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Orange is the New Red

How Mark Grisanti and Chris Collins favors madness over math

New York State Senator Mark Grisanti is taking a [grand]stand, opposing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recently proposal to provide a free college education to New York state prisoners. What makes this interesting is that Cuomo is hardly a friend of public higher education, starving the state’s public colleges and universities of funding. Grisanti, by contrast, is claiming the role of populist, paradoxically framing his opposition to prisoner education as part of a supposed struggle to make higher education more accessible and affordable.

It goes like this: Like Carl Paladino, Mark Grisanti is mad.

Grisanti is mad that middle-class taxpayers have to struggle to put themselves and their children through college. In particular, he’s mad that New York cut Tuition Assistance Program funds for graduate students. And he should be mad. These funds helped allow both him and me, among countless other New Yorkers, to attend graduate programs. Without this funding many of us wouldn’t have had this opportunity—and in fact, today, many don’t have this opportunity. I’m with Mark on this one, but the difference is while I’m angry, he’s mad.

Grisanti rhetorically supports higher education while, on his own website boasting of conservative organizations’ praise of his “focus on reducing taxes,” and “cutting state spending.” Education spending, including tuition assistance, however, is “state spending.” And it’s funded by taxes. Grisanti can’t have it both ways. That’s bad math. By supporting tax cuts and reduced state spending, he’s damning higher education and tuition assistance funding.

Grisanti could address this problem, unaffordable higher education and cuts in tuition assistance, with a meaningful solution, like restoring taxes on the richest New Yorkers and fighting against Governor Cuomo’s proposed estate tax cuts for estates worth between one and five million dollars. He could tie his support for taxing the wealthy to, say, restoring free tuition for SUNY and CUNY. Instead he chose the mad route, directing attention away from the conflict between his stated values and his legislative agenda by grandstanding against prisoner education.

Grisanti seems to be giving up all pretenses to supporting the concept of “correction.” This is about throwing red meat to conservative voters and institutionalizing prisons as centers of retribution. Vowing to put the needs of law-abiding citizens “first,” Grisanti promises to oppose higher education for prisoners as long as tuition assistance cuts stay in place.

While seeming like an unrelated apples-and-oranges thing—what does one issue have to do with the other—the two issues are connected, but not in the way Grisanti thinks they are. Again, it’s that math thing.

New York spends about $60,000 per prisoner per year to keep felons in jail. According to a Pew Center study, 40 percent of released New York convicts will wind up back in prison. That number goes down, depending on which study you cite, to approximately 34 percent for prisoners who have earned a GED degree and are eligible to enroll in college courses. So to be fair and not game the math, I’ll use that number as my comparison point—34 percent . According to a study by Bard College, which currently runs a prison education program in New York, the number among their prison students drops to four percent for prisoners who have completed some college behind bars, and two and a half percent for prisoners who complete a bachelor’s degree behind bars. A similar program run on the graduate level by the University at Buffalo in the 1990s boasted no recidivism among graduates. One prisoner not returning to jail for an eight-year sentence would offset enough tuition to put more than nine New Yorkers through four years of free college. How about it, Mark? If we have legislation that redirects all of this savings into college scholarships, will you support it?

Andrew Cuomo is not Bill de Blasio. He has a poor track record of investing in public higher education. He’s more of a race-to-the-bottom kind of guy, setting New York up to compete with the likes of Alabama in cutting taxes. His move to educate prisoners is not based on utopian idealism or liberalism—it’s pragmatic conservative economics. It will save money, both in incarceration costs and in policing costs. It will transform criminals who victimize Grisanti’s constituents into taxpayers who pay his salary and fund our schools. I say “will” rather than “could” as we’ve been down this road already and it’s worked—until madness got the better of us and in the interest of making life in jail more miserable then it was, we cut funding to prison-college partnerships.

Studies also show that prisoner-students transform into more peaceful inmates, making prisons safer for both inmates and guards while reducing the costs of running a prison. The subsequent reduction of criminal recidivism among prison-college participants also has social benefits, making neighborhoods safer and preventing taxpayers from being crime victims.

Cuomo’s plan is smart economics. It’s going to save the state a lot of money while making life better for convicts and law-abiding citizens alike. I’d like to see these savings reinvested in education—including restoring tuition assistance funding. Cuomo seems to want to use the savings to cut taxes and build his national credibility among conservatives. Grisanti, apparently, doesn’t want us realize these savings. That’s mad.

I’m focusing on Senator Grisanti here because we both live on the same planet—I have a thimbleful of hope that perhaps he’ll put his anger aside and do the smart thing here. Congressman Chris Collins has also weighed in on this issue. His contribution is the promise of a congressional bill to “block federal dollars from being used to support college degree programs for convicted criminals.” This wouldn’t stop the program, like Grisanti wants to do—it would just stop federal money from coming into New York. And, as Collins currently describes his proposed bill, it would also stop federal tuition assistance and other forms of college aid from being spent not just on prisoners but on “convicted criminals,” which by definition would include those convicted of misdemeanors such as marijuana possession.

I don’t see any need to discuss Collins any further here—we all know what he is. Way to go Clarence, Hamburg, and Orchard Park. Y’all elected yourselves a winner.

Dr. Michael I. Niman’s columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.

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