What Can We Learn from California’s Adult Education Funding Crisis?

While the President’s proposed FY 2013 budget will continue to be the focus of attention in Washington this week, the most urgent adult education funding battles over the next year are more likely to occur at the state and district level, I think—most notably. Today, for example, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board has scheduled a vote on a proposal to cut most of the $200 million in state money earmarked for adult education in the district.

Is the adult education funding crisis in California unique, or could it happen elsewhere? State funding for adult education has, in fact, been cut in other states in recent years—but California appears to be the most dramatic example, due in large part to a provision in the California Budget Act (CBA) that allows school districts in the state to shift dollars away from adult education to make up for shortfalls in district budgets.

But while the CBA (and the state’s overall position as an economic basket case) makes California unique in some ways, the situation also provides us with a case study in how adult education funding can become vulnerable. The article I cited yesterday in the Contra Costa Times provides a summary of the factors that contributed to the crisis in Los Angeles:

For the last five years, the cash-strapped state government has provided the district with just part of the money it is supposed to receive and has extended IOUs for the rest. This year, for instance, Los Angeles Unified got just $3,338 of the $6,506 it had been promised to educate each student, according to district officials.

Los Angeles Unified, meanwhile, must fulfill its labor contracts — roughly 90 percent of its costs are personnel-related — while coping with the expiration of state and federal grants and stimulus money. Lower birthrates and the exodus to charter schools has reduced district enrollment, resulting in less state funding and making it more difficult to serve the remaining students.

Here then, are some of the conditions to be on the lookout for in your state or district that may lead to adult education funding cut proposals:

  • Lower State Tax Revenue. (Or, at least, lower than expected tax revenue.)
  • Expiration of Federal Stimulus Funding. This is happening everywhere, so go ahead and check this one off on your list.
  • Locked-in Contractual Obligations. Labor contracts, mostly, although there could be other long-term contracts that districts can’t get out of or re-negotiate. (Note that in the story above, 90% of LAUSD costs are labor related.)
  • Reduced Enrollment Due to Lower Birthrates or Population Shifts.
  • Reduced Enrollment Due to Charter School Expansion.

There could be other factors, of course—and they are going to vary depending on how state adult education funding is disbursed (in some areas, for example, school districts are not involved in adult education at all, so school district formula funding based on enrollment is not going to be an issue). The point is, while I realize that California is in some ways a unique situation, I still think it’s useful for adult education advocates to be thinking about the factors that have led to adult education cuts here and in other states and districts across the country, and to be on the lookout for them in your state or district.