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Rate of Texas Prison Spending Growth Outpaces Schools

Over three decades, the amount of money Texas spends on jails and prisons has grown at a much faster rate than what it spends on public schools, a new federal study finds, but schools still receive significantly more money.

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Texas spending on prisons and jails is the highest in the nation, a new federal study concludes, and has grown about five times faster than the state's rate of spending growth on elementary and secondary education over the past three decades. But the state still spends significantly more on its schools than its prisons.  

new analysis of federal data released last week by the U.S. Department of Education found that Texas corrections spending increased by 850 percent between 1989 and 2013, while the rate of funding for pre-kindergarten to grade 12 education grew by 182 percent. In the 1979-80 fiscal year, for example, Texas spent $14 billion on education and almost $604 million on corrections. In 2013, it spent about $41 billion on schools and $5 billion on incarceration (in constant 2013 dollars). 

On average, growth in spending on prisons and jails in other states tripled the rate of growth in funding for public K-12 education over the same period, the report found. 

The wide disparity in Texas is caused by the state’s harsh sentencing laws and the strict enforcement of non-violent offenses, which have quadrupled its incarceration rate, the report asserted. 

“Budgets reflect our values, and the trends revealed in this analysis are a reflection of our nation’s priorities that should be revisited,” said U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. in a statement. “For far too long, systems in this country have continued to perpetuate inequity. We need to invest more in prevention than in punishment, to invest more in schools, not prisons.”

Advocates for reforming both the nation's schools and criminal justice found ammunition for their arguments in the report. Education advocates said the data analysis shows that lawmakers’ should make efforts to cut the incarcerated population and divert funds to the Texas education agency so schools can be adequately funded.  

“Texas has chosen to fund public education at low levels for decades, and the result is that we’re increasing the amount of poverty and the high cost of incarcerating young adults,” said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, a nonprofit group that advocates for more 700 school districts across Texas. “If we would concentrate more on public education as a preventive measure to stop the tide of poverty, we would be able to spend less and save more in the long run.”

Public school funding has long been an issue in Texas, and hundreds of school districts have filed numerous class action lawsuits against the state dating back to 1984. The latest case challenging the constitutionality of Texas’ school funding system — brought by more than two-thirds of the state’s school districts — ended in May. The state Supreme Court ruled the system is constitutional but urged state lawmakers to implement "transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid." The lawsuit came in response to the $5.4 billion budget cuts lawmakers approved in 2011, which school districts say left them with unfairly distributed funding.

"[The court] criticized the system, but they didn’t put teeth in their decision," said Pierce, who represented more than 440 low- and medium-wealth school districts in the case. “It was a tremendous surprise and disappointment.”

Texas ranks 38th in per-pupil spending, according to 2016 numbers from the National Education Association. It spent an average of $8,998 per student this school year, more than $3,000 below the national average. As of the 2014-2015 school year, there were 5,215,282 students. 

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Houston, who chairs the Senate’s Education Committee, could not be reached for comment.

While Texas has made strides curtailing its once explosive prison population growth, experts said it still hasn't addressed long-lasting structural problems.

The number of men and women held in state prisons and jails peaked at 173,649 in 2010, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice. The state currently has about 150,000 inmates. It pays an average $20,000 each year per inmate.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D- Houston, who heads the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee and is the longest-serving member of the Legislature, said his highest priority for the 2017 legislative session “is going to be pretrial release and services because most people in local jails cannot pay for bail.” He said some are even being forced to plead guilty because they cannot afford it.

“There're too many individuals in our county jails who don’t belong there because they are poor,” he said. “We’re just wasting millions upon millions of taxpayers' dollars.”

In Houston jails, for example, three-quarters of the people haven’t been tried in court. He said monitored pretrial release for non-violent offenders is an alternative.

Whitmire has also called for expanding prison education programs at the Windham School District, which he said would allow inmates to learn marketable skills, boosting their chances of finding employment after their release and reduce the recidivism rate. But Whitmire voted for steep budget cuts in 2011 that forced the statewide prison education system to eliminate more than 250 full-time positions and reduce its program. He told the Tribune that the school district was “wasting money" and that lawmakers were not seeing results at the time.

Marc Levin, the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, said a reducing the inmate population would allow the state to redirect funds to needed programs. He emphasized that tackling the sentencing guidelines and expanding drug treatment centers courts are crucial moves lawmakers should take. 

“What it’s about is holding people accountable, but putting them behind bars doesn’t mean they’d far less likely to pay restitution, and it’s going to be a burden on taxpayers,” he said.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Correction: An earlier version of this story credited a Texas state agency for a prison statistic that came from the U.S. Department of Justice.

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