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Protesting school budget cuts in San Diego, parents and teachers have repeatedly cited the jarring idea that prison officials calculate the number of jailhouse beds they’ll need in the future based on fourth grade reading scores. The more fourth graders failing, the story goes, the more prison beds are allocated.

If it’s true, it’s alarming. If it’s false — as prison officials claim — it’s getting a lot of airplay anyways.

That startling stat made it into Kathleen Cushman’s 1998 article in Horace magazine, a publication of the Coalition of Essential Schools. CES describes itself as a network of schools focused on personalized learning on its website. Here’s the quote:

And because later success depends on such resources and opportunities, a cycle of failure sets in. “Based on this year’s fourth-grade reading scores,” observes Paul Schwartz, a Coalition principal in residence at the U. S. Department of Education, “California is already planning the number of new prison cells it will need in the next century.”

That statement was repeated in a July 2004 opinion piece printed in the Washington Post. Andrew Block, legal director of the JustChildren Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia, and Virginia Weisz, then the directing attorney of the Children’s Rights Project of the Los Angeles Public Counsel, coauthored the piece. Their op-ed stated:

Increasingly, states across the country are making correctional facilities a higher spending priority than public and secondary education, according to the Justice Policy Institute. In California, correctional officials reportedly look to the percentage of children who never make it past the fourth-grade reading level to help them gauge the number of future prison beds to fund.

But Terry Thorton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the link between fourth grade testing and calculating prison beds is an urban legend.

“We don’t use elementary school reading levels,” nor any other school-related data, Thorton said. “We look at about 100 different factors in projecting future prison needs, including historical trends, length of stay in prison, rate of return to prison from parole, sentencing changes and practices in the courts, new departmental programs or policies.”

I’m waiting to hear back from Andrew Block and Paul Schwartz, to find out where they found the fact. If you’ve got an idea and send me a tip.

EMILY ALPERT

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