The Prison-to-Prison Pipeline


No Excuses Schools: Bad Theory Created by Amateurs (

It’s impossible to research the history of minority schooling in America without repeatedly coming face-to-face with how the reality of that schooling was far worse than even the popular misconceptions of it. Despite the “separate but equal” litmus test established in Plessy v. Ferguson in the nineteenth century, what few schools that did exist for African-Americans in the south were often so neglected that they were barely worth having at all. The idea that Brown v. Board of Education somehow “fixed” the problems of school segregation is not only proven false by the subsequent Supreme Court decisions over the following decade that had to build on Brown to give it anything remotely resembling teeth, but also in the lived reality of how school desegregation played out in the decades that followed. (This doesn’t even touch on the de facto segregation in the northern United States that was never addressed in these decisions.) As many have pointed out, the claim that school desegregation efforts in America never worked is fatally undermined by the fact that in so much of the country, those efforts never really started to any substantial degree.

One prescient tale from the first decades of the twentieth century highlights just how far we haven’t come in the past century. When that era’s monied “philanthropists” — the corporate robber barons and their heirs — came down from the northern states to “help” African-Americans build the schools that the governments in their southern states weren’t providing for them, their support was contingent on two things. First, instead of simply providing the money and other resources to build schools for the African-Americans in a given area, these corporatists insisted that the African-American populations in these areas “prove” that they wanted schools by raising a good share of the money themselves, and only then would more money be donated to ensure the schools’ construction. Keep in mind that these African-Americans were already paying taxes for education — an education that went only to the white residents of the area — so a population that was already facing the open racism of the lynching-era south was now being told that they had to pay twice to get anything even resembling an education for their kids.

More to the point, though, the schools that were then built and operated for minority children in these areas were specifically designed to keep their students from pursuing anything more than a high school education. Often times, the corporate elites who so “generously” funded these schools expected that they operate essentially as feeder systems for the factories they were building in the post-Civil War south, factories where workers already wouldn’t have the protections of the unions that had established footholds in the northern states. The children who attended these schools would be scarcely less trapped in life than their immediate predecessors, but because these rich white elites did slightly more than nothing to ameliorate the plight of minority families in the segregated south, they trumpeted themselves as the self-styled saviours of those African-Americans who couldn’t migrate north in that era.

The racist overtones of the past few decades of education reforms in America aren’t very hard to uncover, but from the genesis of the movement in the nineties, the push for “no excuses” schools has practically oozed white supremacist rhetoric and ideology. Proponents of these schools, Republicans and Democrats alike, have openly stated that they believe African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans have “lower-class cultures,” and the behavioural and disciplinary prescriptions of these schools — “draconian” doesn’t even begin to describe them — might as well be subtitled “how we’re going to beat the Black out of you” in their student handbooks. Despite the lofty rhetoric of their founders and advocates, these schools were never intended to open up opportunities for their students; like the corporatists that preceded them, the creators and administrators of these schools only ever wanted to funnel students into very narrow paths, through which they or their friends could make even more money from them. All the while, just as before, these people lauded themselves to the heavens as people whose efforts would quickly “fix” racism in America.

As with so many corporate education “reforms,” not only have the proofs of their success not materialized, but evidence of their failures to meet even their stated goals — those overly-fetishized standardized test scores — has run rampant for years now. More to the point, those who have had to live the realities of these excruciating experiments, from students to parents to whole communities, are living testament to how truly inhumane and unjust these institutions are. We may need another hundred years to unpack just how much damage we have inflicted on the children of those who were already suffering incalculably from the legacies and modern-day manifestations of systemic racism. This is why it does such a disservice to talk of reparations for African-Americans as some misguided attempt to rectify the evils of America’s past; those evils are very much alive and thriving in this country day.

This is also why I think the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline,” as effective as it’s been in highlighting the institutional racism that minority children face in America’s school, is often a misnomer. For those children who have essentially been forced into “no excuses” schools, their schools were already prisons to start with. Even as many of these schools have begun to ease their revolting regimens over the past couple of years, they are still philosophically trapped in the same white saviour complexes that gave rise to the current waves of corporate education reform three decades ago, and easing a few disciplinary codes now is no panacea for the damage that these schools have wreaked on generations of minority youth.

The body of literature on the harms of “no excuses” schools is finally beginning to burgeon, but we can’t afford to wait for the next big book to work on understanding why and how these schools have harmed so many children, and to work on ways not only to stop perpetuating the harms going on now, but to try to at least partially undo those harms that have already happened. Just like the art and craft of teaching itself, there are no easy fixes to be had, just a process of continuous reflection and improvement that is often thankless, always tiring, and never-ending. School is not a place where children are supposed to be trained to work for the rest of us. School is a place where we’re supposed to work for children.

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