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Illiteracy and High Incarceration Rates in New Mexico

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Although the United States is often thought of as an educated nation, the reality is that many individuals are illiterate or have very low reading skills. More than 36 million adults cannot read or write above a third-grade level (ProLiteracy, 2019). Approximately 43% of adults read at an eighth-grade level or lower (Zoukis, 2017). Illiteracy and low literacy skills cause many issues for individuals and society. This lack of skill can cause non-productivity in the workforce, crime, loss of tax revenue due to unemployment, increases in health care costs, and high imprisonment rates, among others.

The focus of this research is the high imprisonment rates among those who are illiterate or lack literacy skills. Poor funding and financing of schools can have a large impact on the low rates of literacy in New Mexico. This essay focuses on how a lack of school funding can cause low literacy rates with a focus on the high incarceration rates caused by low literacy. Several aspects of the topic are covered, including: a connection between the incarceration rates and funding in New Mexico schools; a relationship between case laws, policies, and current issues and incarceration rates; an analysis of the paper’s findings in relationship to concepts studied throughout the course; and a discussion of implications of the findings and areas for further research.

Incarceration, Literacy, and Poverty

Illiteracy rates in prisons are extremely high. Approximately 60-75% of inmates cannot read, and 85% of juvenile offenders have difficultly reading (Sainato, 2017). Juvenile incarceration reduces the chances of high school graduation and increases the odds of incarceration later in life. In turn, high school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested in their lifetime as compared to high school graduates, and are also 63% more likely to be incarcerated than their peers with four-year college degrees (Atlms, 2016).

Research indicates that there is a strong correlation between those living in poverty and illiteracy rates. According to Covington (2017), 43% of adults at the lowest literacy proficiency live in poverty compared to 4% of adults at the highest literacy proficiency. Over 90% of welfare recipients are high school dropouts, and 66% of students who cannot read proficiently by the completion of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare (Covington, 2017).

There is also a high correlation between poverty and incarceration. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that incarcerated individuals had a median annual income of 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages. “Incarcerated people in all gender, race, and ethnicity groups earned substantially less prior to their incarceration than their non-incarcerated counterparts of similar ages” (Kopf & Rabuy, 2015). Individuals in the prison system also earn at the lowest ends of the national income distribution.

These statistics have direct relevance to the school system and education of young people today. Children whose parents have low literacy levels have around a 72% chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves. In fact, these children are more likely to receive poor grades, drop out, repeat school years, or display behavioral problems (ProLiteracy, 2019). Family-oriented stressors also have a negative impact on education and literacy. Factors that impact reading success in elementary school include family-oriented stressors such as housing insecurity, toxic stress, hunger, and family mobility (Atlms, 2016). Therefore, students who live in poverty are much more likely to have low literacy skills and are much more vulnerable to earning less in their careers and becoming incarcerated. “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure” (Tett, 2015).

New Mexico Poverty and Illiteracy

In 2013, New Mexico was found to have one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country, with more than 31% of children living at or below the federal poverty level. Approximately 67% of New Mexican students are designated as low-income. This is a serious issue because there is a strong connection between child poverty and poor academic performance. There is a growing achievement gap between students based on their economic class, which is of particular concern in New Mexico. Based on 2013 test scores, there was a 24% achievement gap between those students at or above proficient in 4th grade reading and a 21% achievement gap in 8th grade reading between low-income and non-low-income students. In New Mexico, students of low-income families also graduate from high school at lower rates, and poverty has been shown to be the most significant cause of poor school performance. Research also indicates that repeating a grade in school is linked to living on public assistance or being in prison (New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, 2014). New Mexico tends to have low state averages for reading as a state overall, but low-income students fair worse than non-low-income students in every school and at every grade level. There is an achievement gap in reading and literacy skills between all students and low-income students at every grade level, and this gap widens as students progress into higher grades.

New Mexico Incarceration

New Mexico has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the U.S., and has one of the highest rates of parent incarceration in the nation. Approximately 10% of New Mexico children have had at least one parent incarcerated at some point during their lives. A parent’s incarceration can lead to many negative consequences for a child’s education, including greater risk of poverty, mental health issues, and stress. This issue disproportionality impacts communities of color and those living in poverty (Nott, 2016). The prison population in New Mexico has been steadily increasing from 1980 to today. There are almost 16,000 individuals incarcerated in the state, with the majority having an African American or Hispanic ethnicity (The Sentencing Project, 2017).

Recent Court Cases and Legislation

In a July 20, 2018 ruling, a state judge found that New Mexico is violating the rights of at-risk students by failing to provide adequate funding for public schools (The Associated Press, 2018). The ruling stated that inadequate school funding violates the education article of New Mexico’s constitution. Inadequate funding also violates the equal protection rights of Native American, English language learners, and economically disadvantaged students. Insufficient funding leaves students in an insufficient school system, where progress is limited until more funding is available and better programs are implemented. In the ruling, the judge also claimed that the Public Education Department failed to efficiently spend and distribute money so that at-risk students are not provided with the programs and services needed for them to obtain a sufficient education. In fact, evidence in the case showed that many at-risk students finish each school year lacking basic literacy skills needed to pursue a career or post-secondary education (The Associated Press, 2018).

