Getting an education is widely regarded as the best pathway toward forging a secure and successful future. From finding meaningful work in an increasingly sophisticated job market to alleviating poverty and cultivating wealth, education resides near the heart of seemingly every major issue facing the United States today. And even as the need for quality schooling grows ever more pressing, leaders and lawmakers entrusted with building a robust and effective system continue to fall woefully short.

Despite what one may reasonably expect of the richest and most powerful country, America is largely not up to par with respect to education relative to its closest industrialized counterparts. Statistically speaking, education in the United States constitutes as mediocre by many measures, especially in subjects like math and science, where it ranks 30th and 19th respectively among the 35 member nations that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Apart from underperformance, American schools remain plagued with racial injustice and bone-deep inequality. Even some 60 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling that marked an end to centuries of state-sanctioned segregation in education, today’s schools have become alarmingly more racially and socioeconomically separate than they were in years past.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times , 75 percent of African-American students nationwide attend a school with a student body that is predominantly populated by people of color. The same can be said for public schools in Wisconsin, where the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) District is nearly 90 percent nonwhite. These generally low-income, racially segregated schools typically have more inexperienced teachers, fewer resources, smaller budgets, ill-equipped classrooms, lower graduation rates, and poorer working and learning conditions.

The ACLU is committed to the project of expanding educational opportunities for underserved communities and works to ensure that Wisconsin’s youth can pursue the right to an education that is accorded to them under the state constitution. Part of that effort is the ACLU’s 18-year-old youth program which has interacted with thousands of students over the years. The youth program includes events like the Summer Justice Institute and the Youth Social Justice Forum, where last year over 400 high school students came together to learn about their civil rights; civil liberties; and social justice issues, including human trafficking and black empowerment.

The ACLU also supports ACLU student alliances in schools, which are student-run school clubs that invite outside community leaders to speak, engage in art projects, and organize social justice activities in their schools and communities.

Photograph provided by ACLU of Wisconsin

Most recently, we have joined the movement to close the school-to-prison pipeline, striving to do away with the type of punitive disciplinary action in schools that results in the disproportionate suspension, expulsion, and even incarceration of primarily black and brown students. These policies criminalize children; deepen damaging disparities; and, as the research bears out, do not make schools any safer.

According to a recent study of MPS, the pipeline has had a devastating impact. In the 2015-2016 academic year, for instance, data shows that students attending MPS were suspended at four times the rate of the state average, with one in every three freshmen being suspended, a trend that has contributed to a 15 percent increase in the probability of dropping out.

And unsurprisingly, African Americans, who compose a little more than half of the overall student body, received 80 percent of the school’s suspensions, 87 percent of its expulsions, and approximately 86 percent of referrals to law enforcement. Students with disabilities were also frequent targets, as 91 percent of those restrained or forced into seclusion during the school year had a disability.

Photograph provided by ACLU of Wisconsin

As the report illustrates, these draconian disciplinary responses have created a heavily policed, highly punitive environment that is not conducive to the maturation, learning, or natural growth processes of young people. The ACLU believes that this approach is fundamentally misguided, and we encourage educators, decision makers, and law enforcement to abandon the practices which all too often push vulnerable students out of school and into prison, investing instead in programs that are restorative, fair, and evidence driven.

In an effort to push new approaches to the forefront, the ACLU is partnering with students across Wisconsin, building a broad coalition of advocates pushing for reapportionment of government funding away from prisons and into educational programs. This shift in investments means that kids would meet with counselors instead of police officers, be supported instead of searched, and would have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes rather than be defined by them.

Spending on prisons in Wisconsin has risen exponentially, and the cost required to maintain the state’s penal system now exceeds the total sum of money we allocate to higher education. Our predilection for punishment and retribution is anathema to our obligation to keep Wisconsin schools strong and runs counter to the evidence that more education positively reduces crime rates.

The ACLU activated and assembled a group of young leaders to testify before the state legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, hoping to persuade lawmakers to trim down the bloated prison budget in favor of stronger public support of education.

ACLU School to prison pipeline—ACLU

Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service MPS Report

Pew Research Center OEDC Ranking

Wisconsin Public Radio

David Gwidt is a communications intern with ACLU.