08/04/2011 11:01 am ET Updated Oct 04, 2011

Zero "Zero Tolerance": Ending the Real Debt Crisis

As America struggles to wrap its collective mind around the recent debt crisis debacle, an even more insidious and ultimately more costly crisis is quietly brewing in communities throughout the nation. The twin threats of mass incarceration and epidemic dropout rates amongst black Americans pose an unparalleled challenge to the country as a whole.

By and large, advocates, policymakers and practitioners have tackled these two crises on parallel tracks. Garnering less attention is the "schools-to-prison" pipeline, an entirely destructive symbiosis that has developed between our public schools and our nation's prisons.

Fueling this phenomenon is the "zero tolerance" effort that has swept across our schools over the last two decades. "Zero tolerance" schools punish youth by suspension, expulsion, or incarceration for minor and major infractions alike. Our national obsession with high stakes testing fortifies the pipeline as teachers, under-supported and over-prescribed, are incentivized to drive out "problem" students whose low test scores and misbehavior drain the classroom enterprise.

The net result of these policies is the systematic ushering of our most vulnerable youth out of our schools and onto our streets. Disproportionately, low-income African-American and Latino students with a record of suspension, expulsion or incarceration are poised to simply drop out, and statistically, these student dropouts are overwhelmingly poised for incarceration.

"Zero tolerance" policies detach these vulnerable students from the only structure many of them know and place them directly into the waiting clutches of the drug dealers and gangs who prey on the disenfranchised and disaffected for their next sale or worse yet, staff recruits. Therefore, it is no coincidence that as our schools continue to hemorrhage disproportionate numbers of minority students -- a young person drops out every 26 seconds -- our incarcerated population has exploded. Ironically, the approach of eradicating so-called difficult students from mainstream education has not resulted in any demonstrable improvements in the public school system's achievement scores since the time that zero tolerance came into vogue.

Since the commencement of "zero tolerance" and the "War on Drugs" in the 1980s, our prison population has grown 13 times faster than that of the general population, ballooning from 300,000 (the population of Pittsburgh) to well over 2 million (the population of Nevada) -- an increase of 300%. Despite containing less than 5% of the world's population, the United States is home to one-quarter of the world's inmates. More than 60% of these individuals are African Americans and Latinos who by contrast compose only a third of America's population.

As the United States struggles to compete in a world economy where the cultivation, development and retention of human capital is paramount, we must ask ourselves: can we expect to keep pace with the rest of the world if we continue to lose a quarter of our students from our schools each year?

The reality seems to be that we cannot. The fact is that student dropouts are ineligible for 90% of all legal work and experience unemployment rates upwards of 60%. Meanwhile, taxpayers are losing $350 billion in lost wages, taxes and incarceration costs attributed to dropouts each year.

If we are to reverse these intertwined crises, we need zero "zero tolerance" in our schools, and we must commit, in the words of Geoffrey Canada, to do "whatever it takes" to keep our children enrolled, engaged and excelling in our public schools. As a nation founded on the notions of tolerance and opportunity for all, anything less than America's full commitment to the future of all children is a betrayal of our best values.

We already know where our work must begin. In his remarks to the Justice Department, Education Secretary Arne Duncan recalled how during his tenure as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, only 7% of schools were responsible for more than half of the city's youth arrests. Struggling to meet the demands of the inner city and federal accountability, teachers and administrators over relied on fierce sanctions and police intervention to manage behavior. Other schools, similarly positioned in the inner city, innovated and partnered to manage bad behavior without losing students to the streets. In an era of constraints, schools, service organizations, and communities would be best served by pooling resources, collaborating, and sharing best practices, drawing on collective wisdom to do whatever it takes to ensure our children's success.

In the final analysis, this is not just a "school problem," or a "policy problem," or a "prison problem," or a "black problem." This is an American problem -- a problem that requires enthusiastic effort from the entire American family. In light of the recent joint effort announced by Education Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Holder to dismantle the "schools-to-prison" pipeline, we're witnessing unprecedented leadership on this crisis at a federal level. National leadership withstanding now is the time to take action at the state and community level.

Your effort and your voice are essential. Encourage your local officials to do their part to dismantle the pipeline. Get involved: each day, programs like City Year, Communities in Schools and Big Brothers, Big Sisters do the difficult work of helping keep our most vulnerable children enrolled and engaged in their education. For a relative handful of dollars, these programs provide a great national service, but they need our private contributions and more importantly, our time to ensure that our children realize their best future.

As mentors and tutors, in school and after school, we can do more. As neighbors and families, we can do better.

In an era of seemingly constant crisis, it's easy to feel overwhelmed, even paralyzed by the dysfunction and difficulty inherent in many of our national challenges. However, there are some crises that we -- you and I -- can do something about. Solutions are within reach.

While Washington continues to debate our national budget and the country's priorities, let's work within our own backyard to ensure that our nation's biggest asset -- its people -- does not become its biggest liability.