GED Jitters – The Director’s Cut

I’m briefly quoted in this article on the GED, and so I thought I’d share a few more thoughts as to why I think it’s reasonable to be concerned that the revision to the test this time around is different from past revisions.

The first point, which is in the article, is that this time the switch was made under a significantly weaker adult education system, at least in terms of funding. While everyone in adult education, from the state directors to the programs directors, have been doing their usual heroic work and are adjusting to the new test(s), the fact is that federal funding for adult education has dropped by 25% since 2002. Enrollment numbers in federally funded adult education programs have been dropping accordingly over that time.

Secondly, while it may turn out that the situation will improve over the next year or two—as has been the case after previous revisions—the disruption this time has been significantly more complicated than in the past. First, there was a significant cost increase, and second, the GED test itself has become computer only. And two new tests came onto the market in addition to the GED. We actually have no precedent for changes of this magnitude or complexity.

Thirdly, while everyone is still in the process of adjusting to these changes, the adult education system itself is embarking on significant overhaul this year, as WIOA implementation gets underway. This will put further strain on the limited resources available to the field, particularly in professional development.

Most importantly—and I wish this particular point had made it into the article—while I agree with others that there is no need to panic, I don’t think it’s good enough to cross our fingers and hope for the best. This time we should be carefully studying the situation as it continues to unfold, and develop strategies to avoid such disruptions in the future. The test will be revised again in another decade or so. I continue to be flummoxed as to why huge drop-offs in test-takers and passers should ever be the norm. Let’s figure out how to make this not happen anymore.

First Look: President’s Proposed FY 2016 Budget

(Updated Below)

I don’t know when or if I’ll have the time to give the President’s Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Proposal a through read, let alone any kind of thorough evaluation. But here is my quick-take look at what it proposes for adult education.

The most important source of federal funds for adult education programs, by far, is the Adult Basic and Literacy Education State Grant program under Title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which was level funded at $569 million. This is the money that states use to provide grants to local adult education programs. If you are a program that gets part of your funding through WIOA, this is the pot where that money comes from. On the other hand, the President once again proposes an increase for something called Adult Education National Leadership Activities. This year, he calls for a $6 million dollar increase  to this line item ($13.7 million to $19.7 million) in order to “support States in their efforts to improve adult education standards and assessments and to carry out data collection activities during the first year of full implementation of the reauthorized Adult Education programs.” This represents about a 44% increase over the FY 2015 spending for this line item. It also represents a substantial increase over the amount that is authorized by WIOA, which caps National Leadership Activities at $15 million.

Congress rarely bites on any suggestion to increase National Leadership Activities funding. Interestingly—and frustratingly—the administration kept the combined total of state grants and National Leadership Activities funding under the total combined amount authorized by WIOA for FY 2016. In other words, even though they went over the authorized limit for National Leadership Activities funding, they come in $33.6 million below AEFLA’s authorized level of $622.3 million for these two line items combined. So they could have increased the state grant line item without going over the total authorized amount for adult education under WIOA. Interestingly, it appears the administration was careful to keep the combined total of state grants and National Leadership Activities funding in line with the total amount authorized by WIOA (in other words, even though they went over the authorized limit for National Leadership Activities funding, they “balanced” this by not increasing the state grant line item). Perhaps Congress will be more inclined to approve the President’s proposal, since on balance it does match is less than WIOA’s total authorized level. Or maybe this will signal to them that adult education is not a priority.

But a big challenge with proposals like this is that the state grant program has a larger and broader constituency than National Leadership Activities. National Leadership funds tend to stay at the U.S. Department of Education—or, as is often the case, with contractors they employ. As a general rule, Congress is more inclined to protect or support increases to federal funding that goes out to the states and districts they represent than funding that appears to enlarge the budgets of federal agencies, especially if they are unclear on what the benefit of this funding will have for their constituents back home.

One other point: adult eduction policy folks are sometimes so focused on WIOA (or it’s predecessor, the Workforce Investment Act) that they tend to ignore or downplay other federal programs that are sources of funds for adult education programs, especially community based programs (CBOs). The Community Development Block Grant program, educational research funding, and funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) are just a few examples. We also sometimes forget to thoroughly analyze the potential for new programs proposed by the President to be a source of funding. If I have time maybe I’ll try to take a closer look at some of these programs in a future post—but in the meantime, don’t be shy about using the comments section to flag any funding issues or new programs that the adult education community should be paying attention to.

Congress never adopts a president’s budget in its entirely. Sometimes, as has been the case recently, it largely ignores it. This year it’s going to be particularly challenging for the administration to get any increases passed. Most of the administration’s new program proposals or proposed increases to existing programs are the product of the fact that they didn’t hold themselves bound to the expected cap on FY 2016 required by sequestration, which kicks in again for FY 2016 unless Congress and the President come up with another deal to get rid of it. That doesn’t mean, in my opinion, that the document is pointless. As a policy document, it’s a useful catalog of the President’s priorities,* and it can give advocates for certain programs or initiatives something to rally behind. It remains to be seen whether adult education advocates will get behind a proposal to flatline funding for adult education programs in FY 2016, after a modest increase last year that was still well short of recapturing funding lost due to sequestration.

*A great example is the President’s free community college proposal. While the funding for this is unlikely to be approved by Congress in 2016, the idea has taken hold and will likely be part of the education/workforce policy discussion for some time.

UPDATE 2/9/15: As is often the case with a “first impression” post that I write late at night, I made a bit of a goof, which I corrected above. I misremembered the authorized amount for adult education in FY 2016 under WIOA, and was too tired to remember to double-check. The mistake doesn’t take anything away from the most important and main point of my post—which was that the President is proposing to level-fund adult education state grants—but an ancillary point I made, which is that it appeared that the administration might have been trying to stick to the overall authorization level by offsetting the increase to National Leadership funding by flat-funding the state grants, was wrong.

But not wrong in a good way! It means the President’s proposal is actually worse than I thought, because in fact they did not even try to meet the authorized level for adult education under the WIOA legislation that the President himself signed less than six months ago. They could have provided the increase for National Leadership and increased the state grants by another $33.6 million without going over the authorized level. This is extremely troubling. Significant increases were proposed for many other education programs: Title I, Head Start, TRIO, CTE, and others. Has the administration lost confidence in the adult education program? What does this signal to Congress?

One silver lining: going under the authorized amount provides adult education supporters a clear path for advocacy. As we discussed in a post back when WIOA was introduced, having authorized levels can be a handy tool, because it can be cited as evidence of Congress’s judgement as to the minimum funding a program needs. Putting aside that Congress’s authorized levels for adult education in WIOA were way too low to begin with, at least there is a figure ($622.3 million) that advocates can point to as justification to appropriators as to why adult education needs more funding in FY 2016 than the President has proposed.

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.