Ep. 162: Big Ideas – “Education for Liberation” with Gerard Robinson

February 25, 2020

Gerard Robinson joins us to discuss the book, Education for Liberation: The Politics of Promise and Reform Inside and Beyond America’s Prisons. Robinson is a co-editor of the book and works as the executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today I’m excited to be joined by Gerard Robinson, executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity and the editor with Elizabeth English Smith of the book, Education for Liberation: The Politics of Promise and Reform Inside and Beyond America’s Prisons, which is the subject of our conversation today. Gerard, welcome to the podcast.

Gerard Robinson: Jason, thank you for having me.

Jason Bedrick: So, for much of your career, including your stints as the commissioner of education for the state of Florida and the secretary of education for the Commonwealth of Virginia, you focused on K–12 education. What inspired you to write a book about education in prison?

Gerard Robinson: When I was an undergraduate student at Howard University in the late 1980s, I was a volunteer in a program for young men who were in a juvenile justice system. Many of them had challenges with reading and writing, navigating all the social dynamics of just being a young man in America at that time. So, I began to work with adults who were involved and trying to keep these guys from going to prison later. It was one of the five experiences that made me decide to become a fifth grade school teacher when I graduated from Howard, which played a role in me later going into school choice.

The interest in juveniles and justice started in the ’80s but through all my work of working in places like Milwaukee with Dr. Howard Fuller, the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, Florida, Virginia and other places, I ran into a number of adults who in fact had been incarcerated. A lot of them say if they had to do things all over again, they wished they would’ve had a great education. But I also met people with kids in charter schools or private schools who said, “I was incarcerated. I’m putting my kid in a better school and hope that they will not.” So, it was a very interesting way of our school choice work that you and I have done for years, aligning with something, I believe, is just a bigger picture of opportunity. I’m just doing it now with adults who at one point were the children we served.

Jason Bedrick: Why is it so important to educate prisoners? I mean, some people might think, “Well, it’s a shame the system failed them, but it’s too late. They’re too far gone. Why educate them?”

Gerard Robinson: I’m a big believer in the concept of lifelong learning. I’ve had a chance to listen to podcasts like yours where they interviewed people in their 50s, 60s, 70s who learned to read for the first time, who then became a role model for their grandchildren or other peers. I believe that’s important.

Number two, as a supporter of parental choice, we believe in second and third chances. When I look at a state like California, my home state, and you identify that nearly 70 percent the people aren’t reading above the eighth grade level. That’s a challenge. For me, I want to give people who frankly, oftentimes did not have a first chance, a second chance to become literate. But I’m very clear that there is a schism within the reform community. Some who say, “You know what, they committed the crime, they should do the time.” We shouldn’t, for example, give them Pell Grants to go. So, I realize these people, particularly women, a lot of them are moms and that they’re going to go back home one day. In fact, 95 percent of the 2.3 million people who are incarcerated are going to leave incarceration and coming back to our communities. I want them to come to return with strong literacy skills, whether for education, career or academic work.

Jason Bedrick: What do we know about the recidivism rates and their relationship to whether somebody received an education in prison or not?

Gerard Robinson: We know right now that there are approximately 685,000 people who are going to leave prison or did leave prison in 2019. Approximately 75 percent of them are going to return within five years and the majority of those within the first three years. Now a 75 percent return, if it were a financial investment, I’d be a rich guy. When I say human capital loss, I think we’re all poor for it. There’s research. For example, a colleague of mine at the Department of Corrections in Minnesota. Dewey, Dr. Dewey, he’s done some work with the American Enterprise Institute and has identified that people who are incarcerated in his state who participate in some type of education level in fact reduce their recidivism. We can look at a report from the Rand Corporation, Davis and others identify that people who participated in correctional education programs, 43 percent likelihood less that they would actually return to prison.

But there’s also research out of New York Prison for Women. Women who had at least enrolled in one class compared to their peers who did not, were less likely to recidivate. Now, I’m not saying it’s simply taking one class means you’ll never return, but you and I both know that there’s something about education and particularly when you have the aha moment that just begins to make you not only re-imagine what life is like once you leave prison but also while I’m incarcerated, how can I free myself mentally? So, there’s research pointed in the right direction, but I’m also aware that there’s scholars who question whether it’s causation or correlation.

