By Corey Arvin
Staff Writer

#DoTheMath, a short yet pithy hashtag, is stoking conversation in California and beyond about the long-debated funding of education versus prisons. The phrase, pushed by the California Endowment, is gaining traction as the outlook on young minorities’ lives has become a national topic in light of recent police brutality and racial bias allegations.

In its billboards, California Endowment asserts that on average, the cost of prison is about $62,300 in contrast to $9,100 for students. Another billboard points to the formation of only one University of California (UC) campus since 1980 compared with 22 prisons. The prison funding estimate is based on data from the California Budget Project.

The foundation has seeded some of the state’s busiest freeways with eye-catching billboards to raise awareness about the state’s emphasis on spending to support its corrections system rather than education. The #DoTheMath hashtag, though not solely used by California Endowment, has attracted attention in social media.

“The community response is very encouraging and the message was very quickly embraced, which is always nice to hear. It’s not just people being nice. With social media and other metrics, we have a way to quantify how well messages are doing,” said Mary Lou Fulton, senior program manager for California Endowment.

Although California Endowment is essentially a health advocacy organization, officials say community issues such as education have an impact on health and quality of life, which is why the organization focuses on related concerns. The #DoTheMath campaign is an extension of the foundation’s Building Healthy Communities initiative, a 10-year program introduced about five years ago.

Spending figures on the state’s prisoners have risen significantly since 1994 when the state enacted the controversial “3-Strikes” law. During 1994-1995, the state spent an average of $33,391 per inmate, adjusted for inflation, an 87 percent increase. The increase is attributed to several factors, including higher staffing levels, employee raises that outpaced increases in the cost of living, and an increase in the cost of healthcare for inmates, according to a report released in February from the California Budget Project. The report notes the general increase in corrections spending is not due to a growing prison population; there is a marginal decline in prisoners projected for 2014-2015 compared to 1994-1995.

“This idea of “Do The Math,” which is a very simple comparison, comparing how much we spend each year in California to keep someone in prison, compared to what we spend to support a child in our K through 12 school system, it just doesn’t add up,” she said.

According to Fulton, shortly after the initiative began, the foundation visited communities to gauge students’ experiences in school. Much of the feedback aligned with research indicating some of the challenges to a student’s success and gateway to healthy and prosperous lives.

“In our research [and] outreach on the community level, one of the things we heard from young people was the extent to which they were being suspended from school for minor misbehavior. Some of them two, three, five times a year and youth of color, particularly African-American and Latino boys were suspended at the highest rates of all,” said Fulton.

“The young people understood right away what the research tells us, which is that if you are suspended from school, your chances of doing well are not as good because you miss school, you fall behind, you are unsupervised … more chances to get into trouble. … More likely not to finish high school, more likely to be involved with the justice system,” she added.

Californians for Safety and Justice, a non-profit initiative under the Tide Foundation, was among several groups to swiftly embrace the #DoTheMath campaign. The #DoTheMath campaign coincided with Californians for Safety and Justice’s public education campaign #SchoolsNotPrisons, which launched last Summer. The campaign included Twitter chats with The California Endowment, Color of Change, and notable activists including Harry Belafonte, Jasiri X, and Russell Simmons. The organization also produced a video with Simmons to support the campaign, said Mike Smith, director of communications for the organization.

Smith hailed California Endowment’s initiative as a “bold and compelling campaign” that questions how money is spent on prisons instead of prevention.

“The public has increasingly questioned the value of spending so much money on prisons. [#DoTheMath] and #SchoolsNotPrisons armed concerned Californians with the facts and gave them a way to say, in a unified voice, that we want to invest scarce taxpayer resources in smart safety priorities,” said Smith.