Proposal: School districts should handle education for incarcerated youth

L.A. Opera baritone LeRoy Villanueva performs an original piece based on the writing of a formerly incarcerated youth at Central Juvenile Hall.
L.A. Opera baritone LeRoy Villanueva performs an original piece based on the writing of a formerly incarcerated youth at Central Juvenile Hall.
Corey Bridwell/KPCC

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The state legislative analyst is recommending that responsibility for the education of incarcerated youth be shifted away from county offices of education and instead be taken over by local school districts. 

In a report about the California’s 58 county offices of education, the Legislative Analyst’s Office argues that the county offices don't provide high enough quality of services to youth in juvenile detention centers and jails and operate without adequate transparency. 

“We just think that there needs to be, maybe, a closer connection there in the accountability,” said Natasha Collins, senior fiscal and policy analyst at the Legislative Analyst’s Office. “So districts have a bigger stake in how their students are doing when they’re incarcerated.”

Sacramento budgeted $140 million for this year to pay for the education of 8,000 youth in the state’s juvenile halls and jails. That money goes directly to county offices of education.

But, the report’s authors said, there has been little scrutiny of the mission of the county offices of education, as funding for these offices has increased in recent years and some of their responsibilities have been cut back.

The amount of money county offices of education spend per incarcerated student varies widely, from $6,000 per student to $36,000 per student, according to the report, and school districts don’t report how well their incarcerated students are doing.

The proposal recommends instead sending the money to local school districts.

Supporters of county offices of education said that’s a bad idea.

“I don’t think it improves accountability and it would create real confusion,” said Peter Birdsall, executive director of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. While the proposal would make county office of education programs the default school provider for youth in jail, school districts could shop around for services. And, he argued, county offices are already held accountable.

“County superintendents are required each year to write a Local Control and Accountability Plan for how they’re serving these students,” he said, and state education officials hold county offices accountable by reviewing and approving those plans.

The shift would cut a significant part of county offices budget. The Orange County Department of Education (OCDE) runs schools in county jails for more than 500 minors convicted of serious crimes such as murder.

“We work very closely with the juvenile court advocates and the juvenile court system itself to make sure those students are getting all the services they need,” said Renee Hendrick, associate superintendent for administrative services at the OCDE. “They receive social services, they receive tutoring, all of the different items they need to be successful,” and don’t commit crimes after they’ve left jail, she said.

Youth advocates welcome the LAO’s recommendation. Some have raised questions in recent years about the quality or curriculum, course offerings, and teacher quality in these program.

“I can’t imagine a group of students that we need to watch out for more than those who’ve had contact with the juvenile justice system,” said Bill Koski, director of the Youth and Education Law Project at Stanford University.

“Youth who are incarcerated will be coming back to our communities, they will be reintegrating with their families, then their communities. We want them to be performing well, to be at grade level, to graduate, and to go ahead and not re-offend,” he said.

The LAO’s recommendation is far from a done deal. A state law is needed to make the changes. The report has been sent to state legislators for review.