Jason Bedrick: Certainly, and causation correlation is always hard to untangle. But if we’re telling stories, it certainly makes sense that somebody who comes out of prison and they have no additional skills than when they entered it, besides whatever tips and tricks they picked up from other criminals in prison, is likely to engage in the same sort of activity they were engaging in before. But if they come out of prison and they have new skills, and they’re actually able to provide themselves with honest work to provide money for them and their family, they would be less likely one would think to engage in the type of behavior that landed them in prison in the first place.

But your book describes all sorts of obstacles that get in the way of providing prisoners with a high-quality education. Obviously we can break it into at least three buckets. There are political obstacles. There’s also regulatory obstacles, and then there’s just the obstacles of being in prison itself, the prison environment. If I had one critique of your book, it’s that you have a bunch of stories in chapter 10 which is the last chapter before the conclusion. I would have put those at chapter one because it really gives you some incredible perspective on the sorts of challenges that prisoners face in getting an education. Maybe you could start there and talk a little bit about what sort of challenges they faced to getting an education in prison.

Gerard Robinson: No, great critique. So, let’s take the story… Michelle Jones. She spent 22 years in prison in the state of Indiana. When she arrived, she didn’t have a high school diploma. She earned a GED while she was inside, and she talks about her challenges of just learning how to read and comprehend and then write. She gets over hurdle one. Number two, she then decides to pursue a bachelor’s degree. At that time she was able to use the Pell Grant. This is pre 1994 before it was eliminated. So, she was able to earn a B.A. But when she was doing research and like you and I, she didn’t have access to the internet. So, there’s one barrier already in place. They just won’t let them have it. So, she had to do a lot of primary research going to the depths of a library in her prison and doing work.

But guess what? She started writing papers. Her parole officer and professor would send the papers out to different conferences, people read them, said they were great and said, “We would love to have her come and present.” Some would say, “Well, she can’t.” “Oh, don’t worry if it’s a financial issue, we’ll pick up her hotel costs and transportation.” “No, she’s incarcerated.” And they were like, “What?” Yeah, someone like this is incarcerated, yes.” Well she finally moved through that. Today, this coming fall, she’ll be a third year PhD student in history at NYU. She talks about her stories of just going through the process being blocked because at some point she had access to funds and then she did not.

Then we take a look at another story of a gentleman who was in Texas. He was a part of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. Why did he join? Well, he was pretty clear that when you leave prison, you still have the scarlet letter F for felon. There are a number of jobs that will simply bar you because you’re a felon, independent of your skillset. He realized I should probably go ahead and create my own job. So, he’s part of a group called the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. It was started by a group of businessmen and women in Houston, and they basically put these guys, now women, and a program where they learn entrepreneurship skills. They give like a Shark Tank pitch, had a chance—Elizabeth and I had a chance to participate. They graduate with a certificate in entrepreneurship from Baylor University.

The recidivism rate for the men who go through that program is 7 percent. For the rest of the state it’s over 50 percent. What’s worth noting is that a number of the people, I think five people in fact, who wrote an essay for that chapter, three of them actually wrote their chapters while they were incarcerated. Michelle, for example, I didn’t meet her until she got out of prison. We were in communication through a middle person.

So yeah, you’re right about that. In fact, I’m teaching a course this coming spring at UVA Law School using this book as foundation and I’m actually opening class one by opening with chapter 10 in our book to start off with the students. So, you’re a wise man.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. Well actually that section by Michelle Jones was, I thought, particularly eye-opening, and I want to read just a part of one paragraph where she describes what it’s like to try to be a student in prison. She writes, “Normative behaviors such as sharing goods, giving hugs and waving hello are subject to disciplinary sanctions in most prisons. The noise interruptions like count times, fire drills and suspended movement and constant and often arbitrary changes of bunkmates, staff, and custody and facility rules produce chaotic experiences. Imagine being in college and struggling with no paper clips, staplers, rubber bands or three ring binders. Are you wondering how we hold ourselves or anything together?” Those are challenges that you take for granted if you’re on the outside, but certainly these are real obstacles to learning.

Gerard Robinson: Real obstacles. At times you had correctional staff, some who were very supportive, but you had other correctional staff who weren’t supportive, who at times would raise barriers like, don’t hug. You’ve hugged 20 times, you’re now suspended or you can’t go to class for two days. So, some real challenges and other people who are incarcerated have talked about that. But they’ve also shared great stories about guards, teachers, and most people are unaware that a number of states like Georgia and Texas, they actually have a school district totally set aside for young people who are incarcerated before going to school.

