Erica Lee: How to Keep a First Grader Off Death Row

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Erica Lee

It is the beginning of the school year and excitement is in the air. Children are looking for their classmates in the hall. Parents are tucking in shoelaces and zipping backpacks. Teachers are taking one last look at the classrooms and organizing their supplies. Finally, students enter a wonderful first grade teacher’s classroom with pep in their step. The smiles are bright and everyone is filled with anticipation for another school year, an opportunity for excellence, a chance to help a child reach his or her full potential. As the first grade teacher begins to call the roll, and each child nods, raises a hand or answers, one question should be on the mind of school board members, community advocates, voters and even parents: How do we keep these first graders off Death Row?

Typically, when educational achievement is discussed, it becomes a dialogue about numbers, passing tests (See recent STAAR results), graduation rates (Black/Latino achievement gap) and college preparedness (College readiness data). Our leaders often speak of the positive academic goals we are trying to achieve in our education system; however, it seems like these statements fall on deaf ears or at least dispassionate ones. I believe adults/voters would put more energy into fixing education if they thought about the negative outcomes and costs to society that they personally wanted to avoid. It is a human nature to be more concerned about yourself than about a child you have never met. So, why don’t we speak about providing quality education as something that can prevent bad things from happening to good people — the good person being you, of course. It’s kind of like how brushing your teeth regularly can prevent tooth decay, or at least smelly breath for people in close proximity. For our children, the negative consequences for a failed education system include illiteracy, juvenile delinquency, under-employment, unemployment, drugs, felonies, and in the worst case scenario ending up on Death Row. These affect you whether or not you have children because Texas spends more money to lock someone up than it does to properly educate a child – $8,562 per pupil for education versus $18,031 per prisoner – and that’s in addition to police enforcement, SNAP, Medicaid, the war on drugs, lost taxes and lost lives.

You see the thing is there is a profile for the life history of many of the people who end up on Death Row or life without parole and much of that history starts in early childhood. The answer may be easier than we think. Attorney David Dow, who has defended over 100 Death Row in Texas over the past 20 years, describes the common background of his clients:

“Over 80% of the people on death row came from the same sort of families, had the same background, exposure to the juvenile justice system and were under-educated…the best possible version for their story would be a story where no murder ever occurs (paraphrase).”

Dr. Dow asks the question, “How can we intervene in the life of a murderer before he or she becomes a murder?” I ask you the same question rephrased as “how do we keep a first grader off Death Row?”

It is my belief that just like any challenge if we know the root causes then we are foolish to not attack it with all of our effort. For most major illnesses, researchers typically want to find the root cause and prevent the disease from ever developing. The prevention strategy is known to be more effective for long-term survival and often even more equitable. While we know many of the root causes that lead to poor academic achievement, slow language development, diet, poverty, family education attainment, access to books and experiences, for some reason we choose not to attack those with our best vaccine. We choose not to invest all we can in a child’s early years even when we know it will pay multiple dividends for decades to come. For some reason, it is easy to ignore those bright-eyed hopeful young children be they toddlers or first graders. While adults will readily form neighborhood watches, pay for alarm systems and attend community meetings on how to reduce crime, we rarely invest the same time and attention to the prospect of investing in our children.

So, how do we keep a first grader off of Death Row? We must invest early and often in their social, emotional and academic development In a state where only 14% of our 3 year-olds are enrolled in pre-k or Head Start (Children’s Defense Fund) and over 25.7% are in poverty, we must find ways to support early childhood education that help our children build a strong foundation. During my time as a first grade teacher, I noticed a distinct difference in the cognitive development between those children who received early childhood education and those who had not. The children who had attended such programs often had a wider vocabulary and grasped concepts at a faster pace. And, once the gap of development and knowledge begins then it becomes ever harder for a child to catch up. And, if they never catch-up with their peers (now global) then in the worst case scenario, someone is murdered and that child ends up on Death Row.

Maybe, if we thought about quality education and investment in our children as a matter of life and death we would not have stood more than $5 Billion in education cuts during the 82nd Texas Legislative Session. Maybe, if we truly believed in education, we would occupy our school buildings and board meetings to ensure that all children were given the opportunity to learn. Education is a matter of life and death—better health, economic and family outcomes increase almost lockstep with the level of education attained. It is not just about keeping an innocent child from eventually ending up on Death Row; but, it is about the community that we envision where the American Dream still lives.

Mathematically, scientifically, and fundamentally, it makes sense to work on prevention rather than the treatment after the disease of poor academic achievement has taken hold. But psychologically, our society seems to spurn prevention for bigger, more costly solutions. I am encouraging you to fight to prevent poor academic outcomes; we must turn the tide against stop gap solutions in our education system. Support candidates and organizations that will work to invest early and often in to the education of our children. Lend your voice, vote and effort to this cause; because, in a country that imprisons more than 2.3 million people and holds 25% of the world’s prisoners (leading all nations), our investment in our children, will determine whether we produce children of infinite destiny or more prospects for Death Row.

Erica S. Lee, MPP, is a candidate for the Harris County Board of Education, Pos. 6, Pct. 1. Connect with Erica at or

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One Response to Erica Lee: How to Keep a First Grader Off Death Row

  1. joshua bullard says:

    I had the opportunity to visit with erica lee on a number of community events,she was highly attententive to the needs of the community and she was able to transfer a message of continued support for the school children of Harris county.And she was well dressed in a fashionable outfit that related well with our current times.

    I got the sense that erica lee will place a childs needs before the politcs,
    Respectfully submitted Joshua Ben Bullard……………………………2012

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