- A review of juvenile justice education policies in 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico found their governance, accountability and finance structures to be "convoluted, inconsistent, and in some cases entirely absent," according to research from Bellwether Education Partners.
- Incarcerated youth had "extremely limited" access to education programming, whether online learning, differentiated coursework, tutoring, or career and technical education. This is despite these students being entitled to education services under federal and state laws, said researchers at Bellwether, a national nonprofit aimed at improving education for marginalized children.
- The 50-page report offers recommendations to improve learning conditions for incarcerated students to limit educational disruptions and prepare them to successfully transition to traditional school programs or careers.
The findings about fragmented responsibility and complex governing policies for juvenile justice education services is not surprising to those who work with Protection and Advocacy Systems, known as P&As, said Diane Smith Howard, managing attorney for institutions and community integration with the National Disability Rights Network where she focuses on conditions for children and youth with disabilities in institutional settings.
P&As provide legal services and advocate on behalf of youth and people with disabilities and are supported by federal grants. Smith Howard said P&As, whose advocates work in each state, have heard numerous concerns about educational offerings for incarcerated youth, including inability to earn a high school diploma, credit loss, lack of special education services, outdated curriculum materials and other shortcomings.
Regarding the report, Smith Howard said, "One of the things I was particularly pleased to see is the discussion about the overlapping and unclear responsibilities because that is one of the primary issues that we see."
Breakdowns in accountability can occur because of the multiple layers of governance. For example, one state agency may contract with an organization for juvenile justice education services. That organization in turn might subcontract parts of those services, such as special education, out to another organization, Smith Howard said.
"So, obviously, when that happens, suddenly there's accountability that gets missed," she said. "I think what we're really looking for is clear guidance and enforcement at the state level."
While youth incarceration has steadily declined over the past 20 years, there were an estimated 250,000 instances of a young person being detained or committed to a juvenile facility in 2019. Youth in juvenile justice education programs are disproportionately students of color, youth who identify as LGBTQ, and students with disabilities.
Specifically, the report recommended changes in three policy areas:
- Governance. Most state statutes define which agencies are responsible for incarcerated youth's education services, but that's where the clarity ends.
A 2021 Education Commission of the States policy brief said there are typically three governance models: a designated statewide school district, direct supervision by the state agency, and oversight by a local school district.
Regardless of the governance model, there are often multiple agencies or organizations supporting education services, creating fragmented systems that add barriers to providing high-quality services and strong accountability measures, according to the report.
To improve governance, the report recommended that one agency be responsible for providing students with education services in all facilities and that high-quality contracts be developed that clearly state which entity is responsible for providing education services.
- Accountability. State accountability programs vary from "non-existent to non-applicable to overwhelming," the report said. Some of the roadblocks include requirements for sending data to multiple agencies, differing goals set by various agencies, and lack of direction when underperformance is detected.
States should invest in innovative assessment and data collection tools, uniform student record databases, and strong data-sharing practices, the report said. Additionally, states should strive to consolidate accountability structures.
- Funding. Most funding for juvenile justice educational services comes from local and state sources, while many states receive some federal funding through the Every Student Succeeds Act.
In 17 states, local districts are financially responsible for education services to youth in custody. That funding structure can create "perverse incentives to only do the bare minimum required by law" because typically there are no requirements or supports at the local level to build high-quality offerings.
Finance policy should be aligned with Improvements to governance and accountability, according to the report. That way the people responsible for overseeing or operating these programs are positioned to know where funding is most needed.