Kathleen Ford earns “Pants on Fire” for reading rates and prison claim

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Does performance in grade school determines whether you will end up in jail later in life?

St. Pete mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford seems to think so, earning her a “Pants on Fire” ruling from PolitiFact Florida writers at the Tampa Bay Times.

In arguing for improved graduation rates, Ford cited a study saying private prisons use third-grade graduation data as a way to determine the number of prison beds they need in the future.

The Times article says that the research has been “thoroughly debunked” by education experts, as well as the Washington Post and FactCheck.org.

 “We know that our private prison systems are calculating how many new beds (they will need) based on the third grade, number of third graders, and that’s just wrong,” Ford told the Times. “And I think waiting until kids are ready for kindergarten to begin to intervene is too late.”

As evidence for her claim, Ford produced a 2012 newsletter from the Nevada Department of Corrections. In a post with the heading “Until third grade, a child learns to read. After third grade, a child reads to learn,” the publication noted that children who do not read on grade level are “more likely to dropout, use drugs or end up in prison.”

The Times spoke with University of Maryland education professor Peter Leone, who called the oft-cited claim an “urban legend” and that Ford’s statement is “nonsense.”

Leone did admit to the paper that, as a director of the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice, his group issued a report stating “at least one state” used third-grade graduation rates as a planning tool, but a colleague made the claim before getting all the facts.

The Nevada DOC newsletter did say this:

So many nonreaders wind up in jail that officials have found they can use the rate of illiteracy to help calculate future prison needs. Indiana’s former governor has stated that determining the number of new prisons to build is based, in part, on the number of second graders not reading at second-grade level. In California, they plan how many jail cells they will build in the future by how many children are not reading on grade level by third grade.

Officials in Nevada, California and Indiana say that they do not use education figures for prison bed planning, nor did representatives of two for-profit prisons the Times contacted.

A spokesperson from the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research told reporters that although they use various statistical factors in estimating inmate populations, “educational attainment is not one of them.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.