Jason Bedrick: What kind of regulatory barriers are there to providing prisoners with education?

Gerard Robinson: It varies by state. Let’s take a look at the state of Maryland. In the last few years, they decided that if a person that’s coming to prison and he or she does not have a high school diploma, you must enroll in a GED program. That wasn’t always the case. They began to take a look at the data and thought it made sense to make sure you enrolled and that you completed the program as much as you could, depending on whether or not you had to transfer. That’s one thing. In some states they say, you know what, it’s available, but they’re not going to make a big push.

In terms of real barriers, one is access to the internet or at times the intranet. There’s concerns understandably that you don’t want to give people access to the internet that will in fact could use it to go and find where the prosecutor, the judge or anyone else involved in his or her incarceration lives. They could send threatening messages through the email or through LinkedIn. That’s a challenge. It is one, I know from a technological standpoint you can address, but it’s a real one.

You also have lack of access to books, hard copies and soft copy of books. So, you have some programs set aside where nonprofits will collect books, let’s say maybe aren’t using any longer. They’ll donate it to a library and people will have access to books.

Another, frankly, is also financial. The Pell Grant program, which is discussed in the book, what people often don’t know is there’s still people who are incarcerated who have to pay for educational services themselves, either through family, through friends, through donations. I don’t take a value judgment of whether it’s good or bad, but the idea that there is no costs in prison for people to go to school today is just untrue. There’s some that are free, but there’s others you have to pay for.

Jason Bedrick: Chapter nine of your book discusses an innovation that gets a lot of attention in K–12 policy circles, which is online education. How are these online platforms being leveraged to educate prisoners and what sort of challenges are there to successful implementation of those platforms?

Gerard Robinson: In one of your comments to my comment, you talked about people who needed to make sure they had opportunities so that when they get out they can do great things. So I think about a gentleman named Kenyatta. Kenyatta was incarcerated at San Quentin Prison in northern California. He participated in a program that was sponsored by the Prison University Project. Jody Lewen is the founder and director of that program. She partnered with what was then Patten University in Oakland. I was a member of the board of trustees at the time. We invested money into the program so that the guys in San Quentin could actually earn an associate’s degree free of charge. Well, Kenyatta was one of our students. He ended up getting out of prison. He connected with a guy in Silicon Valley. They helped to create an organization called, The Last Mile, and it’s a program where they’re teaching people who were formerly incarcerated, how to code.

Now we both know that there are a number of people making pretty good salaries who are coders. So, it’s over a year program where you learn how to code. In fact, when you’re a coder, guess what? I’m not going to know whether or not you’re a felon or not, am I going to see you? All I want to know is can you get the job done.

That program has moved from California to other states where they’re actually teaching people who are incarcerated how to code. So, that’s one option. Second, you have entrepreneurs in California, Georgia who are actually going inside of prisons and where they have access to the internet are showing people how to create web-based businesses, so that when you leave you can actually service the state you’re in or the city you’re in. So, people both for profit, nonprofit are taking advantage of this.

One company I think that comes to mind is the American Prison Data Project. Arti Finn is in fact one of the principals at that company and they’re in several prisons and I think a few jails across the country. What they do is they come into your prison or jails, and guess what? We have all the educational material already on this handheld device. It’s connected to the intranet, internet. We could work it out in a way where they can actually take the handheld device and even bring it back to their cell. Because in some places, another limitation is you only have access to a handheld device or a computer in a room. Once it closes, you have no access. It’s a B-Corp and she’s doing some great work.

The entrepreneurs, even like an education, a lot of the entrepreneurs are coming in and showing us, “Hey, here’s how to think differently about the delivery of teaching and learning.” I see the same thing inside prisons.

Jason Bedrick: Now, the authors in your book make a number of different policy suggestions to enhance education in prisons. Beyond the ones we’ve discussed already, are there any in particular that you believe show a great deal of promise?

Gerard Robinson: When President Trump signed into law the First Step Act, there was one line in there that talked about academic programs. So, the fact that there’s at least a federal approach, it’s only for people who are in federal prisons, that was at least a nod that we should take a look at the what works literature, which a number of people are looking at, to figure out what programs are in place for adult basic education. That’s really what the name says, adult basic education. Adult secondary education, that’s more toward high school. You have workforce and career development that leads to certificates, licensure, and other training for jobs. Then you have post-secondary education, which either could be an associate’s degree, baccalaureate or higher. The fact that there was a focus on that I think was a step in the right direction.

