EDUCATING AND training prison inmates so well that they find and keep honest work once they are released has always been an extremely elusive goal. The average inmate's knowledge of basic skills is atrocious. His aversion to the educational process runs deep, and even the best efforts can result in only marginal success. But acknowledging the high level of difficulty involved in such efforts does not mean that they are useless and bound to fail. Opportunities to make a spirited push in educating and training inmates, with access to substantial funding, are very rare and should not be wasted. Unfortunately, the District appears to be squandering just such a chance.

In the past three years, the District has received about $41 million in federal funds for an almost unprecedented effort to give inmates schooling and vocational training. The funds came through the efforts of Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on the District of Columbia. The attempt has not been getting a fair test because of what appears to be sheer bad management. A study of the program said that there was incomplete and unreliable data on the number of inmates who participated in the program and the number of job placements. Few inmates signed up for the program, and as few as 40 percent of those who did were actually attending classes. Expensive teaching equipment remained unpacked and unused for months. The classes seem to have been too advanced for the inmates' meager educational background. There was a paucity of job placement and job counseling programs and little effort to get area employers involved in the program.

Despite what is described as continuing congressional dissatisfaction with the program's progress, the funding continued. It is time to formally audit the program; this could be done by the General Accounting Office. In addition, the business community should be brought in not only for job placement but to help in designing the training as well. Some sort of mandatory class attendance might also be in order. The District owes Congress and its taxpayers a far better performance.