were denied the right to educate themselves. When they took matters into their own hands and tried to educate themselves, they were punished. In many cases, the people who were teaching them to read, write and spell were also punished if they were caught. During slavery, sometimes both the slave and the teacher were punished, in some cases murdered. Yet in all of this madness two things kept happening. The wealthy kept getting educated, and the poor, the downtrodden, kept on fighting and working to get educated.

All these years later, it appears that history is repeating itself because the wealthy still keep on getting educated, and the poor still keep trying to do so. The students and teachers, especially those from the poorest neighborhoods, are still being punished for trying to get and give a quality education. Even though it is said that equality is a must in education, we all know that this is not the case, especially when budget cuts make a real difference in the type of education poor children receive. Funds are cut from schools in order to give more money to prisons, where so many poor people are incarcerated. This only makes matters worse.  Now, in the 21st century, wealth, class, poverty, and race still are playing a very big part in deciding who gets a quality education, and who doesn’t; as well as who goes to prison, and who doesn’t.

Because of politics, certain powerful people refuse to acknowledge the tortured history of this country, and through their organizations, they continue to see that history does repeat itself. At the same time though, they deny that there is any problem, despite the real life proof that there are many problems with this system.

This right to a quality education is more than just a civil right. It is a human right. All people are entitled to a free and decent public education, and poor people should not have to demand this right. Especially in this rich country, the United States. In this country, children are going to school and being undereducated, mis-educated and in some cases, outright denied an education. Yet the privileged still keep getting theirs at the top, and the poor ain’t getting much at the bottom.

 Untold numbers of people have fought and died for their human right to education. This is what first brought about the public school system and a “Public Education” where all people, regardless of race, religion, class, poverty, sex, and all else that held them back in society, could not be denied an education in this country. Yet, to many poor people, it still seems that getting a quality education is a privilege, not a right. They see that the wealthy don’t have to worry about budget cuts, or being denied a place in school. They know what they are experiencing isn’t fair, and they hear their teachers demanding a fully funded public education system that will not have money taken away and given to prisons. These poor children see that the wealthy don’t have to worry about having their teachers fired, or threatened to be fired for doing what’s in the best interest of their students. Nor do they have their pay cut for any of a number of different reasons imposed on them by mean-spirited politicians who are more than willing to take tax dollars and invest that money in prisons instead of schools—building more prisons, closing more schools, hiring more prison guards and laying off more teachers. These politicians don’t see the value in investing in the schools, students or teachers.

To make matters worse, some politicians pass laws telling teachers what to teach, and how to teach it, even though they, as politicians, don’t know the first thing about teaching. Teachers don’t want or need to be told by politicians what or how to teach. Teachers need more control over what they teach and how to teach it. They want assessments that support students’ learning, but they certainly don’t want to “teach to the tests”, which was a big part of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education program, which did more harm than good when it came to educating students.

No one really knows exactly how many students were left behind during the time of the No Child Left Behind law, but everyone knows that many were. Of those who were left behind and either flunked out of school, or left school, how many ended up in juvenile court or juvenile jail? It’s safe to say that many did because No Child Left Behind was a law passed for minority and poor children.

Whenever a society divests in education, and invests in prisons, what it’s really doing is making a place for today’s students in tomorrow’s prisons. This mindset covers every aspect of education from Kindergarten through college. It seems that we as a people have gone from no schools, to separate and unequal schools, to integrated schools, yet we don’t seem to have learned much from these situations because the same type of problems concerning the haves and the have nots is still present.

The wealthy removed their children from newly integrated schools, thus recreating more poor schools and school districts. They then went off and built new wealthy private schools for their children and created new and wealthy school districts. History repeated itself. This is especially true in California, where there are two other very important factors.

This state has two very powerful institutions. They both compete for the same tax dollars, yet their roles are entirely different. They each have a powerful, and at times a life-changing impact on the lives they touch, and with society as a whole. One is the California Department of Education and the other is the California Department of Corrections.

In one of these institutions diversity doesn’t seem all that important.

Laws have been passed that help to lock people out of this institution. For example, laws ending affirmative action, which not only take away real diversity as in skin color, they also exclude many poor people of all cultures, both sexes, and even poor white people. This, as well as budget cuts, tuition increases, and political games are denying many poor people their human right to a quality education.

Then there’s the other institution where diversity is very much welcomed. It almost appears as a must, so that this institution can justify locking up so many poor people and people of color. It, and its supporters don’t even care where they get the money to continue to operate this institution. Even if the money, or a large chunk of it, comes from the Department of Education.

On one hand, one gets lots of money from the state in order to lock people up, especially the poor, and here on death row where I am at, to execute us. The other has money, lots of money taken from it, and therefore it can’t educate poor people.

One pays prison guards top dollar and gives them great benefits, and the other lets its teachers be underpaid and have their benefits cut, or taken away. One refuses to close its doors, even the door to its death chamber, and the other is having its doors closed all the time. One wants to pump poison into the bodies of its subjects, and the other can’t afford to pump knowledge into the brains of its subjects. Yet it is we poor people who are told that we have our priorities all messed up.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the California Department of Corrections had to put an end to its overcrowded prisons because it created a health hazard, no one, especially the politicians of this state said anything about the overcrowded conditions within the California school system. If health conditions are a concern in one institution because of overcrowding, isn’t it a health concern in the other? If not, why not?

It appears that these important issues will continue to grow as long as they aren’t dealt with as they should be. As long as they aren’t dealt with, history will keep repeating itself and no real progress will be made. Education is a fundamental human right, and it must not be held hostage to a system that is hell-bent on spending more to lock up its own people than it is to educating them.

—October 24, 2012

Kevin Cooper C-65304 4-EB-82

San Quentin State Prison

San Quentin, CA 94974