Sunday, July 18, 2010

Education vs Incarceration

Recently a committe of the Legislature was informed that the cost to taxpayers of each young person confined in a juvenile institution amounts to approximately $115,000 per year of incarceration. It also turns out that about 90% of the young people who commit crimes requiring sentencing to juvenile institutions are school dropouts. There is obviously a strong connection between crime and failure in school. The cost to taxpayers for students who drop out or flunk out of school and then turn to crime is at least ten times the cost per pupil for students who remain in school. There is also a major cost to taxpayers for those dropouts or flunk outs who somehow resist the temptation to do crime. Most of these young people have no job skills and end up on the welfare rolls where they are supported by the taxpayers instead of becoming productive citizens. It turns out therefore that Louisiana taxpayers have a major stake in keeping more students in school and insuring that they are prepared with marketable work skills.
This problem belongs to all of us whether we want to face it or not. We must either find a way to educate all children or be prepared to support them in prison or on the welfare roles. Its pay now or pay later.

So why do we continue to allow fully 40% of our children to leave school without an education? The cost to our state of such a tragedy makes the cost of the gulf oil spill look like peanuts. The failure of our education system of almost half of our students is the elephant in the room dragging down the economy of our state, yet it is barely noticed by our policy makers.

Newspaper accounts of higher salaries this year for new positions in our Department of Education while most local school systems are reducing teacher ranks and increasing class size are amazing! It reminds me of the bonuses paid to Wall Street bankers after their extremely poor job performance bankrupted their companies and forced a bailout by taxpayers. Louisiana taxpayers are also funding a public school “Recovery District” which pays generous salaries to top administrators while hiring inexpensive two-year “teach for America” instructors. This state takeover school system continues to produce the lowest graduation rate in the state.

Unfortunately Louisiana's next round of “reform” which consists of implementing the new National Curriculum Standards will likely result in more dropouts. That's because all the emphasis is being placed on implementation of a college prep curriculum for all. No one has figured out how to convince the thousands of students who are disengaging from our education system as they reach middle school and high school to actually buy into these new and improved standards. One of the most ridiculous statements I saw coming from the Obama administration recently was a comment that “many students are doing poorly in school in our country because the curriculum is not challenging enough!" I don't know about the other states, but in Louisiana, the issue with our students is not whether the curriculum is challenging, but much more whether it is relevant to their lives. A subject is not challenging to a student if he has no interest or motivation to learn the material. The problem is that few of our education policy makers or highly paid Education Department heads have made the effort to make school relevant to our huge underclass of "at risk" students. The educational system cannot succeed by attempting to apply middle class values and goals to students who come from a different world.

The so called high stakes testing system is a failure. High standards and high minded rhetoric does not educate students if there is no practical plan for getting students to buy into the system. Our educational system must connect with these students where they are, not where we think they should be. We need to find ways for these students to succeed, instead of adding to the barriers to their success. Programs that have been shown to connect with at risk students such as Jobs for America's Graduates and career development programs, which include job shadowing and mentoring beginning at the middle school level must be implemented on a statewide basis if we are to see results. The cost of career coaches in critical schools would be more than paid for by savings from Louisiana's Corrections budget. Every student has strengths that the school system should constantly strive to identify and nurture rather than focus only on his/her failures.

 Maybe if tackling Louisiana's continuing dropout problem were viewed purely as a way of saving taxpayer dollars, we would have a better chance of getting action on a crisis much bigger than the BP oil spill.