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In March 2019, the New Mexico legislature passed some tax reform to help assist public schools. The legislature passed provisions to add $500 million into the public schools’ budget statewide and develop a new early education department (Ulloa, 2019). The increase in funds also allow for education professionals to receive a salary increase and additional money for early childhood programs. Another bill, passed by the New Mexico House of Representatives, was passed on March 1, 2019. This bill would increase the state’s general fund by at least $320 million, of which a large amount would go towards public schools (Nott, 2019).

Funding and School Infrastructure

The current school infrastructure is failing and is not sufficient to teach students to the highest standards. According to Brimley, Garfield, and Verstegen (2015), most schools in the U.S. have multiple facility issues, such as old structures and lack of modernization. Unfortunately, research shows schools that are in disrepair are detrimental to the health and education of students. Safe and secure facilities are needed for successful educational programs. Some evidence shows that funds spent on improved school facilities are necessary to provide adequate educational services. In New Mexico, it is estimated that approximately $2 billion is needed to improve school infrastructure and facilities (Brimley et al., 2015).

Recent Case

On February 5, 2019, voters (taxpayers) overwhelmingly voted against the Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) bond to increase funds for school improvements. The school district asked voters to approve a bond measure and two property tax levy measures to raise $900 million over six years. Each of the three measures failed, with only 30-35% of voters choosing to support the infrastructure improvements. Unfortunately, APS required the funding for at least 23 school-related construction projects. These projects were required to develop or improve school safety, school rebuilding, classroom additions, disability renovations, and more (McKee, 2019). This indicates that schools within the APS district will continue to need infrastructure improvements, detracting from student education.

This case can be related to the book ‘What Is a Public Education and Why We Need It’ by Walter Feinberg (2016). This book claims that a fair and balanced public educational system is essential. Overall, most parents have an attitude that their children come first and are more important than others. People who have no children might feel that they should not pay taxes for schools or encourage public education. Most people do not care about what goes on in other schools or with other children. This is problematic for individual children, families, and society as a whole. Schools help shape children into functioning adults within society. When schools are highly competitive and some children or social groups excel while others fail, the system is broken (Feinberg, 2016). When voters and taxpayers do not pay into the system, those in poverty are left behind because people generally do not care outside of their own family and household.

Implications of Illiteracy and Imprisonment

There can be no question that there is a distinct relationship between illiteracy and imprisonment. One of the leading causes of illiteracy today is being a student from a low-income household. Students in poverty hear a smaller number of words, engage in fewer conversations that elicit questions, and have less access to reading materials than non-low-income students (Budge & Parrett, 2016). In addition, students from families in poverty have negative health and well-being factors, lower material resources, and other factors previously discussed, such as housing insecurity. These factors all negatively impact learning and literacy.

The findings of this paper are very relevant and important in the U.S. today, especially for New Mexico. Although some progress is being made in recent court cases and legislation, more must be done to ensure that all schools in the state have proper infrastructure, materials, and budgets to adequately teach students. More programs should focus on improving literacy and education for students of low-income families. If nothing is done, it is likely that the condition will stay the same and many children will have low literacy skills and a high likelihood of a criminal future.

Improving literacy rates in the state should have a positive impact on reducing the number of citizens imprisoned, along with improving the economy overall. For example, the prisons in New Mexico are filling up and the state will soon need to decide if money should be spent on building schools or building prisons (Mooney, 2018). Without reform, more money will need to be channeled into the prison system and away from the educational system, which just compounds the problem. Low literacy also costs billions of dollars every year in non-productivity, crime, and loss of tax revenue (ProLiteracy, 2019).

Further Research

Further research is needed into this topic to answer several questions relating to literacy and incarceration. For example, if the state invests $100 million into education, how much less does it spend on prisons? How can the money be best invested into education to increase literacy rates? What are the best programs to improve literacy rates among all students, and especially students of low-income families? A greater understanding of the economics of imprisonment and how to best improve literacy rates would help lawmakers and citizens make and pass laws to improve the health of students, communities, and the state.

Conclusion

Children are the future of society. However, the future for many looks grim because of low literacy rates and the higher chance of imprisonment due to the inability to read at a functioning level. This essay examined several relationships and aspects of illiteracy and incarceration in the U.S. and New Mexico. Topics included: incarceration, literacy, and poverty relationships; New Mexico poverty and illiteracy statistics; New Mexico incarceration statistics; recent court cases and legislation; funding and school infrastructure; implications of illiteracy and imprisonment; and future directions and further research. This is a very important issue and should be analyzed and solved as soon as possible to ensure a healthy and stable future for millions of Americans. “Prisons are largely populated with individuals who have little formal education, with a large percentage having dropped out of high school…the focus should be on providing a good education rather than punishing people who are suffering from the lack of a good education” (Brimley et al., 2015, p.43). New Mexico must emphasize a good education for all students, rather than increasing the amount of people currently imprisoned

