Cutting prison education shortsighted

By George Cross

The Community High School of Vermont (CHSVT) is the fully licensed and accredited high school and vocational training and certification program for inmates in Vermont’s corrections system. For many students, it is the only opportunity they will have to acquire the academic, social and technical skills they need to get a job — and to be able to contribute to our state in a positive way — when they reenter the community.

The administration of Governor Peter Shumlin is searching for budget cuts that impact the fewest Vermonters. That makes educational programs for inmates inviting targets. After all, who wants to defend convicts over legitimate budgetary demands of other, more influential and less controversial constituencies?

We do.

Here is why: The economic and social value of CHSVT and its programs is significant. The money you invest in it as a taxpayer produces a meaningful and measurable return.

The school has about 650 students — 504 enrolled students, plus an additional 150 students participating in workshops, seminars and internships. Last year, students earned 332 trade certificates and more than three dozen students completed high school. CHSVT also provides remedial services for inmates who graduated from the public high school system, but who still have startling academic needs in core areas like reading, writing and mathematics.

Vermont’s prison education and training programs are one of the most effective tools the state has for preventing repeat offenders. In fact, a 2014 study by the Rand Corporation (How Effective is Corrections Education and Where Do We Go from Here?) analyzed 30 years of research about corrections education programs and noted, “on average, every dollar spent on prison education programs results in a savings of four to five dollars in the cost of re-incarcerating prisoners… due to lower recidivism rates.” In other words, those who participate in these programs are much less likely to return to prison.

Instead of returning to jail, CHSVT students return to their communities with the social and technical skills to move forward. Through employment they generate tax revenue that helps to reimburse us for the cost of their incarceration and invest in other services. Most importantly, these students are able to care for themselves and their families (they frequently have children) in a way that helps to break the multi-generational cycles of poverty and crime. This is why a corps of retired teachers founded the school. And every Vermonter understands that there’s no better anti-poverty, anti-drug and anti-crime tool than a good education.

The administrators and faculty continuously enhance the school’s efficiency and productivity. Over the last several years CHSVT has reduced spending by more than $1 million, while sustaining its results. Nevertheless, CHSVT has shouldered a lopsided share of budget cuts required throughout state government, in fiscal years when overall state spending increased about 5 percent each year.

The governor’s proposal guarantees that more inmates are returned to our communities without the skills they need to get their lives — and the lives of their children — on a stable and successful path. The Legislature should not support this debilitating cut.

The benefits of CHSVT to you as a taxpayer, both financially and socially, far outweigh the costs. Please encourage your legislator to support adequate funding for this important school.

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George Cross of Winooski is the chairman of the Community High School of Vermont State Board of Directors. Other board members are: Carol Bokan, Vice Chair – Shelburne, David Luce, Secretary – Waterbury; Daniel Alcorn – Rutland; Sarah Flynn – Burlington; Richard Fraser, South Ryegate; Jason Gibbs – Duxbury; and Brian Vachon – Montpelier.