Schools, Prisons and Accountability

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Since last week’s Assembly Education Committee hearing on the School Finance Network plan (video here, more on AMPS here), I’ve been thinking about schools, prisons and accountability.

Early in the hearing, Chair Sondy Pope-Roberts reminded the committee and the hundreds who packed the hearing room about the comparative direct costs of education and imprisonment. I believe she cited a figure of $30,000 per year to imprison an individual. The current cost of education per student is in the $10,000 per year range; the SFN proposals and other plans to preserve, expand and improve educational opportunities in Wisconsin would add at absolute most $1,500 per student, per year (I’ll argue from this high figure rather than quibble). Indirect costs and benefits should also be considered. As Madison Superintendent Dan Nerad has often said (paraphrase), “We need to consider what it actually costs to educate students and we need to consider what is costs to not educate students.” See also this letter from the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram about jail construction costs and school budgets and the work of the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University

Later in the hearing, the representatives of the School Finance Network were pushed hard on “accountability.” The SFN proposal includes some good guidelines to work toward a better accountability system and calls for a five-year review (pp. 11-12).

There was some confusion at the hearing about the confidence in the “what works/best practices” models that served as a basis for the SFN calculations and the reluctance to guarantee results. SFN attempts to direct resources to where they are most needed and will do the most good; it isn’t just a matter of “more money” it is sufficient money to preserve and extend “best practices.” Will this lead to predictable improvements on various benchmarks? Yes and no.

Very simply, there are no guarantees in education or social science research and implementation. You’d have to be a fool to ask for or promise a rise of x points on any standardized test or other measure.

We have good research and data on many things that have improved outcomes in the past; we have good research and data on many things that have harmed outcomes in the past; we have less good data on many things in both categories; we have no “this will work 100% of the time” guarantees.

The SFN team is confident that if the plan is implemented data will show improvements in many ways and welcomes a five-year review. This is as much as can be expected given the state of knowledge.

[Sherman Dorn’s recent post, “Margins for error in policy” hits some related ideas.]

There was also some talk at the hearing of five years being too long to wait for “accountability.” I don’t know how to respond to that, except to say that I believe five years is too short (see below for a little more).

As part of the budget process the Wisconsin Legislature is also considering changes in early prisoner release laws to save money. A recent report pegs the growth of incarceration spending in Wisconsin at $500 million in the last decade and attributes much of this to “truth in sentencing” laws .

All this got me thinking about some questions:

  • Why don’t we require “accountability” when we build a new jail, supermax prison or change sentencing laws?
  • What would that accountability include; how would you figure the costs and benefits?
  • How do you quantify “feeling safer” or even crime rates in dollars and cents?
  • How do you “cost out” the family disruptions and pain caused by incarceration in your calculations?
  • How do “cost out” the fact that prisoners are not contributing economically or otherwise to society?
  • How does recidivism fit in the analysis?

You get the idea. One more:

  • Why don’t we require “accountability” for every tax break, road construction dollar, loophole, economic development initiative, …war…like our elected officials always seem to want from educational investments?

I actually have one answer for the last. Elections are the accountability mechanism for most of these.

Too bad our state officials won’t take that responsibility with educational investment, just like they won’t take the responsibility to fix the broken school funding system they created; nor are they willing to give that responsibility to local elected school boards by lifting the revenue caps.

Last thought. I said above that five years is too short. Let’s implement the SFN plan and make incarceration rates in five years and 10 years and fifteen years and twenty years part of the “accountability” analysis. Let’s also reassert things like “democratic ideals and full individual development countering ‘individual economic rapaciousness’” in our educational goals and make those part of the “accountability” too.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Accountability, Best Practices, education, Elections, finance, Local News, Pope-Roberts/Breske Resolution, School Finance

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