Should Schools Pay The Price of Prison?

OK, so it might not work. But let me toss out the idea anyway, so wiser heads than mine can make something of it. Here it is: Bill local school districts for the costs of keeping convicts in prison. How's that again?

Let me explain. There's growing evidence of a connection between faltering education and increasing crime rates. More than 50 percent of inmates in state prisons have less than an 11th-grade education. In some state prisons, as much as 70 percent of the population is said to be illiterate. Illiteracy, in fact, may be the strongest common denominator among prisoners - more than race, family background, or economic status.

Schools can't do much to change the latter three issues. But literacy is their business.

Sure, teaching reading is an intensive process. Sometimes you have to go one-on-one with a child. You may even need to invent new techniques - interactive video, role-playing games, and so forth - to reach recalcitrant kids. All of which takes money.

And that's the rub. Money for schools is scarce. As local communities face increased taxes for other services - in part because of cuts in federal and state funds that once helped meet the expenses of mandated programs - schools budgets and school building programs are in jeopardy.

This is not the baby boom of the 1950s, when many local communities were voting for and building a new school every year. This is the aging boom. In many communities, the proportion of voters with school-age children stands well below the majority.

True, many of those voters know the value of education and still support public schools. But how do you reach those who resent their tax dollars going to something they no longer think relevant? Very simply: You bring it back to their pocketbooks.

How? Well, it costs, on average, $16,987 a year to keep an inmate in a federal penitentiary. Some states annually spend more money housing prisoners than it would cost to send them to an ivy-league university. So suppose, at the prison gate, you find out what schools the newcomers attended - and send the bill back to the communities?

Look at the benefits. For the first time, communities would have a real, bottom-line reason to care whether they had good schools. They'd also have a goal - literacy - against which to measure effectiveness.

Does an $850,000 increase in your town's school budget seem like a lot? That's the cost of keeping 10 prisoners incarcerated for five years. Has your town ever produced 10 prisoners? Then perhaps - just perhaps - you should be billed.

As it now stands, schools have little incentive to do more than crank the marginal, at-risk kids through the system as fast as possible.

Under this proposal, any school that promotes such students from, say, third to fourth grade - knowing full well they can't read at grade level - is riding for a fall.

Ten years out, such a decision could cost local taxpayers $16,987 a year - plus inflation. Such a threat might well concentrate the mind. It might make taxpayers realize that investing heavily in a single at-risk kid - maybe even as much as $16,000 a year - could turn out to be an extraordinary bargain.

Unworkable? No doubt. Literacy is not the only causal factor in criminality. Communities with high proportions of disadvantaged youths would quickly be billed into oblivion. Kids might even take to black-mailing the system: ``Get off my case, or I'll refuse to learn to read and cost you a fortune!''

Even so, there's a lesson in all this. Local communities simply must make the connection between miserly school programs and soaring prison populations. Some citizens have already learned, the hard way, that money saved on low taxes soon gets spent installing home security systems and replacing stolen car stereos. Maybe the lesson should be more pointed. Maybe communities too stingy to address the problem at its root ought to pay for it when it finally flowers.

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