Another policy recommendation is to make sure that the prisons are working closely with employers. So you take for example, SHRM, the Society for Higher Resource Managers, they have over 300,000 members across the world. These are the people frankly at HR divisions in Fortune 500 companies and the small businesses who are the gatekeepers. These are the ones who are going to say, “Are we going to bring you in or not?” So, they are starting to partner with prisons and with governors and chambers of commerce and they’re saying, “You know what? We’re going to sign a pledge and we’re going to make it a point that we’re going to make sure we give people who are incarcerated a really good look. So, you’ve got Fortune 500 corporations who are doing that.

Another policy recommendation is called ban the box. That’s where on page one there’s a question, “Did you create a felony?” You check the box and you say yes. Well historically that’s been a pretty strong nod for HR directors to say, “You know what? Let me just put this in a different file.” Well, some people are saying eliminate it totally. Some are saying move it maybe to page five of the application. Others say make an offer and then bring up that question.

There’s some diverse opinions about what we should do there, but there’s a lot of traction there. What people also maybe often overlook is that state universities in fact have a box on whether or not you have a felony. One recommendation that turned into law in the state of Louisiana is that the state university there in fact banned that question. Those are some of the recommendations, workforce, education related. Some were given a nod by the First Step Act and some are taking place at the local level.

Jason Bedrick: The foreword your book is coauthored by a seemingly unlikely duo. You’ve got former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who is a known to be on the conservative wing of the Republican Party. And his co-author is Van Jones, who was a former special advisor to President Barack Obama. He’s in the nonprofit world. He’s also a regular on CNN, and he’s known to be on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. So, is this a one off or does it single a broader bipartisan interest in making progress on this issue?

Gerard Robinson: It’s the latter. It signals a broader bipartisan push on this issue to say that it’s more than just smoke and mirrors, that it’s real. In many ways it may be one of only three policy issues where we have this kind of what I would call policy kumbaya. So, take Van Jones. Van Jones and I co-authored a piece for CNN, its online magazine or I should say paper. It was called, “The Importance Of Education For People Who Are Incarcerated.” So, as someone who works as a fellow for the American Enterprise Institute, I’ve worked for two Republican governors, some would say, “Interesting, you and Van are connecting.” I say, “Well, what’s interesting is the fact that you find it interesting.” Now think about it. Van and I both believe in opportunity. We both believe that people need second chances, and we believe that education matters.

On this one issue, we’re going to hold hands because we think it makes sense. Then I talked to Speaker Gingrich. He was someone who believes that we should have a different, conservative approach to delivering justice and rehabilitation in prison. He believes education matters. He, for example, is a big supporter of the Pell Grant for those who are incarcerated, but he believed that education in different forms should be a part of the equation. The speaker and I coauthored a piece that appeared in Newsweek titled, “Literacy and Liberation” or something very close to that. We’ve talked about it’s going to be very tough to have a strong economy if people aren’t literate, and that’s just more than reading. That’s the ability to comprehend and transfer ideas across space and time.

I went to both of them. We talked about the book. They know each other. They said, “Yes, we would be more than willing to co-author a foreword for your book.” Did both of them co-staff on every single idea and policy recommendation? Absolutely not. But the point isn’t that. It’s not for looking for unanimity as much as I was getting them together and say, “On this one issue, can we find a common ground and talk shop?” I think that’s what this book represents.

Jason Bedrick: In education policy circles, there’s a lot of talk about the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Clearly educating prisoners is beneficial, but preventing them from committing crimes and going to prison in the first place is clearly better. What concrete steps can policymakers take to reduce the likelihood that a child will end up in prison at all?

Gerard Robinson: I’ll take a page from the work that Governor Jeb Bush did when he was in Florida. He helped to institute the third grade hold back policy. If you don’t reach a certain metric by the end of third grade, you are given an opportunity to go to a summer school program to build your skills. A number of the students who go through that in fact pass out and are able to move to the fourth grade. But some of those students are in fact kept in the third grade. There was a scholar who would follow the program. In fact, Marcus Winters conducted research on the subject, followed some of those students and identified by the time those students reached the eighth grade, they were at sometimes above their peers they used to be with. So, at least the numbers are pointing in the right direction.

