Rebranding Family Literacy

Two articles in the National Journal last week provide further hope that the rebranding/refashioning of family literacy, a once powerful and influential approach to adult education that fell out of fashion for some reason over the last decade or so, is gaining traction.

The first piece, by Fawn Johnson, examines the “two-generation” approach to literacy practiced by the Briya Public Charter School here in Washington, D.C., a program that provides a preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds while their parents are offered English-language instruction, basic computer skills, and parenting classes—as well as skills that will help them nurture their child’s developing literacy skills. What’s interesting, though not mentioned specifically in the piece, is that Briya’s roots are as a federally funded Even Start program, a federal initiative that not so long ago provided upwards of 150,000 families (that’s from memory—I can’t locate the exact figures at the moment) with such services in programs across the country. This “two-gen” approach certainly had fallen out of favor among federal policymakers by the end of the last decade, as Even Start funding was cut several times by Congress, continually proposed for elimination by President Obama in his budgets, and finally eliminated for good in 2012.

Thankfully, Mary’s Center, which started the program, developed strategies that made their program less dependent on federal funds, beginning with going after charter school funding back in 2006 and forming the Even Start/ESF Public Charter School, which later evolved into Briya. While it’s good news that Briya survived and even grew despite the cut, many (most?) Even Start programs have shut their doors. If the family-focused approach is indeed back in fashion, it’s important to understand that we let a lot of other programs like Briya wither and die over the last several years. Maybe its time to work together to revive federal support for such initiatives.

The second article, by Alana Semuels of The Atlantic, examines the two-generation model championed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, focusing on a program in Mechanicsville, Georgia where they are piloting this approach. Here again, as Semuels’ points out, the general concept is not new (the paper cited twice in the article is actually from 1995), and this model appears to focus less on education services for the parents as much on other services and assistance. But the basic idea appears similar to the Briya approach.

The term “family literacy” started to go out of fashion around the same time that Even Start was under attack (the National Center for Family Literacy actually changed their name to the National Center for Families Learning a few years ago). Sadly, the phrases “family literacy” and “Even Start” don’t appear once in either article. But I doubt there are many substantial differences between the approach they are taking at Briya today and the approach they took when it was an Even Start program.

Whatever it’s called, and however much of the approach is actually “new,” the embrace (or re-embrace)  of family-focused, dual adult/child literacy approaches by policy and media influencers is long overdue. It’s especially heartening to read a quote like this one from Anne Mosle, the executive director of Ascend, at the Aspen Institute, in the Johnson piece: “For all the strides we’ve made in investing in early education, we can’t put all of the weight on the back of the child.”

If you scroll back through this blog you’ll find no shortage of posts lamenting what appeared to me to be a frustrating lack of understanding—most notably, in the pre-K movement of recent years—of the critical role of parents in childhood literacy development (I even wrote an op-ed about it, many, many years ago), and this renewed interest in linking the two again may present some interesting new opportunities to advance the adult education cause in the coming years. (Although there is still a lot of work to do to connect the dots—neither article conveys any sense that an adult education system actually exists, let alone the role it has played and continues to play in these efforts.)

Additional Notes on the FY 2015 Spending Bill

Although not without considerable last-minute drama, Congress did manage to pass a spending bill before leaving town this week. Dubbed the “Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015,” the legislation will fund most of the government though the remainder of the fiscal year ending September 30th, 2015. (The exception: The Department of Homeland Security, which was funded only through February, which provides Republicans in the next Congress with some leverage to block President Obama’s executive order on immigration.)

There was never any serious doubt that the small adult education increase was in any jeopardy during the last-minute negotiations, and despite the drama, it would have been hugely surprising if the bill itself failed to pass before Congress adjourned.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Act also includes a partial reinstatement of Pell Grant and other federal student aid eligibility for “ability-to-benefit” (ATB) students who lack a high school diploma.

A couple of additional notes on the legislation now that the has been enacted:

First, I’ve updated my earlier table of recent actual and proposed federal funding amounts for adult education under WIA and its successor, WIOA.

Adult Education Recent Federal Funding - Updated

As you can see above, while any increase in federal funding can be characterized as something of a win right now, the $5 million increase in state grants under WIOA for adult education is far short of where funding for this line item was in FY 2012. A better measure of our success in advocating for more federal funding in recent years, in my opinion, is to look at how we stacked up against other programs—particularly education programs—over the last two years of sequester relief under Ryan -Murray, when there was an opportunity to restore funds lost to the sequester. Some programs have received nearly a full restoration, some have fared worse. I don’t have time to do that analysis myself. But that’s where I suggest looking in order to begin to assess the field’s advocacy efforts during the “sequester era.”

A couple of notes about ATB (and thanks to my colleagues who follow Pell closely for their insights): The reinstatement of ATB eligibility goes into effect immediately. In order to qualify, students have to be enrolled in career pathway programs and prove their ability to benefit from higher education, either by passing an exam or successfully completing six credit hours.

