Misplaced Priorities

American education is suffering. Budgets are being cut and schools are first on the chopping block. Funds that should be spent on education are spent on wars or prisons, and American students are paying the price.

Educating people costs money, and this country simply doesn’t have enough of it, or at least not enough dedicated to education. This is an important distinction. America is coming out of a recession and has an extraordinary amount of debt, but there is still plenty of money to spend. The problem is how the government is choosing to spend it.

President Barack Obama’s proposed budget details total expenditures of more than $3.8 trillion. Of that, only $71.9 billion is intended for education, 1.8 percent of the total. For the sake of comparison, $672.9 billion, or 17.7 percent, is proposed for defense spending. Of course, national defense is important, but it certainly isn’t nearly ten times as important as education. America would be better served by spending less on killing people overseas and more on educating people here at home.

This skewing of priorities is also present on a state level. California has budgeted $10.7 billion for prisons and $39.2 billion for the state’s K-12 schools. These numbers are shocking when it is considered that there are approximately 155,000 prisoners in California and more than 6.3 million students. This translates to annual expenditures of about $69,000 per prisoner and only $6,200 per student.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that students who drop out of school are four times as likely to be incarcerated at some point. Increasing education funding to encourage students to complete high school can dramatically cut the need for incarceration funding. The study conservatively estimates $2,100 in savings per additional graduate. Increasing the national graduation rate by just one percent would result in savings of at least $1.4 billion. By spending a little more on education now, less will be needed for prisons later. Additionally, graduates have higher employment rates and salaries, meaning that tax revenues would increase, providing further economic benefit.

Gov. Jerry Brown has offered a potential way to supplement the state education budget, but it is mostly smoke and mirrors. He has proposed a temporary .5 percent sales tax increase and a raised income tax  on people making more than $250,000 annually. This is supported by more than 72 percent of people if the money is used for education, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. This is where Brown gets sneaky. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates $6.9 billion in additional revenue if the proposal is approved. The budget assumes that the tax increase will pass, yet grants less than $5.3 billion in additional education spending, meaning $1.6 billion has already been cut and diverted towards less popular purposes, including prisons. And, if the proposal doesn’t pass, an additional $4.8 billion in cuts will be triggered.

Still, this willingness to raise taxes is encouraging; especially since tax cuts for the rich are a large contributor to the national deficit, and efforts to reduce this debt are the primary justification for spending cuts. Citizens for Tax Justice estimates that these tax cuts took $2.5 trillion out of the federal budget over the last decade. This money could have eliminated the need for education cuts, but was instead used to pad pockets that were already overflowing.

America has chosen to spend its money blowing people up or locking them up, instead of raising them up through education. By prioritizing might over mind, and letting greed trump reason, this country is depriving itself of the very thing that made it great.

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