By Christopher Zoukis
Cynthia Nixon is running for Governor of New York. Billed as a “progressive fighter, actor, activist, and lifelong New Yorker,” Nixon has long been known for her advocacy for LGBTQ+ equality, women’s rights, and public education.
A standout issue on her platform is #schoolsnotjail.
Her foray into advocacy for better public-school education started with her oldest child’s first day of school. She had visited the school before, but when the first day of class rolled around, many of the teachers, including those that taught art and music, and the administration, including the assistant principal, were not there. What happened? Budget cuts.
Frustrated, Nixon joined parent groups to organize a stop to the nearly $400 million in cuts planned for New York City schools; a move that was responsible in part for Foundation Aid, a state-funded initiative that increased funding for high need, low-income school districts. However, Foundation Aid was later cut under Governor Cuomo.
As she fought for better public-school education, Nixon also came face to face with another pressing problem that has far-reaching consequences: the school to prison pipeline. Seeing how communities of color were being underserved in education and overserved in policing, she saw the link between overextended law enforcement in schools and how it led to an early entry into the penal system.
Her Education NY platform and the #schoolsnotjail information on her campaign website states: “Together, the underfunding and criminalization of schools that disproportionately serve children of color have created two different education systems in New York State. White, wealthy children are prepared for college, and low-income children of color are disproportionately put into the school to prison pipeline… Our children need schools, not jail.”
How does Nixon plan to address this issue? She wants to enact a birth-to-college approach in the public education system that prepares children and youth from all walks of life, regardless of color or social status, for success.
New York City has a large black, Hispanic and Asian population, but under 40 percent of teachers represent these cultures. With 80 percent of students being non-Caucasian, the lack of diversity in teachers can be an issue culturally, linguistically, and socially. Nixon would like to see $20 million in “culturally responsive education.”
She would also like to see far less reliance on the controversial standardized testing model, which can “reward” affluent schools that have more resources, and ultimately penalize schools in more disenfranchised areas.
Nixon’s plans for education reform are impressive and bold. While others tackle the school to prison pipeline by decrying the presence of police in schools and heavy-handed punishments for minor infractions, Nixon goes further to throw dollars at the root of the problem – racism and social inequality.
America didn’t become the purveyor world’s most infamous and prolific (and one of the world’s most broken) prison systems overnight. It happened over the years due to social, racial, political, and commercial problems. The thing that can override all those factions is the one thing that consistently has been proved to transform lives for the better whenever and wherever deployed: education.
By going to the very root of the issues in the public-school system, Nixon has the potential to dramatically impact the prison to school pipeline, and if she does, that bodes very well for long-range, positive, prison reform overall.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.