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Education Secretary urges criminal justice reform, wants $15 billion to go to teachers

Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks during a town hall meeting at North High School in Des Moines. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan appealed to the nation’s states and cities on Wednesday to dramatically reduce incarceration for nonviolent crimes, and he proposed to use the estimated $15 billion in savings to substantially raise teacher pay in high-poverty schools.

Duncan argued that such a move would help persuade strong teachers to work with the students who most need them and would signal that the country cares about educating disadvantaged children.

“With a move like this, we’d not just make a bet on education over incarceration, we’d signal the beginning of a long-range effort to pay our nation’s teachers what they are worth,” Duncan said Wednesday afternoon at the National Press Club in Washington. “That sort of investment wouldn’t just make teachers and struggling communities feel more valued. It would have ripple effects on our economy and on our civic life.”

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Duncan’s speech gave voice to Obama administration priorities, as lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working toward legislation to reform the nation’s criminal justice system. The Education Department does not have the authority to make the changes that Duncan is urging, and his speech acknowledged that his ideas “will strike some as improbable or impractical.”

Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said that while he and many police chiefs favor releasing some nonviolent offenders, the movement to reduce incarceration can end up putting violent criminals back on the streets.

“Is it a realistic thing? I’m not so sure it is,” Manger said of Duncan’s proposal. “This notion that the public has, that we just have tens of thousands of people sitting in jail for possession of small amounts of marijuana, is just not true.”

“I think we can be smart about letting out folks that would really benefit from mental health services, job counseling, education,” said Manger, who serves as president of the Major Cities Chiefs, a professional organization of police executives from the nation’s largest cities. “But I’m going to tell you, I’ve been a cop almost 40 years, and there are people, because they’re behind bars, it makes our neighborhoods safer.”

Duncan’s message is in line with the Obama administration’s efforts to reform discipline policies in schools and sentencing for nonviolent crimes. In July, President Obama called for sweeping criminal justice reforms, saying that the United States must reexamine an “aspect of American life that remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth.”

Last year, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called for reduced sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, a move hailed by civil liberties groups and criticized by some who saw it as an attempt to dismantle important public-safety measures. That same year, the Justice and Education departments released guidelines urging schools to move away from “zero-tolerance” discipline policies that suspend children for minor offenses.

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Those discipline guidelines were cheered by civil rights groups but met with criticism from some education policy experts who questioned whether the emphasis on support instead of suspension would result in disorderly classrooms and unsafe schools.

Civil rights groups also praised Duncan’s proposal Wednesday, and his focus on addressing the disproportionately high numbers of minority children who are suspended and expelled from the nation’s schools.

“Every day, as a society, we allow far too many young people to head down a road that ends in wasted potential. And sometimes, we are complicit in that journey to nowhere,” he said. “We need to do more to change that.”

Tying racial patterns in school discipline to academic achievement gaps and to the national debate about racial discrimination by police, Duncan urged educators to examine their biases, their “own attitudes and decisions, and the ways they are tied to race and class.”

“In the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere, this has become a central discussion for many in America, and rightly so,” he said. “Those of us in education cannot afford to sit back.”

Referring to a Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim student who was arrested at his Texas high school in September after showing his teacher a clock he had built, Duncan said: “A child holds a clock. And we see a bomb.”

If states and cities stopped incarcerating half of the people convicted of nonviolent crimes, such as stealing or selling drugs, they could afford to give an average 50 percent raise to teachers in 17,640 of the neediest schools, according to Duncan.

His proposal comes as the Education Department has sought to highlight the fact that needy schools generally have less-experienced and less-qualified teachers than schools in more affluent areas.

It also comes as Duncan navigates a strained relationships with teachers unions. His signature policy priorities — especially the evaluation of teachers according to students’ standardized test scores — have made him the target of many educators’ ire; the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the United States, called for his resignation last year.

In his speech Wednesday, Duncan said that teachers make a profound impact upon their students, and that nudging better teachers to work in difficult schools will reduce the high school dropout rate — and therefore the rate of violent crimes.

“Right now, far too much great talent leaves our toughest schools, or never arrives at all,” he said.

Manger, the Montgomery County police chief, said that he agrees that there are clear links between poor education and high crime levels, and he said that he agrees that teachers should be paid more. But it does not follow that all the savings from reduced incarceration should go to schools. Those dollars are sorely needed for other priorities that affect crime levels, he said: Reentry programs, mental health services and efforts to address poverty, homelessness and unemployment.

And Manger said that while he agrees that there are clear links between poor education and high crime levels, and while he agrees that teachers should be paid more, it does not follow that all the savings from reduced incarceration should go to schools. Those dollars are sorely needed for other priorities that affect crime levels, too, he said: Reentry programs, mental health services, and efforts to address poverty, homelessness and unemployment.

“Those issues are the root cause of crime just as much as a poor education,” Manger said.

Read the speech, as prepared:

Arne Duncan National Press Club Speech

See how many dollars would be shifted from corrections to education in each state, under Duncan’s proposal:

State by State Table