St. Petersburg, Fla. mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford said recently that among the top issues facing her city is the need for improving graduation rates.
Ford offered a disturbing statistic to back up her point.
"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," said Ford, a former City Council member who is running for mayor for the third time. "And I think waiting until kids are ready for kindergarten to begin to intervene is too late."
PolitiFact Florida plans on keeping an eye on St. Petersburg’s mayoral candidates ahead of this November’s election and thought Ford’s claim merited more scrutiny.
In this case, Ford mangled an oft-repeated, inaccurate talking point about prisons using third grade reading scores to predict future bed needs. It has been wrongly cited by Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, and opinion columnists for the Post and New York Times and debunked by FactCheck.org and the Washington Post.
Ford went one step further by focusing on private prison operators and the number of third graders, not academic performance.
Her claim is "nonsense," said Peter Leone, a University of Maryland education professor who specializes in behavioral disorders and school discipline. Leone was the director of the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice, which during its operation from 1999 to 2006 produced a report touting that "at least one state" uses third-grade reading scores to project future prison bed needs. Leone told us the statement was made by a colleague "before he got the facts."
"It is an urban legend that politicians like to trot out to claim that either the schools are failing or that we are not tough enough on crime," he said.
We ran Ford’s words by two of the largest private prison operators in the country, Corrections Corporation of America, a Tennessee company that manages five prison facilities in Florida, and Management and Training Corporation, which manages one prison in Florida.
Spokesmen for both companies denied Ford’s claim. Private prisons respond to inmate projections from the state government, so it would not make sense for them to do their own forecasting.
"This is truly the urban myth that will not die," said CCA spokesman Steve Owen.
Ford directed us to the spring 2012 newsletter of the Nevada Department of Corrections. The newsletter does not speak to her exact point, but it does mention children who do not read on grade level are more likely to dropout, use drugs or end up in prison.
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.
But neither Indiana nor California does what Nevada claims it does, officials at those states told us. Neither does Nevada.
Mike Schmoker, an independent education consultant, made a similar claim in a 1999 Education Week article. He told us he could not verify the claim and does not make it any longer. Mike Tikkanen of Invisible Children, whose website and book use the statistic, said "no state today admits to it, nor have I been able to find those references."
In Florida, the Office of Economic and Demographic Research estimates future inmate populations through a variety of factors, including historical trends using the state crime rate and the number of arrests and convictions. "Educational attainment is not one of them," said EDR director Amy Baker.
In making the case for focusing more on education, St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford said, "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."
That’s a spin-off of an urban legend.
Some of the largest private prison operators in the country say they get their estimates from the states. And the states tell us that what a third-grader does isn’t a factor.
It’s certainly not happening in Florida, which is the only place St. Petersburg’s mayor might have some level of control.
This claim needs to be locked up. We rate it Pants on Fire!