Conversations among the political left have increasingly centered on student loan debt as the amount of loan debt, and the number of Americans saddled by it, has ballooned in recent years. The student loan debt crisis, which first gained traction as a mainstream political concern during the 2016 presidential election, is shaping up to be a major focal point of the 2020 presidential election. With well over a month to go before the first debate (and more than a year before a nominee is selected), a number of the contenders for the Democratic presidential nominations have articulated concerns about the student debt crisis and college (in)affordability. Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand are co-sponsors of the Debt-Free College Act, which would offer matching grants to states to help students attend public universities without taking out loans. With Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Cory Booker as co-sponsors, Senator Gillibrand introduced a bill to expand access to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, among other programmatic reforms,.

Senator Warren released what might be the most ambitious legislative response to the student loan debt crisis yet. Two of the most progressive provisions would cancel the student loan debt, albeit to varying degrees, of those making up to $250,000 and offer free tuition at public two-year and four-year institutions with expanded access to Pell Grants to meet the other costs of attending college.

Politicians on the left and the right have insisted that education is a civil right. Hopefully, the implementation of plans like Senator Warren’s will move the country closer toward the realization of this promise. If education is truly a civil right, however, then it should include the most vulnerable: incarcerated Americans.

The 1994 Crime Bill bars incarcerated Americans from accessing Pell Grants. The Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, introduced in the Senate in 2018 and undergirded by extensive research demonstrating the potential of enhanced access to education to reduce recidivism, would lift this ban.

A pilot program launched by the Obama administration in 2015 to test the effect of reversing the ban, albeit on a small-scale, has seen impressive results: According to the Vera Institute of Justice, educating incarcerated Americans during their incarceration would lead to a $45.3 million increase in wages during the first year alone. Taxpayers are expected to experience economic benefits too. Reduced recidivism would save states $365.8 million each year.

Expanding access to educational opportunities among incarcerated Americans should be a progressive policy imperative. Stubborn collateral consequences make successful reentry into society difficult, and greater access to education, including workforce training, could do much to improve the lives of returning Americans. But a far more disturbing challenge lies at the entry point of the criminal legal system — the nexus of education and incarceration.

As critical as reentry services are, the key to reducing recidivism is to reduce incarceration. Reducing incarceration requires working to keep students in school, rather than implementing policies that push students out. A whopping 41 percent of incarcerated adults have not completed high school, more than two times that of the general population. Many of these adults were pushed out of school as youths and into incarceration by the school-to-prison pipeline.  

Defined as the process by which excessively punitive disciplinary factors push students out of school and directly or indirectly into contact with the criminal justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline might be one of the most pressing civil rights challenges of our time. The “tough-on-crime” era that came to define the 1980s ushered in new changes to school discipline. Schools across the country began to adopt zero-tolerance policies, which apply “explicit, predetermined punishments to specific violations of school rules, regardless of the situation or context of the behavior.”

What may appear to be a harmless suspension could have lifelong consequences. One study showed that a student’s separation from school portends a 23.5 percent increase in their likelihood of dropping out from school. Another study found that half of the students observed who were disciplined eleven or more times were later involved with the criminal justice system. Furthermore, suspensions or expulsions for “discretionary violations” (mainly violations of student codes of conduct) were equated with an increased likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system within the next year.

Considering that 2.7 million K-12 public school students received at least one out-of-school suspension and 120,700 such students received an expulsion during the 2015-2016 school year alone, the school-to-prison pipeline has the potential to ensnare millions of students across the country. And students disciplined only with suspensions and expulsions might be the lucky ones. In the 2015-2016 school year, more than 291,100 students were referred to law enforcement or arrested.

The school-to-prison pipeline has a disparate impact on students of color, particularly Black children. Black students represented 15.5 percent of the total public school student population during the 2013-2014 school year, but a staggering 46 percent of those with multiple out-of-school suspensions. It was estimated in 2017 that Latinx public school students were suspended from school every nine seconds. Native American/Alaskan Native students were similarly overrepresented among disciplined students, though at lower rates as compared to Black and Latinx: These students constituted 2.2 percent of those referred to law enforcement during the 2013 to 2014 school, despite representing only 1.1 percent of the public school student population.

As troubling as these statistics are, the coming years could witness the widening of the school-to-prison pipeline.

In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, President Trump organized a federal school safety commission. Tasked with “providing meaningful and actionable recommendations to keep students safe at school,” the commission instead proposed rescinding Obama-era disciplinary guidelines meant to shore up students’ civil rights and loosen the grip of the school-to-prison pipeline (especially on youth of color). These guidelines specifically suggested, among other changes, training school officials in classroom management and conflict resolution, consulting students and families in the drafting of school disciplinary policies, and involving school nurses, social workers, and psychologists in addressing student misbehavior. Most importantly, the guidelines implored schools to implement disciplinary policies that are rooted in “objective and specific criteria,” assign punishments that are proportionate to the infraction, and respect students’ right to due process.   

As Congress contemplates easing the burdens of contact with the criminal justice system on the back end, it must simultaneously work to stem the steady flow of Americans that come into contact with the criminal justice system at the front end. It should start with addressing the school-to-prison pipeline, which funnels America’s youth out of school and into prison. Congress can start where the Obama administration left off: It can codify the disciplinary guidelines into federal law, exercising oversight over school districts with track records of racially or otherwise disparate disciplinary outcomes.