Does Choosing Prisons Over Schools Save Money?


As a nation, we sure have our priorities mixed up when it comes to how we use public funds.

Cut more or spend more?  When we look at just what we are cutting and how we are spending, it’s clear we can’t seem to make decisions consistent with either goal. 

A recent decision by the state of Pennsylvania to close schools while investing in new prisons is a case in point.

Pennsylvania Joins Devastating School Closure Wave

In early March, Philadelphia School District’s School Reform Commission decided to close 23 schools.

The commission approved the closures, citing “excruciating and difficult” necessity to close the budget deficit, even though 31 out of 32 speakers at the meeting were against the shutdowns and protesters crowded the meeting grounds. 

With this decision, Pennsylvania became the latest in a flurry of school closings. From Washington D.C. to New York to New Jersey, public school education everywhere has been subjected to some of the harshest and most undeserved government cuts.

These cuts tend to be in low-income minority neighborhoods, further exacerbating the education gap between the rich and poor and depriving these areas of already lacking learning services.

In fact, in every case, black and Latino neighborhoods have been hit the hardest. Leaving these struggling neighborhoods without schools can only increase instability. Experts have even gone so far as to say that the plan endangers children as it leave the streets free from activity and educators.

In Chicago, the president of the teachers’ union described the phenomenon as “actions [that] unnecessarily expose our students to gang violence, turf wars and peer-to-peer conflict.

Even if the closings help reach a projected savings in the short term, the damage to these cities is irreparable.

Using School Closure “Savings” on Ineffective Prisons

The Philadelphia school closure story, however, has a differentiating feature that sheds even more light on our inverted spending priorities.

Pennsylvania is building a brand new state prison in Skippack Township to replace the 84-year-old State Correctional Institution at Graterford.


The new facility is set to cost the state $400 million, or almost half of what the state is projected to save by closing the schools. Operational costs later on will most certainly exceed the amount saved.

The government’s claim is that the current prison is overcrowded and the new complexes will eliminate the need to bus inmates across the state.  But this claim fails to recognize the root causes of overcrowding.

Too many people are incarcerated for low-level offenses (especially drug offenses) and many of the inmates are mentally ill.  Prisons cost more than treatment and are not designed to rehabilitate or reintegrate these inmates. 

Want to Cut Costs? Rethink Social Priorities

Not only is incarceration a waste of money in addressing current crime rates, the money saved by closing schools will likely end up similarly wasted on the same ineffective prisons.

School closures leave kids in already marginalized neighborhoods without nearby education and can force them to attend schools performing even more poorly.

This leads to more delinquency, more disadvantage in black and brown neighborhoods, and even more costly and unnecessary incarceration.

Simultaneously building prisons and closing schools defies any reasonable set of actions aimed at cutting costs. If Pennsylvania really wants to save money it should rethink its social priorities.

Have school closures impacted your community?  Share your story in the comments below!

Top photo: Tom Gralish/The Philadelphia Inquirer, via Associated Press