Equity & Diversity

State Policies Set Up Incarcerated Students to Fail, Report Finds

By Eesha Pendharkar — June 22, 2022 6 min read
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Thousands of incarcerated students are being left to fail academically, according to a scathing new report looking at education programs inside juvenile justice facilities.

That failure is directly linked to fragmented governance policies and a lack of accountability within the juvenile justice education system. That’s according to Bellwether Education Partners, which analyzed juvenile justice education policies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The nonprofit organization reviewed policies focusing on governance, accountability, and funding and found inconsistencies in all three areas. The result, the authors conclude, is a confusing and inefficient system that fails to offer a stable education to some of the nation’s most vulnerable youth.

In 2019 alone, there were nearly a quarter of a million instances of young people who were detained or committed to a juvenile facility, according to the report. Black and Native American students are disproportionately incarcerated, as are LGBTQ students and those with disabilities. Many spend time in short-term detention centers or state run facilities while they await adjudication.

After being released from state custody, only 16 percent return to school, according to an earlier study done in 2016. These young people are also far less likely to graduate compared with their non-incarcerated peers.

Some of the challenges to providing even a basic education to incarcerated students are inherent to the juvenile justice system.

The unpredictability of life in juvenile justice centers, for example, leads to an unstable learning environment. Classrooms in juvenile justice facilities often have students from different grade levels learning together. And there is no telling how long a child will be in a locally run juvenile detention center awaiting adjudication on their case or in a state-run secure facility after being deemed delinquent. Finally, students can get pulled out for court dates, probation officer appointments, or other bureaucratic responsibilities that interrupt their learning.

But the lack of consistency in who is responsible for the governance, accountability, and funding of these students’ education just makes a bad situation worse, according to Hailly Korman, a senior associate partner at Bellwether and one of the four authors of the report.

“There are kids in these facilities today and there will be for the foreseeable future. Right now, we basically abdicate responsibility for their learning collectively as an education sector,” she said.

“How do we make these better places for teaching and learning, while simultaneously believing that they just are not healthy places for children to be?” she said. “And that there isn’t a way to design these policies that would change that?”

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No clear lines of responsibility

Each state has policies describing which state or local agency is responsible for providing education services to youth in custody, and often, more than one agency is involved, the report says.

Across the country, at least 16 different governance structures are used to make decisions about juvenile justice education. The most commonly used one involves a local education agency, such as a school district or county government, being responsible for education in short-term detention centers, and the state juvenile justice agency being responsible for students who are in post-adjudication confinement.

In 28 states, the agency responsible for providing education services in local detention centers can be different than the agency responsible for education in state-run facilities.

The more fragmented the governance of the juvenile justice education system becomes, the more communication and coordination it requires to keep providing education services, the report finds, noting that such a structure unquestionably leads to delays in students receiving the services they need.

“We think that that is a huge contributor to the dysfunction of these juvenile justice education programs,” said Brian Robinson, a senior analyst for Bellwether and another report author.
“We have students that can at any moment be under the control of one entity, and then be moved to another entity,” he said. “And so the lack of consistency in the education services that students are receiving, makes it difficult to deliver a high-quality education program.”

Little to no accountability for academic programs for youth in custody

How students perform academically while they are in custody is unclear, because of the lack of data collection and reporting. That means often the agency responsible for educating incarcerated or detained youth is not held accountable if they fail to improve student academic performance or provide necessary services.

“These programs get millions of taxpayer dollars, and they are responsible for educating some of the most vulnerable youth in our country,” Robinson said. “What happens if the programs aren’t serving kids well?”

Accountability is a driving force behind high-quality education programs in general, and that should be the case in juvenile justice education, according to the report. But compared with traditional school districts, there are fewer political incentives or societal rewards for investing time and resources into creating strong juvenile justice education programs.

Even though some states have systems in place to collect and track data in juvenile justice education programs, this is not the norm—particularly when those data systems are siloed from the local district or when the young people were attending school in a different district than the one where they are confined. Juvenile justice systems often have to submit data to multiple government agencies. When the goals set by different agencies are not the same or conflict with one another, it can lead programs to pursue many more goals than they can achieve.

Only 19 states have policies for what happens if these programs underperform, and only nine states have intervention mechanisms for underperforming programs. Most states say little or nothing at all about how they evaluate programs and hold them accountable for meeting students’ needs.

Additionally, 15 states have provisions that require providing some assistance to poorly performing programs. Only two states—Oregon and Florida—directly state that a badly performing juvenile justice education program will be shut down and reassigned to a different agency.

School districts may not be compelled to invest in juvenile justice education

Funding for education for youth in custody is primarily a state and local responsibility, and the source and amount of that funding can vary significantly, the report finds.

In 17 states, local school districts or county governments have to pay for education services for both local detention centers and state facilities. Either the school district a student was previously enrolled in before being incarcerated or the district where the detention center or confinement facility is located can be responsible for education behind bars.

But that can create disincentives for investing the resources necessary to support high-quality programs and tempt local districts to provide the bare minimum services required by law, because the population of detention centers is not significant and always changing.

In two states—Arizona and Kansas—a special fund established for juvenile justice education pays for schooling and in two other jurisdictions—New York and the District of Columbia—there are shared agreements among state agencies or partnerships with local educational institutions to contribute fixed amounts to the cost of instructional services for incarcerated students.

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