How to Construct an Underclass, or How the War on Drugs Became a War on Education

49 Pages Posted: 29 Jan 2007

See all articles by Eric D. Blumenson

Eric D. Blumenson

Suffolk University Law School

Eva S. Nilsen

Boston University School of Law


While Americans are arguably more committed than ever to the ideal of universal education, the drug war has effectively withdrawn this commitment to many children who are most at risk. It has done so in several related ways that we explore in this article. First, the drug war has combined with public school zero-tolerance policies to remove tens of thousands of adolescents from their public schools. Eighty-eight percent of public schools have zero-tolerance policies for drugs, and according to one recent study approximately eighty percent of students charged with drug or alcohol infractions are suspended or expelled from school. Second, denial of higher education has been adopted as an additional punishment for drug offenders. Under the Drug Free Student Loans Act of 1998, students who have ever been convicted of a drug offense are either temporarily or permanently ineligible for federal college loans and grants. This law has led to the withdrawal from school of thousands of college students who have no alternative means of paying for their education. As to drug offenders in prison, their access to higher education had already effectively been terminated by a 1994 law that excluded all prisoners from Pell Grants, the federal college aid program that had engendered numerous college programs in prison. Finally, the war on drugs has targeted mssive numbers of drug users - addicts, serious abusers, and casual users alike - and siphoned them out of society and into prison. Whether wittingly or not, Americans have fully embraced that tradeoff for many years now: we are more interested in segregating and punishing drug offenders than educating them.

The war on drugs has spawned a second front - a war on education. The casualties of this war are all poor or lower-income people who cannot afford to buy a private education. This article details the consequences of this other war, and explores some legislative and litigation strategies for reclaiming educational opportunity for all Americans.

Keywords: drug war, zero tolerance, expulsion, suspension, delinquency

Suggested Citation

Blumenson, Eric and Nilsen, Eva S., How to Construct an Underclass, or How the War on Drugs Became a War on Education. University of Iowa Journal of Gender, Race and Justice, Vol. 6, No. 61, 2002 Symposium, Available at SSRN:

Eric Blumenson (Contact Author)

Suffolk University Law School ( email )

120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108-4977
United States
(617) 305-1967 (Phone)
(617) 305-3087 (Fax)

Eva S. Nilsen

Boston University School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States
617-353-4255 (Phone)

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