Pay for schools now, or jails later

By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor

Just exactly what is the trade-off between crime and education?

How do the two interconnect? What happens if we spend more on one and less on the other?

In our combined Saturday issue, Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico reporter Marlena Hartz did a good job in asking the question I’ve had on my mind for years: Why are we paying more per day to house a prisoner than we are per day educating a child?

I hit on the same basic question a few years back when thinking about comparing the cost of daycare or preschool to incarceration when I lived in Colorado, but I never got around to the story. In pondering it back then, my mind wandered off into education in general and also the cost of daycare compared to college. I knew the cost of daycare was high, but I was pretty sure it would look like a bargain if someone crunched the numbers against jails.

Turns out, the numbers that Hartz came up with are pretty shocking. In Roosevelt County, we pay nearly 30 percent more to house a prisoner than we’re spending to educate our kids. In Curry County, they’re paying a lot more than that for locking someone up.

I always felt like I was in prison in high school. Today’s kids can rest easy in the knowledge that — yes — society will finally spend more on you as soon as you mess up, drop out of school and get arrested.

My wife’s first suggestion was more executions to keep the prison costs down. But then she’s a big fan of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, so take that suggestion with a grain of salt. But something does need to be done.

I don’t think we can cut the funding to jails and prisons without good reason and a well thought out plan. Anyone who was around and read the papers during the New Mexico Penitentiary riot of 1980 can tell you why. Treating prisoners like animals isn’t the answer.

I like the idea that Eddy County is exploring using education within the prison walls. With lots of vision and public will that might work. But it seems like educating folks before prison is still a better alternative.

I’ve felt for a long time that doing all we can possibly do to see that our kids get a solid education in public schools is one of the most important things we can do. That takes smart use of tax money, it takes a public willing to demand excellent education and it takes concerned and involved parents.

Parents who aren’t actively involved with their kids’ education need to take a page from the flood of home-school families and get involved personally. Our community as a whole needs to stand up at school board meetings and hold educators and officials responsible for the duties with which they’re charged. And lastly, we must hold state and federal lawmakers to high standards when it comes to the way they distribute our school tax dollars — making sure those dollars are used for education and not as wallpaper covering up the systems’ flaws and furthering politicians’ careers.

Portales taxpayers have shown a willingness to support education time and again, routinely approving the school’s mil levy, for example, which comes up for continuation again this week.

The county already has designs for a bigger jail. If our state’s education system does not improve, we can make plans to build an even bigger jail.

Karl Terry is managing editor for the Portales News-Tribune. He can be contacted at 356-4483, ext. 33. His e-mail address is:
karl_terry@link.freedom.com