Democrats Are Spotlighting A Big Education Problem Pushing Kids Out Of School

For the first time, the party platform address the school-to-prison pipeline.
Aaron Josefczyk / Reuters

Democrats are giving unprecedented attention to a phenomenon that pushes kids out of school and into the criminal justice system.

The Democratic Party platform calls for putting a stop to the school-to-prison pipeline, for the first time ever. The platform, finalized this month, reads:

“We believe a good education is a basic right of all Americans, no matter what zip code they live in. We will end the school-to-prison pipeline and build a cradle-to-college pipeline instead, where every child can live up to his or her God-given potential.”

The school-to-prison pipeline describes an education system that funnels kids ― disproportionately black and brown ones ― out of school and into jail. Reasons for its existence include the proliferation of cops in school, who are more likely to be assigned to buildings where the majority students are minorities. School cops increase the likelihood that a student will be referred to law enforcement, even for a minor offense, according to research from University of Florida law professor Jason Nance.

Practices like school suspensions, which remove kids from classrooms as a form of punishment, add to the pipeline.

“For the first time ever, our platform calls for ending mass incarceration, shutting down the school-to-prison pipeline, and taking on the challenges of systemic racism,” Maya Harris, senior policy advisor for Hillary Clinton, said in a statement.

Marlyn Tillman, a member of the Dignity in Schools Campaign ― a national coalition of organizations dedicated to ending the practice of pushing kids out of school ― called the attention “unprecedented.”

“We appreciate these issues we’ve been fighting for a long time have finally been listed by one of the parties in their education agenda,” said Tillman. “Welcome to where we are and will be for quite some time. Our children don’t come with red and blue labels, so we challenge both parties to push for agendas that are child centered.”

One of Tillman’s sons fell prey to the school-to-prison pipeline. When he was in middle school, he was suspended for wearing what school leaders said looked like “gang clothing.”

“They were suspending him for benign clothing with no warning. We had no notice,” Tillman said. “They were picking random items and playing fashion police. He was in honors and AP classes, he was not problematic. He was very much a self-assured black male student.”

Monique Dixon, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund deputy policy director and senior counsel, called the Democratic platform encouraging.

“What we know is that students cannot learn if they’re not in school,” said Dixon. “It shows us that at least they are aware of the problem. That there is at least a willingness to have a conversation about it. Whether it will become a reality, we’ll have to see.”

Hillary Clinton in February released a plan for tackling the school-to-prison pipeline. In what she calls the “breaking every barrier agenda” Clinton proposed putting $2 billion into school districts to improve schools and reform discipline practices.

Clinton’s work in education has been highlighted at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this week. Tuesday’s speakers included David Banks, president and CEO of Eagle Academy, a group of public schools in New York City for boys of color with a mission addressing the “systemic failure of the public education system, extreme poverty and school dropout to prison pipeline.” Clinton has championed the schools.

The Obama administration in recent years also has addressed the school-to-prison pipeline. In 2014, the administration offered guidelines to schools on how to stymie disparities.


Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email


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