I also dug up the language in the bill that defines an “eligible career pathways program” (it’s on page 376-377). To be considered such a program for purposes of ATB eligibility, it must be a program that:

(A) concurrently enrolls participants in connected adult education and eligible postsecondary programs;

(B) provides counseling and supportive services to identify and attain academic and career goals;

(C) provides structured course sequences that—
(i) are articulated and contextualized; and
(ii) allow students to advance to higher levels of education and employment;

(D) provides opportunities for acceleration to attain recognized postsecondary credentials, including degrees, industry relevant certifications, and certificates of completion of apprenticeship programs;

(E) is organized to meet the needs of adults;

(F) is aligned with the education and skill needs of the regional economy; and

(G) has been developed and implemented in collaboration with partners in business, workforce development, and economic development.

I’m still not entirely sure how students and financial aid folks go about establishing that a program qualifies under those rules, however. It seems to me that some of these elements are open to debate. (How does one demonstrate definitively that a program is “aligned with the education and skill needs of the regional economy,” for example?) But financial aid is not an area of expertise for me. If anyone has a better understanding of this, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Also, note that the size of the Pell grant that ATB students will be eligible for varies based on their enrollment date. Those who enroll in a program before July 1st, 2015, will be eligible for the maximum Pell Grant award (which is currently estimated to be going up to $5,830), while those enrolling after that date will be limited to only the maximum discretionary Pell Grant award of $4,860.

One last item that is important to many adult education students and programs: the Act also extended authority and funding for the TANF block grant through September 30th, 2015. TANF has been due for reauthorization since 2010, by the way, and is one of those non-WIOA piece of legislation I advise adult education advocates to follow and weigh in on in the months ahead.

What’s in the FY 2015 Federal Spending Bill for Adult Education

Members of the House and Senate reached an agreement late yesterday on a nearly $1.1 trillion FY 2015 spending bill that will fund most of the federal government through September 30, 2015. The one exception: funding for the Department of Homeland Security is funded only through February. This is supposedly going to give Republicans some leverage in the next Congress to block President Obama’s recent executive order on immigration.

Here is how adult education made out:

Total amount for WIOA Title II adult education is $582,667,000. State grants were funded at $568,955,000. (This is the money that is sub granted to programs for direct services.) The FY 2014 figure for state grants  was $563,955,000, thus this is a $5 million increase. National Leadership funding (basically funding that goes to the U.S. Department of Education to manage the WIOA Title II program and provide assistance, research etc.) was level-funded at $13,712,000 (but note that this line item did get a slight bump up in FY 2014).

There is also some report language on the National Leadership funding:
Career Pathways Report Language

No one is going to complain about an increase—whatever the amount—and in the current fiscal environment, even a relatively small $5 million increase should arguably be viewed as a victory. But as far as I can tell, nearly every adult education or WIOA advocacy group that spoke out about the FY 2015 budget advocated for a larger increase, and with ample justification. A $30 million increase was needed to bring state grant funding back to the pre-sequestration level of $595 million. This was what the House Democrats’ proposed Labor-HHS-Education bill included. The National Coalition for LIteracy advocated for the House Democrats’ proposal, noting that it would not only have restored state adult education grants to the pre-sequester level, it would have also maintained the slight bump up in national leadership programs that was included in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act. For those interested, I have a post here that summarizes the different proposals for adult education funding under WIOA that were released over the course of the last year.

For what it’s worth, the total amount for WIOA Title II adult education contained in this bill—$582,667,000—is actually above the funding level authorized under WIOA for FY 2015, which simply carried over the FY 2014 funding level of $577,667,000. But as noted by myself and others, the WIOA authorized amounts are not even close to what is needed to meet the need for adult education in this country.

The new spending bill also includes a provision “reinstating” ability-to-benefit (ATB) financial aid eligibility for students without high school diplomas enrolled in career pathway programs at community colleges. Note that this is in fact a partial reinstatement of ATB, since the older provision didn’t restrict eligibility to those enrolled in career pathway programs. Regardless of whether you think such a restriction is a good or bad idea, I think it’s important to remember that this is not a full restoration of ATB.

The House and Senate are expected to try to quickly pass the bill this week.

Here is the source for all the FY 2015 information above.

Summary of Fiscal Year 2015 Funding Proposals for Adult Education

The National Coalition for Literacy (NCL) recently sent a sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to approve an FY 2015 omnibus appropriations bill before the end of the calendar year, including an increase in funding for adult education to at least the $609 million level proposed in the Labor-HHS-Education bill released by Representative Rosa DeLauro in September. (Full disclosure: I am the current President of NCL.)

While working with NCL members to put together our recommendation, I needed to pull together all the recent proposals for federal adult education funding for FY 2015, including the President’s original budget request, the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee Reported Bill, the House Democrats’ Labor-HHS-Education bill, as well as the figures authorized by the new WIOA legislation. Rather than just file that away, I thought I would share it here, in case it might be useful to others.

Adult Education Recent Federal Funding

Note that the House Democrats’ proposal is probably the high-water mark for potential adult education funding in FY 2015. It’s also worth noting that there is increasing concern that an omnibus bill will be blocked by Tea Party Republicans upset with President Obama’s imminent executive action on immigration. It’s really unclear to me what is going to happen with the FY 2015 federal budget. If I had to guess, I’d put my money on a short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) that punts the decision into January and the newly elected Congress.