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Monday, September 26, 2011

Schools Versus Prisons

The title of this Blog entry might strike the reader as an odd combination of institutions. I have to admit, for me it has a bit of a humorous ring to it, but the subject is poignant and thought provoking.

First, I'll dispense with the humor. I attended Jefferson Elementary School in Rotterdam, New York many years ago. At that time the school was divided into two separate buildings across the street from each other. Fifth and sixth grades occupied the older brick building, sans gymnasium or cafeteria, so we had to walk across the road for physical education and lunch. Not long after I graduated from high school, the district sold the old building and it was converted into the Rotterdam Police Department and Jail. Years later, on a trip back east from our home in Texas, I toured my hometown with my son and daughter. Along the way I pointed to the Police Station/Jail and explained how I spent two years in that building. Their silence indicated that they were a little puzzled about my past - until I gave them the history of the building as my former elementary school.

Now the serious part. I have been attending the convention of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. This morning's featured speaker was Dr. John King, the Commissioner of Education for the State of New York. He presented updated information on the many different challenges facing school districts across the state. As he provided the rather grim juxtaposition of higher standards at a time when resources have become scarce during economic decline, he shared a story attributed to a principal in Michigan. King reported that the principal had apparently sent a personal letter to the governor of Michigan requesting that the state executive declare the principal's school to be a prison.

That's right; the principal wanted the school to be designated as a prison! The administrator's reasoning was sound, but tongue in cheek. His plea stated that his school receives $10,000 in state aid for each learner while the state spends $40,000 each year for each prisoner. He added that the prisoners receive free and full health care, immediate access to health care, and three square meals each day - all benefits that elude most of the learners attending the school where the principal serves as leader.

Yes, he was being sarcastic and displaying a heavy dose of irony - but the contrast in support is both startling and thought provoking. Among the most significant common denominator among prisoners in penal systems throughout the country is the lack of education. Spending $40,000 per prisoner and $10,000 per learner certainly appears to be a case of a pound of cure instead of an ounce of prevention. Investing in education is clearly not a panacea, but the return on investment is far greater than the expense of maintaining an expansive and growing prison population.

Think about it...

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