On the campaign trail, mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle is quick to remind voters of the years she spent as a schoolteacher before entering the world of politics.
"I’m a teacher by profession and I know the importance of good public education," Preckwinkle told an audience during a recent forum at Malcolm X College before calling for greater investment in early childhood education, something she’s identified as a priority in her campaign.
But then she went on to say something we hadn’t heard from her before.
"Let me talk about elementary schools for a minute," said Preckwinkle, who is currently the Cook County Board president. "Nationally, they predict prison populations on the basis of third-grade achievement. So people who are falling behind in third grade are more likely to end up in our criminal justice system, and we have to address that challenge."
It follows that students who don’t do well in school might face fewer opportunities and be more likely to struggle in other areas of life. But do states really use the academic performance of eight-year-olds to calculate how many people are likely to end up in prison years down the road?
In 2013, a mayoral candidate in Florida earned a Pants on Fire! rating from PolitiFact for making a similar claim that invoked private prison operators. And other variations of it have been repeatedly debunked over the years.
That hasn’t stopped a long list of educators, writers and political leaders from repeating it, however. So we decided to vet Preckwinkle’s claim to see if anything had changed in the years since PolitiFact last took up the case. The short answer: No.
Preckwinkle’s campaign didn't respond to our repeated calls and emails, so we don’t know what source she was relying on when she made her claim, or even whether she meant the practice was applied only in specific states or in every state across the nation.
But a historical review of the talking point — which varies somewhat in each retelling but almost always focuses on third-grade scores — shows it’s never held up to scrutiny.
Peter Leone, a University of Maryland education professor who specializes in behavioral disorders and school discipline, told us he has seen no evidence any state uses student scores in the way Preckwinkle described.
"This is an urban legend that refuses to die," he wrote in an email.
Leone directed the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice, which during its operation from 1999 to 2006 produced a report noting that "at least one state" used third-grade reading scores to project future prison bed needs. Others have cited that report as backup for the claim, but Leone set the record straight years ago.
He explained to PolitiFact Florida in 2013 that detail was included in the report by a colleague "before he got the facts."
The 2013 fact-check also highlighted a 1999 Education Week article that included the claim, but the independent education consultant who wrote it told PolitiFact Florida he couldn’t corroborate it and no longer repeats it. The author of a book that used the talking point gave a similar response.
Years before PolitiFact Florida weighed in, FactCheck.org, the Washington Post and the Oregonian also debunked versions of the claim. A quick Google search also led us to a 2016 fact-check from WRAL.com in North Carolina. Once again, it was deemed baseless.
We wanted to make sure Preckwinkle’s own state — and presumably the only one in which a Chicago mayor might exert some level of control — was no exception, however. So we checked with the Illinois Department of Corrections.
"I do not consider third-grade reading, or other grade school achievement levels when developing projections," the department's research manager, Sharon Shipinksi, told us in an email.
Instead, IDOC estimates the size of future prison populations based on factors such as trends in the number of people admitted in previous years and the anticipated impact of policy changes designed to shorten sentences, reduce recidivism and more.
There is a connection between academic failure and crime, however, which may be why this inaccurate talking point has enjoyed such a long shelf life.
Some studies show a correlation between elementary school reading proficiency and high school graduation. Others reveal a correlation between high school dropout rates and incarceration.
A 2010 Chicago study found students who read below grade level as third graders were much less likely to graduate high school within five years and attend college than better-performing students. Similarly, a 2012 study showed that one in six children who couldn’t read proficiently by the end of third grade didn’t graduate high school on time, a rate four times greater than that of their proficient peers.
And a 2009 study from Northeastern University found that nearly one out of every 10 young men without a high school degree was incarcerated between 2006 and 2007, compared with one out of 33 high school graduates.
While that’s not a direct correlation between education and incarceration, it strongly suggests a link.
Preckwinkle said, "Nationally, they predict prison populations on the basis of third-grade achievement."
That’s a riff on a well-worn and startling urban legend that has been debunked repeatedly by PolitiFact and other news outlets over the years. It’s not true in Illinois and we could find no credible evidence that suggested it was true elsewhere.
We rate it False.
FALSE — The statement is not accurate.
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