In the continuing economic difficulties, there is no more depressing news than what is happening with education and the ruthlessness of elected officials who have no shame about trying to balance their budgets on the backs of our children, gambling with our nation’s future for short-term political gain.

The economic crisis is forcing local school districts to make very unhappy choices:
* Palm Beach County, which has a $2.5 billion schools budget, faces, thankfully, a relatively small gap estimated at between $30 million and $50 million.
* Broward County is grappling with a $100 million shortfall in its $2 billion budget.
* Miami-Dade, the nation’s fourth largest school district, is trying to slash $100 million from a $3 billion budget.

To their credit, officials of all three school systems are desperately trying to retain as many teaching positions as possible, using the budget knife, instead, on maintenance crews, managers and infrastructure expenses. But it is just a matter of time before they will have to cut into the educational muscle as tax revenue continues to dwindle in the continuing homeownership crisis and state and federal governments sharply reduce their allocations not just to schools but also for important ancillary services.

The South Florida school districts are by no means alone in their struggle to stay afloat financially. It is happening around the country and it is a crisis that only the state and the federal government can really tackle. Yet, the so-called debate on national budgetary matters that is taking place in Tallahassee and Washington ignores the threatened meltdown in the American education system as ideology trumps commonsense.

The boy or girl, the man or woman trying to exercise what should be an inalienable right to good schooling had nothing to do with the economic recession that engulfs the nation. It is well-known that the financial collapse was caused by the greed of bankers on Wall Street who have since recovered and are making huge profits again, thanks to the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars they received – and schools have not. They are doing nothing to ease the homes and jobs crises and, by definition, the budget crunch schools face.

That aside, it is not that money cannot be found for schools. It is just that priorities are so skewed and ideological imperatives so dominant in today’s America that federal, state and local governments spend $70 billion each year to imprison juveniles and adults. That figure comes from the NAACP’s latest report, “Misplaced Priorities: Under Educate, Over Incarcerate.” Some $50 billion of that prison allocation comes from the general funds of states.

Other estimates say $50,000 is spent to keep a person in prison for a year and $5,000 to keep him or her in school.  And a 2008 Pew Center for the States report, cited by the NAACP, indicated that, between 1987 and 2007, higher education funding rose by 21 percent but money for incarceration grew by 127 percent. Even when the money can be found, it goes to jail houses, not school houses.

Not surprisingly, the NAACP report, which was released April 7, found that while African Americans and Latinos comprise 33 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 58 percent of the people in prison.

The NAACP has launched a blistering campaign, complete with shock-attack billboards, to call attention to the disparity in spending on prisons and schools. The campaign deserves our full support. In fact, it should be a launching pad for an outcry not just against prisons versus schools spending but the overall tendency to deprive our schools of funds.