History of TANF Block Grants Illustrates Why WIA Block Grants Pose a Threat to Adult Education Funding

Yesterday I gave a short talk on federal adult education policy issues at the WATESOL Fall Convention in Maryland, as part of a larger panel discussion on advocacy.

One of the policy trends I mentioned was the Republican inclination toward reducing the number of federal programs and consolidating them into state block grants, thus providing states with more decision-making power in how those federal funds are used. (They also tend to want to reduce federal spending to begin with, of course, at least for non-defense programs.) Their argument is that state officials are in a better position to decide how federal funding can best meet the particular needs of their state.

I want to describe in detail why I think federal program consolidation is a threat to federal funding for adult education.

My specific point of concern is with House Republicans’ Workforce Investment Act (WIA)  reauthorization bill, H.R. 4297 (The Workforce Investment Improvement Act of 2012), which was passed by the House Education and the Workforce Committee in June, (but has yet to be voted on by the full House, and probably won’t be). This bill would consolidate all of the different WIA job-training programs and convert them into a block grant program for states. It’s worth noting that the 2012 Republican platform also proposes consolidation of federal workforce programs into state block grants “so that training can be coordinated with local schools and employers.”

Title II of WIA—which specifically supports programs focused on helping people improve their literacy skills—is not subject to this consolidation provision. However, H.R. 4297 would give states the option to further consolidate their federal adult education funds—and a bunch of other non-WIA training funds—into a Workforce Investment Fund that would be also created under this bill. This option can be thought of as the turbo version of consolidation. If states chose to do this, they would have a great deal of flexibility on how to use the dollars they assign to the WIF. Most significantly, from an adult education perspective, once Title II money is assigned to the WIF, it would no longer have to be used to serve the specific purposes of Title II.

And the evidence seems to be pretty strong that this is exactly what would happen if this bill (or something like it) should ever become law.

The history of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grants is instructive. As noted in a recent report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), in the years since the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program was converted into a block grant program, states have often used the flexibility of TANF block grants to redirect TANF funds to plug holes in state budgets or free up funds for purposes unrelated to TANF’s stated purposes.

We also know that money tends to flow away from adult education when public officials have the flexibility to re-purpose adult education dollars. The most dramatic example is in California, where in 2009 the legislature passed a bill that gave individual school districts the flexibility to take money from one funding category and move it into another. In the years since the passage of this bill, hundreds of school districts have used funding originally intended for adult education to fill gaps in their K-12 budget. This has reduced overall state adult education funding in California by nearly half, from $754 million to $400 million. (I argued last year that the CBA is probably the worst piece of legislation for adult education in the entire U.S. over the last several years.)

I’ll concede that in some states, it’s possible that enlightened leadership might actually use the flexibility under the Republican approach to increase services for adult education—and theoretically states could even target more money towards individuals not well-served under the current system. (CPBB notes, for example, that in the case of TANF, some funds were used for child care and welfare-to-work programs— and other reasonable welfare reform efforts—particularly in TANF’s early years.) But I think the evidence above suggests that the opposite is more likely over time: that states would tend to use the flexibility of block grants to steer WIA money away from it’s intended purposes, and that this would lead to budget gaps in job training programs when demand is high. State officials would then be tempted to move adult education funds over to job training programs to shore up those gaps, in the same way that school officials in California diverted adult education money to shore up their K-12 budget gaps.

In it’s report on TANF, CPBB warns that “block grants can lead to less accountability, lessened federal direction and oversight, and significant amounts of federal funds being spent in ways that Congress did not envision or intend.” Given what we know, diminished federal oversight over adult education funding will likely result in a substantial reduction in that funding across the country.

WIA reauthorization my be on hold for now, but I expect consolidation to be part of the WIA debate in the next Congress.