California Continues Disinvestment in Adult Literacy

As expected, California’s latest revenue expectations were short of what was needed to prevent automatic state spending cuts to to libraries, universities and schools for 2012, including $15 million in library funding.

Last Saturday, the Napa Valley Register reported that The Literacy Center of Napa City-County Library would be losing all of its state funding (about about $48,000). While this will not result in the closing of the center, it does represent a total withdrawal of state support for library-based community adult education in the county.

The Literacy Center coordinator Lisa Smartt, who has worked in literacy for 30 years, said she and her colleagues have watched in disbelief as funding for their special literacy programs has continued to shrink.

“We’ve been shaking our heads,” Smartt said. “We never thought we would see this.”

The State Library has been the main source of funding for the library’s Literacy Center since 1985. The bulk of the funding paid for the workbooks and other materials used by the center.

The Literacy Center, located inside the Napa City-County Library, offers free one-on-one tutoring for adult learners who need help with their basic reading, English as a second language, GED preparation or math skills. These learners include native speakers, students learning English as a second language, the learning-disabled and others who “just fell through the cracks,” Smartt said.

“In these difficult economic times, more people have been using the Literacy Center to improve their job skills,” Kreimeier said, adding that the center receives numerous referrals from Workforce Napa.

For the Literacy Center to remain open, Smartt will have to find more creative ways to secure funding.

Fundraising is a challenge for the Literacy Center because, as a government agency, it can’t compete with Napa’s nonprofits for local grants. This limits the center to seeking support from private donors as well as state and federal grant programs — which often have a wide pool of applicants.

To maintain a robust program, the Literacy Center requires about $60,000 per year. This does not include the salaries of its three staff members, which are supported by the county, Smartt said. Currently, the center is operating on less than $30,000 per year.

Smartt is trying to look at the positive side of the budget cuts. The “blessing” in all of this, she said, is “we get to reinvent ourselves.”

The Literacy Center will be shifting its focus to one-on-one literacy services at the library — specifically GED preparation and employability tutoring. Almost all of the general outreach programs will be eliminated, including Families for Literacy, Homework Assistance, and the jails program where literacy tutors worked one-on-one with inmates.

I appreciate the positive thinking that one must maintain when faced with the elimination of a major funding source. But it’s also clear from the last paragraph that cutting services—including family literacy services and services to inmates—is part of that reinvention.

According to the paper, Smartt believes that “any country that wants to remain competitive should make literacy a top priority.” The question is whether policymakers in California and elsewhere actually believe this—and if not, why not?