References

  1. Atlms, T. (2016, March 16). The Relationship Between Incarceration and Low Literacy. Retrieved from https://literacymidsouth.wordpress.com/2016/03/16/incarceration-and-low-literacy/
  2. Brimley, V., Garfield, R.R., & Verstegen, D.A. (2015). Financing Education in a Climate of Change (12th Ed.). London, UK: Pearson.
  3. Budge, K., & Parrett, W. (2016, Jan. 13). How Does Poverty Influence Learning? Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/how-does-poverty-influence-learning-william-parrett-kathleen-budge
  4. Covington, P.M. (2017, Jan. 19). Understanding the Relationship Between Illiteracy and Poverty. Retrieved from http://www.pamelamcovington.com/archives/3915
  5. Feinberg, W. (2016). What Is a Public Education and Why We Need It: A Philosophical Inquiry into Self-Development, Cultural Commitment, and Public Engagement. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
  6. Great Schools. (2019). Albuquerque Public Schools. Retrieved from https://www.greatschools.org/new-mexico/albuquerque/albuquerque-public-schools/schools/?gradeLevels%5B%5D=h
  7. Kopf, D., & Rabuy, B. (2015). Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the Pre-Incarceration Incomes of the Imprisoned. Retrieved from https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/income.html
  8. Lecker, W. (2018, July 24). New Mexico School Funding Found Unconstitutional. Education Law Center. Retrieved from http://www.edlawcenter.org/news/archives/other-states/new-mexico-school-funding-found-unconstitutional.html
  9. McKee, C. (2019). Albuquerque Voters Defeat All Three Measures in APS Bond Election. Retrieved from https://www.krqe.com/news/albuquerque-metro/voters-defeat-all-measures-in-aps-bond-election/1758142193
  10. Mooney, E. (2018, Nov. 24). Prisons or Public Schools? What Will NM Decide? Albuquerque Journal. Retrieved from https://www.abqjournal.com/1249908/prisons-or-public-schools-what-will-nm-decide.html
  11. New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. (2014). Alleviating Poverty Will Improve eEducation in New Mexico. Retrieved from http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Report-Education-FINAL-2013-01-06.pdf
  12. Nott, R. (2016, Apr. 25). N.M.’s Parent Incarceration Rate Among Highest in Nation. Santa Fe New Mexican. Retrieved from https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/education/n-m-s-parent-incarceration-rate-among-highest-in-nation/article_3f813e27-4ff4-5869-a874-a2a946f8751d.html
  13. Nott, R. (2019, Mar. 1). New Mexico House Approves Sweeping Tax Reform on Party Lines. Santa Fe New Mexican. Retrieved from https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/legislature/new-mexico-house-approves-sweeping-tax-reform-on-party-lines/article_0a193550-8a0b-57fb-a324-61d2ddbbedfc.html
  14. ProLiteracy. (2019). U.S. Adult Literacy Facts. Retrieved from https://proliteracy.org/Portals/0/pdf/PL_AdultLitFacts_US_flyer.pdf?ver=2016-05-06-145137-067
  15. Sainato, M. (2017, July 18). US Prison System Plagued by High Illiteracy Rates. Observer. Retrieved from https://observer.com/2017/07/prison-illiteracy-criminal-justice-reform/
  16. Tett, G. (2015, Dec. 18). America’s Reading Problem. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/8cc8167e-a435-11e5-873f-68411a84f346
  17. The Associated Press. (2018, July 21). Ruling: New Mexico Funding for Public Schools Is Inadequate. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/new-mexico/articles/2018-07-21/ruling-new-mexico-funding-for-public-schools-is-inadequate
  18. The Sentencing Project. (2017). State-by-State Data. Retrieved from https://www.sentencingproject.org/the-facts/#map
  19. Ulloa, S. (2019, Mar. 23). Education Legislation – What Passed What Didn’t in New Mexico? Las Cruces Sun News. Retrieved from https://www.lcsun-news.com/story/news/local/new-mexico/legislature/2019/03/23/new-mexico-education-legislation-what-bills-passed-gov-lujan-grisham/3255603002/
  20. Zoukis, C. (2017, May 12). Basic Literacy a Crucial Tool to Stem School to Prison Pipeline. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/basic-literacy-a-crucial-tool-to-stem-school-to-prison_us_59149393e4b01ad573dac1dd
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Illiteracy and High Incarceration Rates in New Mexico. (2023, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 3, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/illiteracy-and-high-incarceration-rates-in-new-mexico/
“Illiteracy and High Incarceration Rates in New Mexico.” Edubirdie, 08 Sept. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/illiteracy-and-high-incarceration-rates-in-new-mexico/
Illiteracy and High Incarceration Rates in New Mexico. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/illiteracy-and-high-incarceration-rates-in-new-mexico/> [Accessed 3 Mar. 2024].
Illiteracy and High Incarceration Rates in New Mexico [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Sept 08 [cited 2024 Mar 3]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/illiteracy-and-high-incarceration-rates-in-new-mexico/
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