It’s Time to Stop Overlooking Juvenile Justice Education Policy

Just as juvenile justice education programs are commonly overlooked in mainstream educational equity conversations, they are also left behind in state education policy. The consequences for students are dire.

Juvenile justice education programs, as Bellwether Education Partners defines them, serve students in the court-ordered custody of a local or state agency. Settings can include short-term detention centers, long-term secure facilities, residential treatment centers, or other publicly and privately run facilities. The best estimates tell us that nearly a quarter of a million students were detained or committed to such facilities in 2019, where they had extremely limited access to education opportunities of all kinds including online learning, differentiated coursework, tutoring, dual-credit courses, career technical education, and work-based learning.

Our latest report finds that the governance, accountability, and finance policy designs are convoluted, inconsistent, and in some cases entirely absent in juvenile justice education programs. We reviewed state policy in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico and uncovered what advocates have long suspected: a mess of dizzying policies, contradictory regulations, and exceedingly complex statutes. Despite the best efforts of well-meaning and devoted educators, these incoherent policies mean that the vast majority of juvenile justice education programs fall short of anything resembling a “school.”

Students in juvenile justice education programs are unlikely to be offered education opportunities aligned with their needs while locked up — and more often than not, they will never enroll in school again when they’re released. 

If state leaders structure policy reforms around coherence within and among these three policies (governance, accountability, and finance), they can meaningfully improve the education provided to students in their care.

Governance

Governance policies define who is responsible for providing (or ensuring the provision of) education services to youth in custody. In at least 26 states, the agency responsible for providing education services in local detention centers is not the same as the agency responsible for education in state-run facilities. In some states, one agency is responsible for providing direct instruction in a juvenile facility, while another agency controls the funding. In California, only youth detained or committed for offenses considered most serious or violent are held at the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice facility, which operates separately from facilities run locally by county boards of education. 

A class-action lawsuit from 2014 shows how inconsistent governance policies can lead to finger pointing and ultimately the abdication of responsibility for student learning. In Contra Costa County, California, the county probation agency was responsible for discipline policy but the county office of education was responsible for educational services. The two entities disagreed on who was responsible for education in restrictive security programs, leaving teachers unable to provide students in solitary confinement with the same modality, quantity, or quality of instruction as their peers. 

Even trying to find and confirm governance policies for our research illustrated the problem: we had to call numerous offices in individual states to cross check competing information. 

Accountability

Accountability policies determine how programs are evaluated and what happens when they aren’t delivering. In traditional districts, agencies use assessment and attendance data, teacher evaluations, school visits, and other data-collection strategies to ensure schools provide a high-quality education. Each education agency then defines the interventions that follow when a program does not meet expectations.

To measure school success, education agencies need to decide on their “measuring stick,” or the kind of data they will evaluate. While traditional educational policy conversations still grapple with these questions and acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, juvenile justice education programs are light years behind altogether.

Given the governance structures described above, it’s no surprise that juvenile justice education programs interact with many government agencies and are often required to submit data to offices with competing and incompatible goals, requirements, and processes.

Imagine this common reality: Mr. Dewan has students at a 9th-grade and 12th-grade level in his classroom. Some stay for a few days or weeks, while others stay for a few months — he never has the same group twice. Most of his students arrive without academic transcripts, so he relies on their recollection of past coursework and grades while awaiting prior records from any number of institutions. Over time, some students get shuffled to another facility without notice, while others attend a mandatory court date and never come back. Mr. Dewan doesn’t always know when a student has left the program, so he cannot plan for assessments in advance. The security or probation officers on staff periodically come in and remove a student from Mr. Dewan’s classroom, even when he has no concerns about safety. 

Having worked in and with such constraints, we respect how difficult it is to collect data, measure student and school success, and implement effective interventions. That said, a necessary component of any accountability system is defining how programs will be evaluated and what happens when they aren’t delivering for students. Our survey indicates that unlike nearly every other kind of education setting, most states have not defined in statute how juvenile justice education service providers are held accountable. 

Finance

Finance policies explain how states allocate funding to the agencies responsible for operating juvenile justice education programs. The people responsible for overseeing or operating these programs are best positioned to know where funding is needed the most. 

But our research shows that time and time again, the agency in control of finance is not the same as the one held accountable for results, creating a disincentive to allocate the resources necessary for high-quality programming. The greater the disconnect between finance and governance, the greater the chance that funding is not allocated for the right things. 

Beyond defining agency responsibility, there is little transparency about dollar amounts that actually make it to these educational programs. We know very little about how much states allocate for per-pupil funding in juvenile justice education programs. The reality is that students generally arrive at juvenile justice education programs lagging behind academically, in addition to potentially having significant unmet mental, behavioral, and physical health needs. State finance policies must take this reality into consideration and fund juvenile justice education programs accordingly. 

For this population of students, the stakes are too high not to get the fundamentals right. A child in the custody of a state agency is entrusted to the care of the government, creating a heightened moral responsibility (and arguably a legal one) for policymakers to provide that student with the highest-quality educational opportunities.

Read our new report here or view this resource to find out your specific state’s current policies.