This week’s Courier Herald column:
To understand the future, we first need to understand the past. To change the future, we first must change the present.
There was a time, not long ago at all, when good policy was good politics. Good policy wasn’t hyper partisan – quite the contrary. Good policy was post-partisan. Good policy was when the left and the right could both walk away from the table, significantly altering the status quo for the better, both sides feeling like they got a win.
This isn’t a mythical land of make believe. It was just five or so years ago, right here in Georgia.
A Republican Governor spent year after year making incremental change to the state’s criminal justice system. After years of expanding “tough on crime” legislation from both parties, leaders – Republicans and Democrats together – found an overlap of their ideological Venn diagrams. A bloated and growing budget for the Department of Corrections met an understanding that our criminal justice system trapped far too many with lifelong consequences for often petty infractions.
To sell a skeptical majority Republican electoral base, the measures had to be sold on economic terms. Many who had never had to consider the long term implications of placing criminal records for non-violent, low dollar offenses needed to be told how this impacted the offender’s ability to become employed long after their official debt to society had been paid.
Statistics demonstrating how these offenders started off their careers on the lowest rungs – and often stayed there – were used to force an understanding of how well intentioned policy was costing all of us. The inability to get decent jobs or advance in careers often left those with non-violent infractions on their record wards of the state in some form or another.
Recidivism was high for some. Others remained a beneficiary of social services and welfare benefits despite being otherwise healthy and able bodied, willing to work.
It was and remains true that those impacted negatively by bad criminal justice policy were disproportionately poor, and disproportionately minority. Whether we want to recognize it or not, wholesale changes in policy reflect a “what’s in it for me” mentality with the majority of the voters.
That is our recent past. Now on to our present, and if we don’t make changes immediately, a parallel to our future.
Those in education policy understand there is a bright line that faces students in the third grade. Students spend grades one through three learning to read. Once basic reading skills are mastered, we spend the rest of our lives reading to learn.
A student’s reading proficiency by the end of third grade has predictive value of how well they will do throughout the rest of their school career. Those who finish third grade fully able to read and comprehend quickly transition these skills as the vehicle to the rest of their studies. Those who come up short aren’t able to take the next steps and fall behind their peers. This problem quickly compounds itself if not corrected.
In our modern knowledge based economy, high wage jobs of today and tomorrow depend on a strong foundation in education. We have but three critical years to cement chances for success.
Last year, we abruptly ended formal education for many students at spring break. Though there were attempts at mass online learning, most schools and students were unprepared for the level of disruption a pandemic imposed upon the ability to connect students and teachers.
We’re now beginning a new school year, and much remains uncertain. Schools and parents are struggling to balance safety and education.
This, however, can no longer be treated as an extended snow day. We must have a heightened sense of urgency to ensure that all students, but especially those in the first three grades, resume learning daily in a structured environment.
Some school districts enter this school year better prepared than others. Some families are better prepared to handle online instruction than others. Those left in the gap are disproportionately poor, and disproportionately minority students.
Let’s not pretend that those students most at risk will flourish with makeshift, “we’ll fix this later when it’s safe” approaches to this school year. Quite the contrary, we all should be losing sleep over the damage this delay in resuming normal instruction will cause.
We need some radical outside the box thinking to ensure that students and faculty are both safe and learning. We also need to get over our self-induced fear of “high stakes testing”, as whenever we declare normalcy again, we’re going to need a baseline to see how much long term damage was done.
We’re then going to have two choices.
We can honestly diagnose and remediate the gaps for those who our current status quo is leaving behind. Or, we can unlearn all of the lessons we taught ourselves during the pivot on our approach to criminal justice reform and condemn many of today’s first through third graders to a lifetime of underachievement in the name of safety and convenience.