By Mike Armstrong
KSBA Executive Director
“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” Victor Hugo
For years I had heard (“they said ...”) that third-grade reading scores were used by prison builders to determine the number of future prison beds. In fact, a 1999 Education Week article actually made the same claim. But I have lately learned that this claim cannot be verified. It exists today as an urban legend at best. Both Reading Partners (2013) and Politifact (2016) confirm that while states do utilize myriad current data to predict future prison needs, they do not use third-grade reading scores.
But that’s not to say there isn’t an undeniable connection between literacy scores and incarceration rates. The Reading Partners article goes on to share that “a student not reading at his or her grade level by the end of the third grade is four times less likely to graduate high school on time – six times less likely for students from low-income families.” Furthermore, a 2009 Northwestern University study found that “high school dropouts were 63 times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates.”
The Annie E. Casey Foundation, in Early Warning Confirmed, A Research Update on Third-Grade Reading (2013) wrote of “the urgency of ensuring that children develop proficient reading skills by the end of the third grade, especially those living in poverty or in impoverished communities.” Furthermore, this research supports “the link between reading deficiencies and broader social consequences, including how living in poor households and high-poverty neighborhoods contribute to racial disparities in literacy skills in America and how low achievement in reading impacts an individual’s future earning potential.” When considering low reading scores and the potential for high school graduation, “children with the lowest reading scores account for 33 percent of all students, yet they account for 63 percent of all children who do not graduate from high school. Seventy-four percent of fourth-grade students scoring below the 25th percentile on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were from low-income families.”
From Peter Wagner’s Tracking State Prison Growth in 50 States (2014): “Over the last three decades of the 20th century, the United States engaged in an unprecedented prison-building boom that has given our nation the highest incarceration rate in the world.” Wagner writes that 57 percent of people incarcerated in the United States have been convicted of violating state law and are in a state prison. And Bureau of Justice Statistics (2016) tells us that two-thirds of state prison inmates have not completed high school.
In 2015, 11,003 males and 890 females populated the Kentucky Department of Corrections’ (KYDOC) 13 facilities; more than 14 percent were serving four- to five-year sentences. The largest KYDOC population (at nearly 19 percent) is under 21. The agency pegs its per-inmate cost at $61.09 per day or $22,297.85 per year.
Compare that with the $13,276 average per-pupil spending for the 2014-15 school year, the most recent figure available from the Kentucky Department of Education. (That figure excludes debt service, facilities and fund transfers.) Based on a 185-day school year, that translates to spending $71.76 per day/per student.
The bottom line: The state spends more per year, per inmate than it does per child on education. This undeniable fact against a backdrop of increasingly scarce tax dollars is scary. It is only further cause and reason for local boards of education, working with their superintendent, to regularly monitor the achievement levels of all of their students – with a particularly sharp eye dedicated to reading achievement. This valued skill foretells so much about the future of Kentucky and in doing so, paints with a very broad brush our willingness to invest today for positive benefits that will pay dividends for generations to come!