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EDITORIAL: The way Washington schools kids in lockup is criminal

Seattle Times - 5/10/2023

May 9—Washington spends an enormous amount of time and money wrestling with education — with varying success. This state sweats over what to pay for students with special needs, and where to be more equitable, and how to boost the number of kids going to college. But there is one group of students that inspires no action at all: Kids who are locked up.

This is a moral wrong, a legal violation of our state constitution. And fiscally, it's outright backward.

Only 14% of kids who spend time incarcerated ever graduate from high school, according to a state report issued five months ago. There is no debating where that number leads: to depressed wages, which means fewer taxpayer dollars, and increased spending on prisons or homelessness. This forecast has nothing to do with ideology; it's just math.

Which is why ongoing failure to confront this problem is so infuriating.

"Youths' needs are severe, and education programs are not in compliance with state and federal laws," observed a work group in 1989.

"Institutional education programs have flown below the radar in the sense that they have been held to very few program standards," said a report in 2011.

"The current system is dysfunctional. We should do something different," wrote Ross Hunter, who oversees these facilities as secretary of the Department of Children Youth and Families, in 2020.

This was going to be the year it all changed. Instead, lawmakers pushed the deadline for conceiving a new system back again, to September 2027. Four full school years from now. Opportunities lost for perhaps 800 young people.

But they did, finally, explicitly, place responsibility for change with someone: Chris Reykdal, state superintendent of schools.

Until now, no single person or agency has had to answer for this ongoing debacle — not the Issaquah School District, which is supposed to provide education to the kids at Echo Glen; nor educators in Chehalis, who oversee the Green Hill School — because academic outcomes from neither facility are included on these districts' report cards. No wonder there's no urgency.

The only folks left holding the bag are taxpayers, who ultimately will foot the bill for lower wages earned by these youth and the deep social costs of recidivism.

It's easy to glean the truth about Washington's appetite for improvement by looking at budgets. Education funding rates for incarcerated students were set in 1995, when Microsoft was barely a household word. They have not changed.

But Reykdal says money isn't the real problem — it's structure.

For sure. The kids at Echo Glen, Green Hill and county detention facilities don't travel through a six-period day, moving from class to class like students in traditional schools. They sit in front of computer screens, often clicking through courses they don't even need because their school transcripts lag months behind. Up to 40% have open child welfare cases — kids to whom the state has a unique obligation, having removed them from their families with the promise of better care.

Reykdal envisions an education program — likely provided online, by an outside contractor — that would follow students as they move from their home districts to county detention and then a juvenile rehabilitation facility, something that would remain consistent, wherever they are.

It's potentially an interesting model. But when asked whether he had an example in mind, some place doing better than Washington, the state's education leader could offer none.

"This has never been asked of us or expected of us," Reykdal said.

Come again? The job is overseeing the education of every public school student in Washington. One wonders what research Reykdal was consulting during the 18 months he spent working on the most recent "Improving Institutional Education Outcomes" report.

At least Rep. Lisa Callan, D-Issaquah, who convened the work group behind it, takes responsibility for this failure. "We definitely dropped the ball," she said, describing herself as heartbroken at the lack of progress.

When the kids at Echo Glen and Green Hill finish serving their sentences and head home with few credits earned, even fewer diplomas and no love of learning, there will be lots more heartbreak to come.


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