The Marshall Project
“Many of the same constituencies we united with on education are the ones I’m collaborating with now on criminal justice,” says Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Formerly a firebrand for charter schools, Booker has mostly drifted away from that issue and refocused on justice reform. But he says the two movements owe a similar debt to “conservatives, who argue that it’s a waste of potential to just warehouse a captive audience of human beings, whether in failing schools or prisons.”
Pat Nolan, the former president of Justice Fellowship and an early partner with Right on Crime, was one of those conservatives. “Those of us on the right did not for the longest time pay much attention to either education or prisons, thinking each was an unassailable function of government,” he says. “But we were soon awakened to the size and cost of both systems, and the ways in which we first started pushing for reform, on both prisons and schools, were really very similar.”
Ed reform, in its modern iteration, came on the scene in 1983 with the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” much as the recent wave of interest in police and prison reform was energized by Michelle Alexander’s 2010 best-seller, “The New Jim Crow.”
Both causes attempted to exert pressure on (and to liberate individuals from) bloated, unresponsive, self-perpetuating public institutions, and both have been embraced across party lines as ways to help the poor within an otherwise conservative political economy.
But education reform is now several years further along, in terms of both acrimony and impact, than justice reform, and its long-term results have been inconclusive1 at best. Parents are opting their children out of standardized tests in increasing numbers. Superstars like Michelle Rhee have dropped out. Even Margaret Spellings, the former secretary of education who helped win ed reform its most impressive victory, the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, now calls the law a “toxic brand.”
Michelle Alexander is worried a similar up-and-down fate might await criminal justice, unless all Americans get honest about the scope of the system’s failing and the resources it will take to bring about lasting, scaleable change. “We shouldn’t be asking merely how we can be more efficient or ‘smarter on crime,’” she told The Marshall Project. “Until we muster, as a nation, a willingness to invest heavily in the communities that have suffered the most, we will find ourselves in an endless cycle of reform and retrenchment.”
So what can justice reformers learn from their school-reforming predecessors? Here are four parallels that may be instructive:
Picture: Tangopaso (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons