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Lawmakers Target Prison School for Makeover

Texas could save money, and prisoners could get a better education, some lawmakers say, if inmate learning programs were provided online. But correctional education experts and teachers say lawmakers’ ideas — particularly about online programs — show a lack of understanding about prison life.

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As state lawmakers combed the budget this year for cuts to close a multibillion-dollar shortfall, some leaders focused on a line item that usually draws little attention: the Windham School District, which received more than $128 million in 2010-11 to provide education to inmates in the state’s sprawling prison system.

Lawmakers will most likely cut that number significantly in the 2012-13 budget, and that could be just the beginning of big changes to come.

“The structure itself screams out for change, screams out for renovation and innovation,” said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

The Windham School District is financed by the Texas Education Agency and overseen by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. In the 2009-10 school year, about 77,500 offenders participated in some type of Windham program. The school district operates much like a regular public school system, with a superintendent, principals and teachers at campuses across the state. It provides basic adult education, vocational training, life-skills programs and college-level courses.

Despite its sizable budget, a staff of more than 1,200 and a large number of students, Windham awarded just 12,364 GEDs in the last school year. “It’s really outrageous,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Texas could save money, and prisoners could get a better education, some lawmakers say, if inmate learning programs were provided online. Such programs that allow students to learn at their own pace, Shapiro said, would be better suited for prisoners. “Putting them in desks and chairs and making them feel like they’re in a school surrounding makes them feel stupid,” she said.

Lawmakers also complain that the school system seems top-heavy, with some 60 principles. “It’s the structure that needs to change,” Shapiro said. “It’s not the amount of money that makes the difference.”

Shapiro and Whitmire are calling for a review of the program.

But correctional education experts and Windham teachers say lawmakers’ ideas — particularly about online programs — show a lack of understanding about prison life. “I don’t know of a program anywhere in country where they’re able to use the Internet for instructional purposes,” said Chris Tracy, a former Windham superintendent and a national expert on correctional education. “The security personnel in the prison system, they’re absolutely paranoid about internet systems.”

Tracy said that using more technology would not replace teaching staff for a population in which learning disabilities are endemic, educational achievement is low and reading ability is minimal. “You don’t just say: ‘Here’s a computer. Help yourself learn how to read and write,’ ” he said.

Eddy Turner, a Windham teacher, said the school district could use more technology and could probably do with fewer administrators. But he said lawmakers should not judge the success of Windham solely on outcomes like GED attainment. Turner teaches courses that help inmates develop basic skills like maintaining relationships, balancing a checkbook and keeping a job.

“If you take education out of the prison,” Turner said, “they will no longer be confronted about changing.”

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