“Education is the most pressing issue facing America. Preparing young people for success in life is not just a moral obligation of society but also an economic imperative. Education is the only sure path out of poverty and the only way to achieve a more equal and just society.”
Anne Duncan, Secretary of Education
Whether or not one concurs with Duncan’s assessment of education as the “most pressing issue facing America,” it is undeniable that a quality education is one of the crucial factors in a juvenile’s development. Specifically, a strong secondary education is an essential resource for youth because it serves at the critical link to post-secondary education and/or job opportunities. According to the United Way’s report, Tale of Two Cities: LA County 10 Years Later, “high school and college graduation have consistently provided higher earnings power,” and Los Angeles “residents with a high school diploma earned on average $8,500 [per] year more than those who didn’t graduate from high school.” However, regardless of the mountain of empirical evidence supporting the importance of a high school diploma, high school results throughout the United States remain stagnant: “policy changes have not yielded increases in high school success and completion and have failed to produce any significant gains since the l970s.” Children of immigrants with low educational levels and urban Blacks and Latinos disproportionately carry the burdens produced by these failures of high schools.
As highlighted by Barry C. Feld, one of the nation’s leading scholars in juvenile justice, “education programs to enhance employment prospects of the concentrated poor” could “equalize opportunity for all individuals, regardless of race or ethnicity.” However, these potential solutions are being overlooked because “the political, media, and public association of urban black males with crime have fostered punitive policies rather than efforts to expand the employment and educational opportunities that prevent crime.” Taking this argument a step further, not only is there a lack of investment in the educational opportunities that could help prevent crime, but there is also a lack of investment in the educational opportunities that juveniles have access to while in detention. As an extreme example, consider youth detained in DJJ (Division of Juvenile Justice) facilities, who historically received their ‘education’ via worksheets while housed in isolation boxes. However, even in more moderate cases, youth that are detained fail to receive an adequate education. This lack of education undeniably contributes to American economist Jeremy Rifkin’s “concept of ‘economic irrelevance,’ the condition of those segments of our population who have no possibility of contributing to society because their members have nether desirable skills nor significant purchasing power.” Juvenile probation officer Judith Cox and Attorney James Bell explain that “many of the youth of color in the juvenile justice system reflect this circumstance, which results in structural decisions that do not include them in a productive future.”
Unfortunately, even when it comes to traditional public schools, youth from disenfranchised and low socio-economic backgrounds are disproportionately represented in underperforming and failing schools. This problem is only exacerbated when one considers the fact that youth of color are also overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, where educational conditions are even worse. It would appear that the result is a devastating feedback loop: barred from educational opportunities that would help keep them out of detention, underprivileged youth remain barred from additional opportunities while detained and are thus less likely to achieve a meaningful future. Luckily, you can have a direct impact on the educational opportunities available to youth in foster care or the juvenile justice system by volunteering your time as a tutor (http://www.cityyouthnow.org/get-involved/volunteer-today).
 Tale of Two Cities: LA County 10 Years Later. Report by United Way at 6 (2009).
 Gary Orfield, PhD. UCLA education professor and founder of the Civil Rights Project.
 Barry C. Feld, Race, Politics, and Juvenile Justice: The Warren Court and the Conservative “Backlash”, 87 Minn. L. Rev. 1447, 1576-77 (2003).
 Feld, Race, Politics, and Juvenile Justice, 1575-76.
 Cox and Bell, Addressing Disproportionate Representation of Youth of Color in the Juvenile Justice System. Journal of the Center for Families, Children, & the Courts at 32 (2001).