Faulkner Law - Fred Gray civil rights symposium - February 15, 2013.

Author:Dunn, Katherine


The Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline: What must be done to create a pipeline to success? Learning from our past to improve the future for all of our children.

We are here today to honor Fred Gray and his life's work fighting social injustices. Mr. Gray's work during the civil rights era to ensure that people in this country have equal opportunities to lead healthy and productive lives is of great importance, particularly in the "Deep South."

We are also here to discuss a pressing civil rights issue of today--"school-to-prison" or "cradle-to-prison" pipeline. This national trend, where a set of policies and practices push our children out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, is a civil and human rights crisis. Today, this pattern of injustice is particularly dangerous in the South, and it is imperative to dismantle the policies and practices within the "pipeline" that interrupt the education of the children who most need it. From the formative and highly important early childhood years that many young children miss out on, to our public kindergarden-12 schools that are increasingly re-segregated and under-funded--we are disenfranchising our low-income students and students of color.

The American South is the first region of the country with a majority of both students of color and low-income public school students. (1) Students that attend high poverty schools with large populations of students of color are most likely to have fewer resources and fewer highly qualified teachers. (2) These students are also more likely to drop out of school and attain lower levels of education. (3) The increasing use of suspensions, expulsions, and school-based referrals to law enforcement--the "school-to-prison pipeline"--compound these issues by pushing these same students out of school and into juvenile justice systems. We are experiencing a national crisis, and we must rely on and honor lessons learned from Mr. Gray and others who have committed their lives to giving a voice to those who have none. Chief Justice Earl Warren's opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, almost 60 years ago, still rings true today:

"In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms." (4)

As Americans, we are constantly exposed to the ideal of the "American Dream." This ideal teaches us that we are not bound by the circumstances of our birth, but that we live in a country where one can have control of his or her destiny with hard work and perseverance. We have made this ideal a fallacy when a student born into poverty faces overwhelming obstacles in achieving a decent education, and, therefore, never stands a chance at bettering his or her life. In order to solve the "cradle to prison" problem we must take a holistic approach to ensuring all students have equal opportunities to achieve the American Dream.

A New Diverse Majority in the South

In examining the context of education in the South today, it is important to remember the history of the promise of education in this region. Following the Civil War, the Southern states adopted constitutions that guaranteed education for all citizens; however, few public funds were spent on segregated black schools in the region. During this period, black children attended school for fewer days than white children, (5) and their teachers were paid much less. (6) In fact, the 1880 census showed seventy percent of blacks were illiterate. (7) As time progressed, public school conditions worsened. (8) The desegregation of public schools following the decision in Brown v. Bd. of Educ. led to "white flight"--where white students in the South fled to private "segregationist academies." (9) Today, desegregation orders still exist in public schools in the South, and we have seen huge increases in the disparities of suspensions from public school between racial groups. (10) For example, in Alabama, the percentage point difference in white and black suspension rates in 1973 was just over two percent, while more recently in 2010, it was over nine percent. (11)

Today, a majority of the South's public school children are students of color and are low income. (12) The economic future of the region depends on providing high quality education for all of its citizens. In 2008, almost all of the states where at least one in every ten children lived in extreme poverty--where household income fell below fifty percent of the federal poverty line--were located in the South. These families survive on as little as seven or eight dollars a day. At the start of the recession, forty-two percent of the nation's extremely poor children lived in the South, and in 2008, one out of every eleven children in the South suffered the nation's deepest levels of poverty. (13) During this period, the South also suffered the largest expansion of unemployed adults. (14) For example, in Mississippi and Alabama, more than thirty percent of all households with children reported 'food hardship' in late 2009. (15) In 2010 and 2011, all but two of the Southern states (16)--Maryland and Virginia, the northernmost states in the region--had a majority of low income students in their public schools. Children are living under circumstances where they are already behind before they even show up at school, and we are not supporting their catch-up. The lack of quality education and low levels of education attainment are major reasons why the region is home to over forty percent of the nation's poorest people. (17) Access to meaningful education in the South is an economic issue, as well as a human and civil rights issue, that requires commitment and dedication to the region in our resources and in our work.

The South must recognize and adapt to its changing demographics, and address the impact poverty has on students. The region has an increasingly diverse student population. It is now the second region, after the West was in 2003, where non-white students make up a majority of public school children. (18) Yet, almost sixty years after the Brown decision, many of the schools that educate these children remain segregated--not by law, but by racially identifiable housing patterns and school attendance zones that determine which school a student may attend, and by increasing privatization of our public schools. (19) As the population of students of color grows in the Southern region, states must find ways to ensure diversity in their public school classrooms and quality education for these students. While white students remain the largest single racial or ethnic group in the public schools in the South, black and Latino students increasingly make up larger proportions of this population (from 2000 to 2010, the Latino population in the South grew by fifty-seven percent). (20) Proper supports for all of the students in the South must be in place to help needy families, particularly as these families are struggling and unable to respond to all of a student's needs.

Fixing Our Schools: We Know What Works

Real issues of high-stakes testing, under-funding, and harmful discipline policies exist in our nation's public schools. (21) Reduced state revenues have meant dramatic cuts in public school budgets over the past few years, and further reliance on local revenues. High school graduation rates are unacceptably low. (22) In 2008, for example, the Southern Education Foundation reported that Alabama's number one education and...

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