Why the THUD Appropriations Bill Matters for Adult Education

Last week, I mentioned the big gap between the House and Senate Labor-HHS appropriations bills—the congressional spending bills that include, among other things, funding for Title II of the Workforce Investment Act, the largest source of federal funding for adult literacy and adult and family education programs. As I noted in an update to that post, the House Labor, Health and Human Services Subcommittee postponed (perhaps forever) the markup of their bill last week, and so we never got a chance to see officially what kind of cuts they were proposing in order to stay under the budget cap they were assigned.

This week the news is all about another appropriations bill, the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations bill, which did make it out of committee, but was pulled from floor consideration yesterday. Today, a Senate version of the bill failed to clear a filibuster.

For adult education advocates, the THUD bill is also worth paying attention to. As I often point out, there are several other important sources of federal funding for adult education besides WIA, and the THUD bill includes funding for one of them—the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program.

CDBG funds are essentially a form of federal aid to cities. It is consequently very popular among mayors and many members of Congress representing urban areas. Managed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), CDBG funding “provides communities with resources to address a wide range of unique community development needs”—and that can include education and training programs.

I learned when I was working at ProLiteracy that CDBG funds support quite a few urban community-based adult education programs (here’s one example), although it’s hard to figure out exactly how much CDBG money ultimately ends up in the hands of adult education programs because the funding is typically subgranted to programs via another local government entity, and I don’t know of a source that compiles all of the CBOs and other entities that receive subgrants that are funded via CDBG dollars.

But it’s a sure bet that some adult education programs have already taken a hit due to the cuts to CDBG funding that have already occurred due to sequestration (the program is now down to $3 billion). If the additional cuts proposed for FY 2014 in the House bill took effect, the hit on adult education programs that receive CDBG funds would likely be severe: according to Brad Plummer of the Washington Post, the House THUD bill was going to cut the program all the way down to $1.6 billion.

Interestingly, according to Plummer, “this was the cut that doomed the bill, repelling Democrats and some moderate Republicans.”

The THUD debacle thus serves as a reminder to adult education advocates that: (a) there is a very popular federal program outside of WIA that funds a substantial number of community-based adult education programs; and (b) the funding for that program has been cut substantially over the last several years (Plummer notes that states have lost $2.5 billion in CDBG funding since 2010), and remains in a volatile state.

What’s in the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Bill for Adult Education?

For those who follow federal adult education policy, there are a few items of interest in the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Committee’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 Appropriations bill, which was approved by the full Appropriations Committee last week.

Adult Education Basically Level-Funded

The Senate calculated their FY 2014 spending totals under the assumption that the budget sequester for FY 2013 and beyond will be lifted. With that in mind, the Committee recommended $608,105,000 for Adult Education programs—essentially level funding as compared with FY 2013. It’s actually a little less, and the reason is a little complicated: The Continuing Resolution (CR) that extended the federal budget at FY 2013 levels (after Congress was unable to pass a budget) included an across-the-board budget cut of 0.2%. So while the Senate ignored the more substantial sequester cut, it used the budget less .2% as their baseline for FY 2014. In other words, the FY 2014 appropriation would be the same as FY 2013’s, with the .2% cut, but without the sequester cut.

Of that amount, $593,803,000 would be set aside for Adult Education State Grants, with $74,559,000 set aside to “help States or localities affected significantly by immigration and large limited-English populations to implement programs that help immigrants acquire English literacy skills, gain knowledge about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and develop skills that will enable them to navigate key institutions of American life.”

The rest of the funds ($14,302,000) would be dedicated to national leadership activities, and it includes a bump up of $3,000,000 “to support new awards for prisoner reentry education models that build on the success of the Promoting Reentry Success through Continuity of Education Opportunities [PRSCEO] competition.” PRSCEO, surely a front-runner for the 2013 Worst Acronym Award, was funded last year with money that was  transferred from the Department of Justice under an interagency agreement.

New “Dual Enrollment” Program

The Committee would also allocate funds for a new $22 million dual enrollment grant initiative “that supports CTE career pathways and targets local workforce needs.” Adult education providers would be eligible to serve as a partner on these, and adult education students would be eligible participants, although funding could not be used to supplant other federal, state, or local public funds used for adult education and literacy activities.

Note that if this program were to become law (far from certain), it would create a new federal source of WIA grant funding for adult education programs/students—but one not flowing through Title II.

Here’s what the Committee has to say about this new program in their report (see page 187):

Dual enrollment programs enable high school students and adults without a high school equivalency credential to pursue post-secondary education and earn course credit that can be applied to a college degree or credential. Research shows dual enrollment programs are associated with gains in college enrollment and credit accumulation and higher grades. The Department will make competitive awards that help establish or expand dual enrollment programs through partnerships among institutions of higher education, LEAs that operate high-need public schools or adult education providers, and State and local agencies responsible for secondary and adult education and workforce training. This funding will provide students with support services, including tutoring, assistance completing financial aid applications and selecting courses, mentoring, career counseling, and assistance transferring from 2-year to 4-year institutions of higher education. Funds will also support activities designed for students with limited proficiency in English or from groups traditionally underrepresented in postsecondary education, individuals with disabilities, students who are homeless or in foster care, or disconnected youth. (my emphasis)

The Committee goes on to say (on page 199) that these funds are also intended to “support tuition, fees, and supplies for low-income students enrolled in dual enrollment programs who would qualify for Pell grants but are not eligible because they do not have a high school diploma.” This would be something of a replacement for the recently eliminated “ability to benefit” rule under Pell, although only for those enrolled in one of the dual enrollment programs funded through this initiative.

The program would be funded by carving out $5 million from CTE national programs, and a total of $17 million of Higher Education Act money (specifically, GPRA Data/Higher Education Act Program Evaluation funding). Fifteen million of the higher education money would support the program itself, while $2 million would be set aside for the evaluation.

Realistically, since the money here is being carved out of CTE and higher education funding, there is a reasonable question as to how much money would actually flow to adult education providers under this initiative. Yet there’s a heavy emphasis in the bill language on serving adults without high school credentials, a population that is mostly associated with Title II programs under WIA. If this program were to come into being, it would be interesting to see how it would be implemented and administered.

Report from Department of Labor on Strategies for Serving Those With “Low Literacy”

Citing their continued concern about “the low level of literacy and numeracy skills among adult workers,” the Committee requests a report from the Department of Labor, no later than March 1, 2014, on their progress in “educating the workforce system on the effectiveness of adult literacy and basic skills programs that have successfully implemented strategies for delivering basic literacy instruction together with occupational training.” They further recommend that best practices on how “to help adults with the lowest literacy levels improve their overall skills and employment opportunities” be widely disseminated.

It May Not Matter All That Much

It’s worth noting that the prospects for any of the above to be signed into law is iffy at best. For one thing, leaders in the House of Representatives are assuming that the sequester is continuing, so the corresponding House appropriations subcommittee has a much smaller pot of money to work with for its Labor-HHS bill. It’s possible that the adult education budget could be significantly chopped in a House bill.

The House subcommittee has not yet scheduled a markup of its bill, however, and the conventional wisdom is that it may not ever do so. In theory, each appropriations  bill is supposed to be passed and been signed into law by September 30th, the end of the fiscal year, but that hasn’t happened in a long time. Instead, it’s much more likely that the House and Senate will hammer out some kind of CR on the FY 14 budget in September. The CR might be for all of FY 14 or it might be a short-term CR that would be followed up by another negotiation of a government-wide “omnibus” spending bill sometime later. It’s hard to say what the spending levels will be under those scenarios, or whether any of the provisions above will survive.