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.

Business Models

Offering fee-based services for those who can afford it, in order to generate income to support free ESL/literacy services for those who can’t, makes a lot of sense—especially contracts with other organizations and businesses for custom-designed services. This  isn’t a new idea, but it’s probably something more organizations that provide community-based literacy instruction ought to be looking at. I just can’t see a scenario in the near future in which government funding (federal, state, or local) for adult literacy or ESL is likely to substantially increase, and growth in foundation and charitable giving in general  is likely to continue to be pretty flat. At the same time, immigration reform appears to have at least a reasonable chance of passage in the near future, and if it does, that will  likely  open up even more opportunities for fee-based English language instruction and translation services.

Designing Adult Learning Spaces

Many (if not most) adult learning classroom/study spaces are terrible. Many community-based programs are located in buildings that weren’t designed for teaching or studying, and the rooms used for classrooms may lack comfortable seating, decent lighting, and other basic comforts. I don’t know to what extent the lack of decent space impacts one’s ability to study and concentrate, but I assume it must to some degree.

There are exceptions—some programs are based in schools and colleges, of course. But designing spaces specifically for adult literacy students, whether that includes multi-level classrooms, private counseling areas, full accessibility for disabled learners—or whatever else makes a space more conducive to adult learning—is rarely discussed.

What Are the Key Federal Policy Issues for Nonprofits?

Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, wrote an opinion piece last week for The Chronicle of Philanthropy that was critical of the Independent Sector’s new report on nonprofit advocacy, Beyond the Cause, arguing that is was undermined by “a self-serving agenda and an implicit, if not intentional, suggestion that Independent Sector become the central hub of the [nonprofit] sector’s advocacy efforts.”

The Chronicle headline would lead you to believe that the article was primarily about Eisenberg’s discomfort with the notion of Independent Sector serving as the voice for all on nonprofits, but the meatier part of his critique actually concerned the specific policy issues that they reported as the most critical to the field. He doesn’t agree with their choices, and suggests five policy changes that he thinks would make more of a difference. Those changes are (in a nutshell):

  • Improving what he labels as a “dysfunctional” nonprofit regulatory system.
  • Mandating an increase to the share of assets foundations must distribute annually.
  • Encouraging greater socioeconomic diversity on nonprofit boards of both foundations and nonprofits.
  • Closing the growing gap between large and small nonprofits. He notes that small organizations are shrinking (or closing) while large nonprofit are thriving and that tis disproportionately hurts the poor and disadvantaged, who typically get services from smaller, community-based nonprofits.

You can read the entire article to read his arguments in depth.

It’s useful to think about the most pressing policy issues impacting nonprofits, even though I don’t think it’s easy to come up with a list that every nonprofit would agree on, considering the size and diversity of the sector—which includes organizations ranging from universities with multi-million endowments to small, all-volunteer organizations with tiny budgets. And sometimes we forget that the sector includes a wide variety of political points of view as well.

For his part, Eisenberg thinks it’s impossible for nonprofits to share a broad consensus about which issues are most important, and that “the best that nonprofits can accomplish is to strengthen their individual advocacy and lobbying activities and join with other organizations in coalitions that fight for specific policy changes.”

But is it really impossible to come up with a short list of changes that a broad consensus of organizations could agree are important? And while I agree that working via coalitions is an effective strategy, the reality is that the best coalitions often are led by a trusted leader that pulls everyone together and keeps things organized. While I don’t think a single entity could speak for everyone on every issue facing nonprofits, a lead organization that was able to bring the sector together on a handful of the most critical issues, if it resisted the temptation to dominate the advocacy space on its own, could be very effective. The more groups there are advocating here in Washington on behalf of this sector, the more likely we are to drown each other out.

For the record, here are the issues that Independent Sector picked as most important:

  • Protecting against proposals that could limit the organizations eligible for charity status.
  • Protecting against proposals to limit or remove charitable tax deductions for donors.
  • Clarifying advocacy and lobbying rules for charities and private foundations.
  • Guarding against any proposed revisions to Internal Revenue Service disclosure forms that could hamper nonprofit operations.
  • Reducing/eliminating overly burdensome paperwork and red tape involving government contracts with nonprofits.
  • Providing more government-financed research on the nonprofit sector.