Too Many States Are Celebrating a “Better than Nothing” Education for Incarcerated Students

Alabama made news this week with their announcement about a possible and massive new jail-based education program for incarcerated 17-21 year olds. Administered by Athens City Schools, this program would offer students access to high school content provided by the for-profit online content service Grade Results.

laptop-1176606_1920But Grade Results is not an accredited education provider. They cannot legally award high school credits or diplomas. They also cannot offer students transferable college credits. But by coordinating the virtual program through the district and classifying students as enrolled in a district school, those students can earn high school credits and be awarded an official Athens City Schools diploma from an accredited school upon completion — as if they had actually attended the physical school.  Even though they didn’t.

Sound bogus to you? It is.

But consider the alternatives. Right now, most young people in an adult jail who are over their state’s age of compulsory school attendance have no legal right to any education programming at all. None. Inmates in state prisons have marginally more access, but as an overall rule, they’re in approximately the same sorry state. This isn’t just post-secondary access — they generally have no right to complete a high school credential.

Simply being served in a juvenile facility isn’t enough to guarantee education access either.  Young people who are 18 and have (or earn) a high school credential are generally excluded from any remaining education programs offered to their peers for two reasons: 1) funding streams dry up once they’re no longer classified as high school students and 2) they’re deemed “adults” for the purposes of many criminal justice statutes and therefore have to be kept physically separate from “minors.”

So the plan in Alabama isn’t so offensive if we temper our expectations. It provides an opportunity to accrue enough high school credits to get a diploma for students who otherwise have no opportunity to do so. And that diploma is from an accredited school. Which means that it is accepted by community colleges, technical schools, and universities. It is easy to disparage credits for credits’ sake and scoff at a diploma that some of us might dismiss as not much more than a piece of paper. But the reality is that it’s a piece of paper that really does buy you something on the outside.

But is it the best we can do? Absolutely not. A few custodial institutions have been able to develop relationships with accredited education providers and have pushed robust education programs into custodial facilities for young adults, but the obstacles are huge and the incentives are intangible. Most state education funding streams do not cover students over the age of 18, whether or not they have a high school credential. Mainstream online providers (for example, a state college) require a degree of online contact that is incompatible with privacy protections for inmates — like an email address or access to two-way videoconferencing.

We’ve made a mistake by trying to cram incarcerated students into available programs.  Instead, we ought to be pushing our highest-quality providers to design programs with these students in mind. The reason that vendors like Grade Results have taken off is because they’re the only game in town. But there’s no reason that unaccredited for-profit providers ought to hold the market on education programs in custodial facilities. Our charter sector as well as our colleges and universities could and should step up to the plate by designing, staffing, and funding rigorous, relevant, and credit-bearing academic opportunities for incarcerated young people who are overaged, under-credited, or otherwise overlooked. Until then, the best we can do is stack kids into diploma mills and hope for the best. It is, in fact, better than nothing.