Tina Fletcher, University of Pennsylvania Education Policy PhD 2022; Trina Fletcher, Assistant Professor at Florida International University

Although Arkansas’ official state nickname is the Land of Opportunity, its national education and incarceration rankings leave a lot to be desired. According to US News, Arkansas ranks forty in quality of K-12 education and fourth in incarceration. This, in part, is a result of the growing number of Black students who, since the 1970s, have received increasingly disproportionate numbers of suspensions and expulsions in schools. As a result, scholars have built an argument for this system known as the “school-to-prison pipeline”. 

Academically, Arkansas’ widening gap between the performance of White students and their Black and Latino counterparts continues to grow. The Delta (Southeast) region, for example, is home to many of the state’s Black families and majority minority school districts. Schools in this region consistently perform lower than their non-Delta counterparts throughout the state and tend to graduate fewer of students. 

Black students in the Delta and throughout the rest of the state make up only 20% of the student population yet are a majority of the suspensions and expulsions. In fact, Black students in Arkansas are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than are their White and Latino counterparts. Black students also receive harsher punishments for the same infractions. National data show that students who are suspended, even once, are more likely to dropout, and that those who drop out are more likely to go to prison, indicating that the school-to-prison pipeline in Arkansas is a cause of the state’s disproportionate incarceration numbers. 

Similar trends can be found in the state’s incarceration rates. Although Blacks make up a mere 15% of the state’s population, they account for 42% of Arkansas’ prison population. The Delta region also houses the largest number of Arkansas Department of Corrections facilities. And, given the Delta region is one of the poorest in the state and nation, it tends to have less access to the resources needed for its schools to be competitive academically. 

With policy maker and school leader support, the school-to-prison pipeline in Arkansas can be mitigated by the following recommendations: aggressively recruiting, hiring, and retaining teachers of color. It is important to note that, while studies show teachers of color are preferred by students of all backgrounds and serve as mentors and positive role models for students of color, only 7.1% of Arkansas teachers are Black compared to the 20.4% of the students who identify as Black. This research study will highlight the school-to-prison pipeline in Arkansas, national data around the need for more teachers of color, and, in the state of Arkansas, the role teachers of color can play in ending this national epidemic.

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