Education Secretary Arne Duncan is pitching a bold proposal this afternoon at the National Press Club. The gist of it is, we can save $15 billion by finding ways other than incarceration to deal with people convicted of nonviolent crimes, and we can use the money to increase teacher salaries in the twenty percent of schools with students from the lowest income families. He's not talking about a token increase. Duncan is talking about increasing salaries in those schools by an average of 50 percent nationwide. The size of the increase varies from state to state. In the case of Arizona, it would amount to a 70 percent boost.
Though Duncan hasn't given his speech as I write this, he's published a state-by-state table
indicating how much money can be saved on incarceration and how it would be allocated. Here are the numbers for Arizona.
• $1,545,345,000: Current state and local spending on correctional facilities
• $320,804,508: Approximately 21 percent of the total spend on correctional facilities
• $457,841,161: Total teacher salaries in the 20% of Arizona schools with the highest percentage of students on free/reduced lunch (387 schools)
• 70 percent: Increase in teacher salaries in those schools.
Duncan's pitch is that this is a way to slow down what's called the school-to-prison pipeline. Since low income areas produce a disproportionate number of prison inmates, improving their educations might be the best way to reduce those numbers.
Is this a good idea? I'm not sure. The idea is to attract the best and the brightest teachers to those schools by giving them a financial incentive. Increasing teacher salaries in low income schools has had some success in the past, but it's been minor. And if you keep the same class sizes in Arizona, you haven't addressed a serious problem with reaching hard-to-reach students. But the idea is bold, and it's right-headed. We need bold ideas like this to get the discussion going and to address the dual problems of improving education and lowering incarceration. I've been a critic of Duncan over the years—and of Obama for sticking with the guy and his agenda—but I compliment him for this proposal.