Go to Bad Schools, Go to Prison: The Union’s Dirty Secret

R. Claire Friend

LFor those of us old enough to remember its beginnings, the United Negro College Fund’s iconic “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” campaign is still haunting. It began in 1972 with TV images of black students shut out of classrooms, and ended with an almost undeniable appeal: donate to UNCF so that black kids can get an education.

But 45 years later, we’re still wasting minds. In any poor California community, poor kids trapped in teachers-union-dominated classrooms are the least likely Californians to read or perform basic math at grade level. They are also the least likely to graduate from high school, much less go on to college. And now we have learned that beyond “terrible,” a mind is undeniably a dangerous thing to waste.

Derided by teachers unions as an urban myth, experts in education and corrections have observed a correlation between third-grade reading proficiency and incarceration later in life. They do not yet use this data to project the number of additional prison beds that will be needed, but many observers now think they should.

That’s because the failure to achieve reading proficiency by age 8 or 9 is a warning sign, a marker. Third grade is viewed as a pivotal point. Before third grade, students learn to read. After third grade, they read to learn. Reading proficiency is therefore a critical skill. The correlation between reading proficiency by the third grade and school dropout has been proven repeatedly in academic studies.

A study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found a six- to eight-fold increase in the high school dropout rate among students who fail to achieve proficiency by third grade. That study is confirmed by Johns Hopkins University research that found 80% to 90% of students who do not achieve literacy by third grade fail to graduate high school on time and face a fourfold risk of jail or prison. Another study featured in the New York Times (and here) noted that 1 in 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or a juvenile detention facility compared to 1 in 35 young males who have graduated from high school. Yet another study found that 70% of the nation’s prison population (males and females) lack a diploma.

Sadly, the importance of literacy at such a comparatively young age has not yet been widely recognized by educators, the media or the public.

Usually well behind the popular culture, some states are acting with surprising speed. The National Governors Association urges governors to take five policy actions to improve reading by the third grade. (See here, too.)

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have strict retention policies on third-grade reading. Florida was the first to mandate that students who fail to meet reading benchmarks are to be held back. Utah requires public schools to improve the percentage of third-graders reading at grade level or lose state funds.

Although it ranks second-to-the-last in National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores, California remains obsessed with raising taxes to pay for six-figure state employee pensions and a high-speed train to nowhere – and has yet to mandate that its youngest citizens achieve basic reading skills. Nationwide, 32% of fourth graders were proficient on the NAEP; 25% of California’s fourth-graders achieved proficiency; in LA Unified, that number was just 15%.

Orange County has many failing schools, particularly those in Anaheim and the primarily Spanish-speaking city of Santa Ana. When Anaheim’s school district failed to reform its curriculum and teaching methods in order to improve student performance in reading and math, parents at Palm Lane School invoked the Parent Trigger Law. The law enables parents to request that a chronically failing institution be turned into a charter school.

The union-backed Anaheim Elementary School District responded by filing a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court. Legal fees for the action cost taxpayers $700,000. (The parents were represented pro bono by Kirkland and Ellis.) The court ruled in favor of the parents, finding that the district had failed to abide by the law when it reviewed the parents’ petitions, and ordered the district to turn Palm Lane into a charter school.

The union-backed school district kept the school as it was, still failing, while it filed an appeal. Legal costs now exceed $1 million.

It has been more than three years since the parents filed the required signatures. While their case languishes in the courts, parents watch their children leave home each day to attend a chronically failing school. How many Palm Lane third-graders will end up in prison? Does the union even care?

The facts at Palm Lane and other chronically failing schools throughout the state, which the teachers’ union does nothing to fix, represent a scandalous failure of public education. In this scandal, we’ll all pay, because a mind is a dangerous thing to waste.

Psychiatrist R. Claire Friend, M.D., recently retired after 35 years in private practice. She was editor of two professional publications and is now editor of the UCI Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior’s Quarterly Psychiatric Journal. She serves on the volunteer faculty as an assistant professor.

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