Why We Care

by Kelly Amis

Decrepit school Michelle Alexander’s New York Times op-ed “In Prison Reform, Money Trumps Civil Rights” is a powerful and depressing assessment of why more Americans are suddenly waking up to our nation’s status as the world’s most prolific jailor (while the U.S. represents just 5% of the world’s population, we account for 25% of the incarcerated).

Alexander explains that while decades of social justice advocacy made scant progress towards eliminating the policies that land inordinate numbers of especially black and Hispanic U.S. citizens behind bars, today’s economic crisis is rousing unprecedented calls for prison reform. In other words, suddenly maintaining a prison system bursting-at-the-seams with minority inmates is not worth the price tag.

The resulting interest convergence (in which formerly “tough on crime” policymakers are joining forces with social rights activists) may result in positive policy change, but I can’t help wondering if change will last if it’s not grounded in enlightened agreement about what is fair and just…and even “American”?

Regardless, I believe the same phenomenon Alexander describes is happening today in K-12 education reform: attention is finally being paid to long-standing inequities that keep urban, minority students from achieving on par with their peers due to an awakening of perceived economic interest from our nation’s majority, not because social justice arguments are finally gaining ground.

Does the motivation matter? Maybe, ultimately, it doesn’t. That would be great. But as someone who has witnessed first-hand the discrimination in our education system, I have mixed emotions about today’s sudden interest in implementing commonsense reforms—specifically those having to do with teacher quality—since their raison d’etre is neither based on student well-being nor equity.

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