Economic Argument for Adult Education Still Has Some Life in Maryland

On Wednesday night, during his annual State of the County address, Montgomery Maryland County Executive Leggett announced something that sort of sounded like a big push to expand adult English literacy services in Montgomery County, which he called “English Language on Demand.” It’s not clear what exactly this initiative will include—in particular, whether there will be significant new funding involved. (One thing for sure, there is excellent umbrella organization—Montgomery Coalition for Adult English Literacy—that does a tremendous job supporting local adult English literacy programs in Montgomery County. They would surely do great things with more funding should it become available.)

But I wanted to highlight a statistic that he cited during this announcement, because it’s a rare example where an old report—you know, those reports that usually just gather dust on a shelf somewhere—actually seems to have resurrected itself (at least one small piece of it). And the fact that the piece in question is an economic return-on-investment argument is encouraging.

The report I’m thinking of is Stepping Up to the Future, a 2005 report by a panel put together by the Maryland Schools Superintendent to make recommendations on improving adult education throughout the state. Leggett cited a nugget of economic data that I’ve only seen in that report—I’ve never been able to get a hold of the original source of the data. Specifically, when he said during the speech that “every dollar we invest in adult English language training… brings us three dollars in higher productivity,” that appears to be derived from an analysis, commissioned by the panel, of adult education and wage data by a group called ORC Macro. They found, among other things, that “every dollar invested in adult education [in Maryland] yields a return of $3.15.” That’s not exactly what Leggett said—he was talking specifically about English language training, and not in the whole state but just in the county—but I’ll bet that’s where that statistic  comes from. And if it’s sort of a sloppy appropriation of it (assuming I’m right), it doesn’t matter. The important thing here is the suggestion that policymakers in Maryland accept the notion that investing in adult education has positive economic returns.

Anyway, it’s always great to hear support for adult education in one of these annual speeches, and credit is due to Leggett for proposing it. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

Here are Leggett’s comments on his “English on Demand” proposal in full:

My second initiative is English Language on Demand. In Montgomery, our residents speak many different languages – and that’s good. But here, and increasingly around the world, mastering English is the ticket to opportunity and success. When you speak English, you not only learn another language, you also improve your chances of getting a good job – and then getting a better one. It is the ticket to growing your business and to building a better future for your family — which increases the County’s overall tax base.

I recommend as a goal that every adult in this County who wants to learn English – no matter where they come from – has the opportunity to do so. For every dollar we invest in adult English language training, it brings us three dollars in higher productivity. So, let’s invest the necessary resources to help shorten and, in time, eliminate the long waiting lists for individuals seeking the opportunity to learn English. And, we should also encourage County residents to become “teaching volunteers” in our County English language learning network.