Oakland North is a news site operated by the U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. On Monday of this week, their lead story was a lengthy, very well-reported piece by Mariel Waloff on the Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) decision to cut 90% from its Adult and Career Education program.
Since 2009, after the passage of the California Budget Act (CBA), school districts have been allowed to take money from one funding category and move it into another. This allowed OUSD to use the funding originally intended for adult education in the district to fill the gaps in its K-12 budget. This has been happening all over California for the last few years, and, as a result (and a sadly predictable one), adult education has been decimated in many parts of the state. The scope of the cuts has been so great that it could be argued that the CBA is the worst piece of legislation for adult education in the entire U.S. over the last several years.
The article does a nice job illustrating where the pressure points and areas of conflict are for adult education during periods when state and local governments cut funding:
1. When adult education is pitted against K-12, adult education loses.
As Waloff notes, “[a]lthough the demand for adult education [in Oakland] was high at the time, K-12 was ruled to be a higher priority.”
Even with a significant political push from the adult education community, it seems to me that it’s always going to be a losing proposition to be on any side other than K-12 when a budget issue has been framed as a choice between K-12 and anything else.
Waloff writes that demand for adult education was high, but we don’t know from the article whether those people demanding services organized any kind of advocacy effort to persuade the board to preserve the funding. But even if they did, it’s not easy for the adult education community to reverse these kinds of decisions on its own.
I wonder if an advocacy effort by members of the entire community, on the other hand, who refuse to pit one sector of educational services against the other, and who demand that all educational services be preserved, might be more effective. (Again, no idea if this was tried here.) Such a group could also argue, if cuts are necessary, that they be more equally distributed. Waloff suggests that the Adult and Career Education Program staff were sort of resigned to the proposition that K-12 education is a greater funding priority, but, really, why is that the case? Is everything in the K-12 budget really more of a priority than 90% of the adult education budget? And doesn’t adult education have any impact on the success of the kids in K-12? (Many of the students in the adult education system there have children in the K-12 school system.) If the the adult education program was positioned as part of a seamless set of equally valuable services essential to the health of the community, where each of the services are interdependent on each other, maybe it would not be so easy for the school board to cut 90% of its budget.
UPDATE, 3/18/12: The San Diego News-Tribune published a guest opinion piece by Dom Gagliardi, principal of the Escondido Adult School, that reiterates this point. Writing about the budget mechanism implemented in California in 2009 that allows districts to divert funds from adult education to support its K-12 programs, Gagliardi writes, “When forced to prioritize instructional services for youth or adults, the choice is obvious and painful.” (my emphasis)
2. When GED services are pitted against other adult education services (ESL, Adult Basic Education — especially ABE for those with very limited literacy), GED tends to win.
For now, [Adult and Career Education Program Administrator Chris] Nelson is trying to make the best of the resources the adult education program has. “We”re really trying to focus in on the students who are with us,” he said. “We’re making sure they get the instruction that they need and that they are passing the GED. That’s the most important thing (my emphasis). Then we help them transition to the next step.”
Adult and Career Education staffers are in fact expanding the GED program (my emphasis), which administrators have found to be almost as useful as a high school diploma, as well as more cost effective and simpler for adults to go through than the previous adult high school program. McClymonds High School remains the only certified GED testing site in Oakland, but the program will soon be offering GED classes at the OUSD building in East Lake as well as at sites in Fruitvale and East Oakland.
3. When institutional adult education is cut, there is tremendous pressure on community-based nonprofits to take on the students that the institutional services have dropped.
I’m using the word institutional here to describe adult education programs based in school systems or community colleges. When funding is cut to these programs, community-based nonprofit orgnaizations are often called upon to expand their services. As Waloff writes:
In a city with a large immigrant and refugee population, many people who once benefited from the district’s ESL program now must go elsewhere for help. To fill in the gaps, non-profit organizations throughout the city have been increasing and even creating programming for English language learners.
So what it sounds like is happening here is that the institutional system is for the most part focusing on the GED students, leaving everyone else to be taken care of by the nonprofit CBO sector.
Unfortunately, expanding nonprofit CBO services coming off a recession isn’t likely to be easy. I wish the article had gone into a little more detail on the financial pressures that this is placing on the CBOs in the area. Bear in mind that some of these CBO’s may not qualify for (or have difficulty competing for) the other state and federal funding streams that support adult education (I’ve found this varies a lot from state to state).
This in turn increases the pressure on those students who are being cut loose from institutional programs, who may have to choose between attending clases in less than optimal conditions, or simply give up and decide to forgo classes due to tranportation issues or other barriers.
Some students… attend classes offered at non-profits like the English Center or Lao Family Community Development, a social services organization for immigrants and refugees currently offers two ESL classes of 40 students each, but only has two teachers.
“It’s better than nothing,” said Markham, who directed some parents to Lao Family Community Development’s program after the OUSD cut its adult classes, but she worries that it is very difficult to learn a new language with such a high student-teacher ratio.
And ultimately, Nelson pointed out, some people can’t make it to any of these other sites for financial reasons or because of a lack of transportation. “I believe that many of them are just not attending, because they have nowhere to go,” Nelson said.
Budget cuts create these pressure points. I’m interested to learn more about advocacy efforts that try to avoid pitting education advocates — even subsets of adult education advocates — into increasingly isolated camps.