AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch made a rare joint appearance today, and it happened in a prison - a state-run facility in Jessup, Md. They were there to announce a new plan - a pilot program to give prisoners access to federal Pell grants that would pay for college classes they're taking behind bars. Here's how Duncan pitched it.
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ARNE DUNCAN: The cost-benefit of this does not take a math genius to figure out. We lock folks up here - 35, $40,000 every single year. A Pell grant is less than $6,000 each year.
CORNISH: Even before the plan was announced, a House Republican had already introduced a bill to stop it. Gabrielle Emanuel of the NPR Ed team has more.
GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Secretary Duncan is worried about a number.
EMANUEL: As in people getting out of prison each year.
DUNCAN: And returning to our communities, returning to our streets.
EMANUEL: That's not inherently bad news. This is the bad news. Within three years, more than 40 percent of them will be back behind bars. Duncan's plan involves convincing colleges and universities to run classes in prison and give prisoners Pell grants to help them pay for it. But many of the details are still unknown. Which colleges? Which prisons? How many prisoners?
DUNCAN: We don't know yet.
EMANUEL: Here's what we do know.
DUNCAN: This is a five-year pilot.
EMANUEL: And it's only for prisoners who will be released within the next five years.
DUNCAN: We think this is a small, small investment that will pay extraordinary dividends not just financially, but in terms of making our streets and our communities safer.
EMANUEL: Because this is officially an experiment, the express purpose is to gather data. But there's already some pretty strong data.
LOIS DAVIS: We're at the point where the debate no longer should be about whether or not correction education - prison education is effective. We clearly have more than demonstrated that.
EMANUEL: Lois Davis is the lead author of an influential RAND Corporation study.
DAVIS: We estimated that for every dollar invested in prison education programs, this save taxpayers, on average, about $5.
EMANUEL: Davis found that when an inmate takes college courses, he's 16 percent less likely to return to prison.
DAVIS: That is a very dramatic reduction.
EMANUEL: But not everyone's persuaded.
CHRIS COLLINS: It's an affront to taxpayers and parents.
EMANUEL: Earlier this week, U.S. congressman Chris Collins, a New York Republican, introduced a bill in the House that would block the plan. Collins isn't necessarily arguing with the data. He just doesn't think taxpayers should have to pay.
COLLINS: There's a limited pot of money, which means that's a Pell grant not going to a middle-class family, you know, struggling to pay a tuition.
EMANUEL: Technically, anyone who meets the grant criteria and applies gets help.
COLLINS: It's still money that the taxpayers are providing, money that could be better spent in other areas.
EMANUEL: Two decades ago, Congress voted to cut off access to Pell grants for state and federal prisoners, which is why Secretary Duncan's plan, allowed by a separate law, is just a small-scale experiment for research purposes. As for his hopes that Congress will roll back the ban entirely...
DUNCAN: Congress, you know, doesn't do much these days, unfortunately. And we can't wait on Congress.
EMANUEL: Meanwhile, Collins' bill to stop the new program has gone to committee, where it's hard to know what, if anything, will come of it. Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News, Washington.