Steal This Speech

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was at the South Baltimore Learning Center yesterday for a press event to kick off Adult Education and Family Literacy (AEFL) Week in Maryland. As is my usual habit, I wrote a short speech and then mainly just spoke ad hoc when it came time for me to actually talk. The speakers in front of me were all terrific and covered a lot of what I wanted to say—and better than I would have.

Nonetheless, I thought I’d go ahead and post my written speech in case it’s of interest to anyone. If you think any of the points here are useful, feel free to use or adapt.

I just want to talk to you a little bit about why this week is important and why speaking out about your work—whether you are staff, a volunteer, or a student—is so important.

Of course, as you’ve heard today, there is a lot of good news in adult education. But part of my sad duty this morning is to report to you that, in general, public support for programs like this one is not as strong as it was just a few years ago, and is still on a downward trend:

  • Federal funding for adult literacy and adult education is lower in terms of real dollars than it’s been in over a decade. For years we used to say that federal funding for adult education covered just 3% of the need. Now it’s 2%.
  • State funding also took a significant hit during the Great Recession. Historically, state and local funding for adult education was significantly higher than the federal share, now it’s just a little more than half. It’s great that there was an increase in the adult education budget here in Maryland this year, but in the aggregate, across the country, state investment is below pre-recession levels.
  • Meanwhile, the most significant source of federal funding, the Workforce Investment Act, is a decade overdue for reauthorization.

It’s not just adult education—many of you are probably aware that there have been significant cuts to what’s known as the discretionary side of the federal budget over the last several years. Federal funding for education, in particular, has taken a substantial hit. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon, at least in terms of the traditional source of federal funding for adult education . It’s really hard to imagine, in the current political environment, that any of us are going to be seeing substantial increases to the budget for WIA, for example. More likely our advocacy work will be focused on protecting the funding we have from further cuts.

Nonetheless, in my view it remains critically important to stay connected with what’s going on with federal legislation, and to remain ready to engage federal policymakers when opportunities arise, even in this crazy environment. Because they do arise.

I’ll give you an example from this past year: immigration reform. Although the chances for comprehensive immigration reform seem to be dimming, the bill passed by the Senate early last summer contained significant resources to implement an immigrant integration strategy, including additional money for adult English instruction. I actually worked on a proposal last spring with the National Skills Coalition that would go even further, providing hundreds of millions of additional dollars for English language instruction without increasing the cost of the bill.

Again, while prospects for comprehensive immigration reform are not looking so hot right now, last March it seemed quite possible that it might actually happen. It was important that adult education was at the table during this process. We did in fact have an influence in shaping that legislation.

So, again, it’s very important not to entirely give up on the federal side. Opportunities do arise, and sometimes it’s difficult to predict when they will occur.

My second point is related to the first, and that is, in order to seize on such opportunities when they occur, we have to be able to demonstrate to policymakers that there is a sizable constituency for these services and that our students are successful.

With limited resources available, it probably makes sense to focus most of your outreach and advocacy efforts right here in Baltimore, and statewide. The opportunities to influence public policy on this issue are probably greater right now at the local and state level than at the federal level. But even if your focus is local,  you are actually helping us strengthen our hand up on the Hill and with the administration—by documenting those success stories and supporting student leadership—so we’ll be ready when the opportunities in Washington do arise.

It’s important to remember adult education is actually one of the great success stories of our education systems. Programs like this one and other around the country get results that should be the envy by K-12 and higher education. And I know that many of you students have overcome significant obstacles in order achieve that success. We need you to tell your story. With each success story that finds its way to the Hill, we build our influence and strength with policymakers.

We’ve heard the return on investment argument and that’s good. There is clearly a big potential return on a greater public investment in adult education. But remember that every group that receives funding from the federal government is making a return on investment argument. Legislative staff probably hear this argument from constituents about one program or another every day. So simply making the theoretical return on investment argument is probably not going to be enough. I think real change is only going to happen when we can also demonstrate, in very large numbers, that the people in adult education are, in fact, successful. Lawmakers are most interested in investing in actual success, not in theoretical returns.

That to me is one of the reasons why it’s so important that we continue to ask Congress to recognize Adult and Family Literacy week, and to continue to do things like grow the House adult literacy caucus, and continue to build relationships with staff who work on this issue. They need to hear from you—and about you—in greater numbers than ever before.