In 2011 Governor Parnell established a task force to examine the costs of incarceration in the state of Alaska. The task force’s purpose was to examine incarceration rates, recidivism rates and search for ways to lower costs. The cost of incarceration in Alaska is about $50,000 per inmate, per year. In 2010 Alaska was holding 4,671 inmates. Alaska has a history of higher than average incarceration and recidivism rates. At the time of the task force, our total yearly costs for incarceration were running upwards of $230 million per year. This does not include indirect costs like probation, reintegration services and other costs associated with incarceration and its social fall-out.
It is well established that inadequate education is a common denominator in prison populations. It would be reasonable to assume that a clear and dedicated commitment to education would be one of the key components in a plan to decrease incarceration rates and lower costs to the state in the long term. It is safe to assume that if poor education is a common factor in incarceration, than a large number of smaller crimes that may not result in incarceration are also increasing costs to municipalities and the state, creating heavier loads on police, courts and related services. As an example, Department of Corrections admissions in 2010 figured over 35,000.
The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, has described teachers as “first responders.” Teachers and other school staff are often first responders; first responders for troubled kids, first responders for families in crisis, as well as first responders ready to develop opportunities for advanced learners and children designated as gifted. It is the job of public education to do the utmost to cover the full range of needs presented by school populations.
Counter to a frequently repeated belief, public education is not failing. In fact, the most consistent factor in the failure of children to succeed in school is poverty. Children in poverty are the most likely to struggle in school and have difficulty learning. As the number of children in poverty in Alaska and across the country has been increasing there is more pressure on learning and on schools. As schools struggle to meet the challenges before them, they have been held responsible for the impacts of factors far beyond their control.
Beyond the limited perspective of incarceration rates, the worth and value of public education reverberates throughout communities. Community-based learning projects and student involvement in community service are just a few of the ways the wider community benefits. Beyond the classroom, schools provide myriad family-based activities throughout the school year and school buildings provide meeting places, instructional opportunities, sports facilities, and polling places all at limited or no costs to users.
In essence, public education is an ounce of prevention for a variety of future problems and that ‘ounce’ enriches the lives of families and communities. Unfortunately, the pound of ‘cure’ heals very little. There is no cure for the opportunities lost by underfunding and undermining public education. The misplaced emphasis on standardized tests, invalid comparisons to systems in other countries and attacks on those who serve through teaching do nothing to help prepare our children for the future or encourage them to succeed.
In the recent past, Governor Parnell has suggested that schools don’t deserve increased funding unless they achieve improved results, losses in staff and decreased services notwithstanding. Oddly enough, no one has yet suggested decreasing funding for prisons based on their inability to prepare inmates to succeed after release or standardize expectations for lowered recidivism rates. We know there is no logic to that argument. How do we then apply that standard to schools?