New education model proposed for school-age offenders

Tim Hoffine

Incarcerated young adults who are still legally eligible to a free public education would be able to attend classes inside prison walls, and continue coursework after release, if legislation currently under consideration is adopted. House Bill 479 (and companion legislation SB 246) seeks to create the Win-Win Academy, a charter school aimed at increasing graduation rates, and reducing recidivism rates, of young offenders.

Under the bills, state-licensed teachers would teach classes to incarcerated 18-21 year olds inside state prisons and at a companion Win-Win Academy facility, which offenders could attend once released without changing schools or potentially even teachers. According to proponents, young offenders often serve short terms, which do not allow them the time to complete their studies while in prison. This innovative program would also use “thinking aides” – rehabilitated offenders who would work with the Win-Win Academy in the prisons to provide social and moral support to students enrolled in the program.

This proposal represents a creative solution for the state to expand education to a sector of young people in need of such opportunities. Currently, more than 5,000 offenders between the ages of 16 and 22 could potentially receive a high school diploma through this program. Presumably, the establishment of Win-Win Academy could mitigate Ohio offenders’ low educational attainment and rates of recidivism. Eighty percent of Ohio’s prison population lacks a high school diploma or equivalency, and more than 40 percent of first-time offenders return to prison.

Two other states, California and New Mexico, have enacted legislation and used charter schools to help incarcerated high school students earn their high school diploma. Such programs have helped to reduce recidivism in those states.

Due to the supervision of security guards and the voluntary nature of the program, school proponents believe there is little threat to teacher or student safety. Also, school districts’ fears that they might be on the hook for the transportation costs of students have been assuaged in the legislation. Some don’t like the fact that district dollars would flow from the district to the Win-Win program as happens when a student leaves a district school for a charter school.

Others have expressed concern at the overall cost of the program. Lauren McGarity, who would serve as CEO of Win-Win Academy, said the school would run on a budget of $1.2 million per year during the first three years. In the first year, McGarity expects to serve 100 students, with that number increasing by 100 more students each of the next two years. McGarity said those expenses reflect the start-up costs, such as purchasing technology, in addition to the costs of operating a school and hiring teachers.

Win-Win would serve as a pilot project, restricted to only one initial program, giving the public and lawmakers the opportunity to see how well the model works before deciding whether or not to expand it.

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