Bring on the Pork!

Homer Welcomes the Return of Pork Barrel SpendingI tweeted this earlier but in case you are walled out by their subscriber paywall, here’s a fair use except of an interesting article in the Legal Times from yesterday concerning the possible return of Congressional earmarks. An earmark is a legislative provision that allows members to direct approved funds for specific projects, usually to a particular organization or project in their home state or district. Earmarks are popularly portrayed as pork-barrel spending and often cited as a corrupting influence on our politics. The practice became enough of a public relations liability that the House instituted a ban on the practice in 2010, and the Senate soon followed suit. Now some lobbyists (who obviously have a vested interest in this) are going around telling people it might come back:

Former Republican Congressman James Walsh, now at K&L Gates, has predicted that federal earmarks could return to Congress next year. The change could revive the lobbying industry and spark a now-stagnant Congress by giving it more discretionary power after the mid-term elections Tuesday, he said during a webinar sponsored by his firm.

“I think it would make things move better up there,” he said. A highway funding plan, he added, could revive the earmark—a legislative procedure that ended in 2010.

His prediction was among many shared by a K&L Gates panel of former members of Congress and a top lobbyist Monday.

Despite earmarks’ bad reputation, there are some who have argued that an outright ban of the practice was actually a bad idea, claiming it has actually decreased transparency in the appropriations process and shifted the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches too far to the executive. Others argue that the ban removed who a useful tool for lawmakers to have at their disposal as a way to broker deals on legislation.

In the case of adult education, would the return of Congressional  earmarks provide advocates with more leverage over the administration on how money on adult education is spent? I have no idea. I do suspect that without strong, knowledgeable advocacy from the field, Congress could also come up with some really bad ways to earmark adult education funds. But it seems to me the opportunity for leverage is almost always a good thing to have. Right now the administration calls all the shots, and I’m not sure that Congressional language “urging” the Department to “increase the focus on adults with the lowest literacy and numeracy skills” or “work with national adult literacy organizations,” as they did in the FY 2014 omnibus budget bill, is taken that seriously.

Adult Education and the Shutdown

(Update Below)

Most everyone working in the field of adult education is already aware of this, but for those who are wondering, federal funding for adult education is generally not affected by the federal government hoedown shutdown. Workforce Investment Act (WIA) dollars—the biggest source of federal funding for adult education—are forward funded, meaning that states obtain their WIA Title II funding for the fiscal year that began today during the prior fiscal year. As a result, there shouldn’t be a major impact on adult education during the shutdown.

There are, of course, other federal programs that provide funds or support to adult education. There are AmeriCorps members, for example, who work at adult education programs. But they will not have to pack up and go home—any previously awarded CNCS grant or cooperative agreement should not be affected. (I have read at least one story suggesting that AmeriCorps members would not receive their living allowance stipends during the shutdown, but based on my experience running an AmeriCorps program, I don’t understand why this would be the case, unless the AmeriCorps project grant wasn’t due to be awarded until after September 30th.)

Another example: Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). A few adult education programs (mainly in urban areas) receive CDBG funding, and some reports (such as here and here) are suggesting  that some municipalities may experience delays in accessing these funds, even if they were already obligated for fiscal year 2014, because federal officials may not be available to approve disbursements.

I’m sure there are other examples, (let me know if I’ve missed any), but again, I think the impact on adult education—at least in the short run—is going to be pretty minimal.

Bear in mind, however, that there are several federal programs relied on by some low-income people enrolled in adult education that will be affected. The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) has just published a brief report, What a Federal Government Shutdown Could Mean to Low-Income People, that is a useful guide to those programs.

UPDATE: The National Skills Coalition has a preliminary rundown on the impact of the shutdown on certain employment and training programs. Also, as this blog post points out, this is not the best week to be doing literacy research—at least if you are looking for NAAL literacy estimates—since the NCES Web site, like most other federal government Web sites, is offline.


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.