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Arne Duncan and Barbara Bowman discuss ‘cradle-to-prison pipeline’

During an Erikson Institute President’s Council event, the two leaders met to examine how education, poverty, and violence are connected in Chicago and beyond.

A hostile school environment, dire job prospects, and lack of investment in quality education are among the many factors that contribute to a system in which children from low-income families grow up and risk landing in jail soon after school, say two leading advocates for children.

The “cradle to prison pipeline” — how it has come to be and how it can be interrupted — was the topic of a recent discussion between former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Erikson Institute co-founder Barbara T. Bowman at The Arts Club of Chicago. The Erikson Institute President’s Council event was moderated by WGN News anchor Micah Materre, whose questions connected the discussion to issues many Chicagoans deal with today, including gang violence and underperforming schools.

The President’s Council is convened by Erikson President and Chief Executive Officer Geoffrey A. Nagle, Ph.D., and recognizes Erikson’s leadership donors through unique programming around issues that are important to Erikson and its work. Events feature discussions with and presentations by premier, national thought leaders, who along with Erikson shape the conversation about how to impact the lives of children and families.

Beyond schools

“In a perfect world, schools are save havens — but schools can’t do this alone,” said Duncan, who served as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) before joining the Obama Administration and is now managing partner at Emerson Collective in Chicago.

Duncan said that in many communities in Chicago and across the country, children and families feel a sense of hopelessness that permeates all aspects of their lives and affects their long-term decisions. Some feel that joining a gang is a more realistic option than finding a job. “There are a number of children and teachers who are terrified going to and from school each day. Many children and young men don’t think they will live to grow up, and if you think you aren’t going to make it, then that changes everything.”

Duncan and Bowman explored both macro-level policies and more localized school and neighborhood conditions that lead young people to feel disillusioned about their futures and turn to crime as what they see as a viable way of live.

For example, many families — particular Latino and African-American ones — are destabilized when parents are jailed for relatively minor offenses, Bowman said. “Children are losing the emotional support of their parents. Even when those parents get out of prison, they come back home and can’t get jobs.” Changing sentencing around such offenses could go a long way to keeping families intact and stabile, she added.

‘Investment or expense?’

Bowman also discussed the need for teachers to receive better preparation to work with low-income populations, whose children go to school with more social-emotional and educational hurdles to overcome than their higher-income peers.

“Erikson is a small school with a big impact, but outside of Erikson, it’s not the normal sequence for educators to also receive training in child development,” she said.

This is evident in the response by educators when children act out in school, Duncan said. For example, while at CPS, he and other officials learned by examining police statistics that most arrests of teenagers in Chicago were occurring between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. — while they were in school. “Some schools arrested 150 children a year. With 180 days in a school year, that’s a rate of almost one arrest per day.

“We saw the enemy, and the enemy was us.”

In other instances, children are being suspended or expelled from programs at preschool age or younger. “How can kicking them out of school be the answer? How is that getting them where they need to go?” Duncan said.

He and Bowman agreed that the way public education is funded needs to change. Compared to other developed countries, the United States ranks low for school funding, and the impact can be seen in the “cradle-to-prison pipeline” that exists in many communities.

Bowman quoted Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who has studied the impact of high-quality early childhood education on later achievement, saying that from an economic perspective, “early childhood education is the best investment we can make.”

“Is education an investment or an expense? I see it as an investment,” Duncan said, nothing that on the state level, both Democratic and Republican governors have made investment in education a priority. On the national level, however, politicians haven’t always seen eye to eye. “Other countries have made this a bipartisan issue. What we failed to do was get our Republican friends in Congress to make the massive investment we need.”