When 70 percent of the American high school students drop out in grade 10—70 percent. That’s not because all of a sudden people said, “You know what? Tenth grade makes sense for me to drop out.” It’s because by 10th grade, your math and English literacy skills, that’s where they’re going to find themselves challenged in a real way. You can’t fake it to make it at that point. But that wasn’t a 10th grade problem. That was a middle school problem, but frankly that’s not a middle school problem, that’s an elementary school problem. I think we should make sure that we work with students in third grade. Let’s go back to preschool and kindergarten. You have places like Virginia, which will support preschool programs and kindergarten programs. Or really more kindergarten for those who are low income. You’ve got states like Georgia which has got a strong push.

I’m a believer that we should support preschool programs. I understand from a conservative perspective that may lead some to say… more bureaucracy that we’re taking the role away from parents, giving it to the state. That we’re not holding parents accountable. I think those are all legitimate points, but when I talk to business people who said they’re now investing through their foundation’s money into preschool programs because they see that as early workforce development, I think we’re finding people in employment, in government, business and education who are coming together to say it makes sense.

So, we’ll have to see 10 years from—I guess if they’re in preschool now—we’ll have to see 20 years from now of whether or not the kids were in preschool today, in fact, find themselves going to prison compared to those who are not. I think it’ll be mixed because there’s some variables that are in place that may have led these kids going to prison anyway. But I’m willing to at least say let’s experiment, bring in some good researchers and let’s follow the process.

Jason Bedrick: On the question of research, too, we’ve actually seen a number of studies recently that show that school choice programs are reducing the likelihood that somebody goes to prison. Corey DeAngelis and Patrick Wolf, for example, had some research out of Milwaukee showing that students were about, I think it was about half as likely to end up in prison as peers of a similar demographic background who did not go. Actually it was about half was drug related convictions, and it was about an 85 percent reduction in property damage convictions, and an almost 40 percent reduction in paternity disputes. So, very clear large effects when students are participating in school choice programs.

Gerard Robinson: I was excited to see Corey and Pat, both who we know, get involved in this work. Corey’s at Cato, Pat’s at University of Arkansas and then the Department of School Reform. Why it’s important for those two scholars to be involved is because there’s always been an undercurrent in our school choice movement of how do we work with the kids who even fall outside of our network of what we can do to help? If kids come to our school, that’s great, but it’s not as if we always follow the kids who left and some of them left because they were incarcerated. So, their research again is pointed in the direction that is making a difference. I look forward for more of those of scholars of that ilk who are involved in research to take a look but also find out where we have holes. Maybe with some of the methodology or the techniques use aren’t great.

So, much of this falls on implementation, and there’s a chapter in our book called, “Re-entry Programs, Evaluation Methods and the Importance of Fidelity” written by Nancy Levine, who’s at Irvine Institute. So, much of this work, and you know as a former lawmaker, writing it up is great. Researching it is great, but how we implement it is how researchers and lawmakers should take a look. So, I think this is rich territory for more scholars in the school and parental choice area.

Jason Bedrick: Before we close, do you have anything else that you think that our listeners should know about education in the prison system?

Gerard Robinson: With the Second Chance Bill still in experimental phase, it was signed into law, not signed into law, started as an experiment 2015-16 under President Obama. It’s something that’s still promoted by President Trump. Secretary Betsy DeVos, she supported it. But you have a lot of Democrat governors and state chiefs who are supporting it as well.

I would tell anyone in any state to do really three things. Number one, find out whether or not your state prisons require people who arrive without a high school diploma to enroll him or her into a GED program. Number two, go to school board meetings. There’s always conversations about the school-t0-prison pipeline. I think one of the things we can do before we get too many adults involved in our criminal justice system is to work with the children that we have right now to address the school to prison pipeline. A lot of those conversations take place at the school board level.

Third is to not only read my book, but there are a lot of great books, journal articles, both peer reviewed and otherwise and white papers that are on the internet. So, I would go to sites or places that you trust and they are places maybe where you wouldn’t go and look because this is a really important topic. I would just say there’s some good information both left, right and middle that’s out there and we should read all that we can.

Jason Bedrick: Our guest today has been Gerard Robinson, executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity. He is the editor with Elizabeth English Smith of the book, Education for Liberation, the Politics of Promise and Reform Inside and Beyond America’s Prisons. Gerard, thank you for joining us.

Gerard Robinson: Jason, thank you for interviewing me, but also thank you for your years of research and leading in the area of policy and research as it relates to parental choice.

Jason Bedrick: Thank you. This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media at @edchoice, and don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.