DECEMBER 06, 2016
Funding for the nation’s struggling public schools is at an all-time low yet the Obama administration has found the resources to create a new school district in the vast prison system to improve inmate literacy. It’s part of a broader prison reform effort to help convicts reintegrate into society after serving their sentence and the timing couldn’t be worse, as the country’s public education system suffers through drastic budget cuts, dismal student performance and teacher shortages.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Secretary of Education, John B. King, appears to be more concerned with the low literacy rates of convicted felons. Last month he called for more high-quality education programs for the nation’s 1.5 million prisoners as children across the country fail to meet basic academic goals. King has urged states to dedicate expanded resources to “shrink achievement gaps, equip prisoners with skills and credentials to find meaningful employment and support successful reentry.” King was inspired by a recent study that revealed literacy and numeracy skills among incarcerated adults are far weaker than those of average U.S. adults. More than half of adult prisoners lack the basic skills necessary for pursuing higher education, securing a job or participating fully in society, the study also found.
Weeks later the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it was launching a new school district in the nation’s federal prison system. To justify the expense, the agency cited unspecified “research” that shows inmates who participate in correctional education programs have 43% lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not. Furthermore, this so-called research also says that every dollar spent on prison education saves four to five dollars on the cost of re-incarceration, the DOJ asserts. So, the Bureau of Prisons is building a semi-autonomous school district within the federal prison system, which will offer literacy programs, high school diplomas and a free, taxpayer-funded college education. A school superintendent has been hired and the new prison school district should be up and running shortly. “Helping incarcerated individuals prepare for life after prison is not just sound public policy; it is a moral imperative,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch in a statement announcing several prison reform measures.
In the meantime, the country’s elementary and secondary schools are receiving much less funding per student than before the Great Recession, according to government figures published by a nonpartisan research and policy institute. The cuts weaken schools’ capacity to develop the intelligence and creativity of the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs, the research group asserts. “As common sense suggests, money matters for educational outcomes. For instance, poor children who attend better-funded schools are more likely to complete high school and have higher earnings and lower poverty rates in adulthood.” A multitude of news reports across the nation have for years documented huge funding cuts for public schools all over the U.S., including remote districts in Wyoming and Oklahoma to large ones in California and Texas.
The new prison school district appears to be the grand finale of Obama’s commitment to create a “fairer, more effective criminal justice system, reducing recidivism and combating the impact of mass incarceration on communities.” The latest education announcement proclaims that key to meeting those goals has been providing incarcerated individuals with access to education and training, which is proven to reduce future contact with the justice system and improve employment and self-sufficiency. In recent years the Education Department, which was created by Jimmy Carter, also launched a program to help inmates get a free college education so they can find jobs and turn their lives around after leaving prison.
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