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On the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Let's Demand Pencils, Not Prison

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March 21, 2009

Consider this set of facts, courtesy of the Pew Center on the States: between 1987 and 2007, state spending on corrections rose by a whopping 127 percent. During that same time period, spending on higher education increased by a mere 21 percent; in some states, higher education spending actually decreased while corrections spending increased.

Where are our country's priorities? Spending such large amounts on incarceration leaves less in the pot for other critical goals, like educating our nation's youth. Far too many young people are trapped in under-resourced public schools, plagued by inadequate resources — a lack of quali­fied teachers, counselors, special edu­cation services, and even textbooks — and the prioritization of discipline over instruction. Overly broad zero tolerance policies and an increased use of police in schools have criminalized a wide variety of behaviors previously dealt with by teachers and principals, and funneled countless youth out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems — a phenomenon advocates have termed the "school-to-prison pipeline."

Youth of color are hit particularly hard by this divestment in education and over-reliance on discipline, harsh punishment and incarceration. Indeed, when African-American and white youth misbehave in school, the African-American students are far more likely than their white peers to be suspended, expelled, or arrested for the same kind of conduct. This over-criminalization extends to the justice system, where youth and adults of color are arrested, detained and incarcerated at disproportionate rates.

Now — in the midst of our economic tailspin — is our opportunity to do things differently, to rebuild our communities according to more equitable principles and a respect for human rights.

Last month, the ACLU wrote to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, asking him to use stimulus funds to provide safe, integrated, and equitable educational opportunities for all students. This type of renewed investment in quality education for all would help the United States meet its commitment to safeguarding the human rights of all Americans, especially those who continue to be subject to discrimination and inequality.

In particular, it would help the U.S. meet its treaty obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Because the U.S. ratified CERD in 1994, it is obligated to comply with and implement its provisions just as it would any other domestic law or international treaty. Last year, the United Nations Committee that oversees compliance with CERD issued a strongly-worded critique of the U.S.' record on racial and ethnic discrimination and a series of recommendations for U.S. compliance, including the adoption of measures "to reduce the persistent 'achievement gap' between students belonging to racial, ethnic or national minorities and white students…by improving the quality of education provided to these students."

This Saturday, as we celebrate the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we should demand that the U.S. respect and promote human rights here at home and lead by example by making sure that all students — especially students of color — have access to quality schools that respect their human right to education and where they can safely learn and grow.

— Nahal Zamani and Nicole Kief

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