Responding to Budget Cuts in Adult Education

Last week, the Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy (CAAL) released In A Time of Scarce Resources: Near Term Priorities in Adult Education, a 34-page summary and analysis of responses submitted by more than two dozen “adult education leaders” about “priority areas in adult education at a time when resources are scarce.” (Not that they are plentiful most of time.) According to CAAL, “the main purpose of the paper is to motivate adult education planners, service providers, and policymakers to recognize the need to focus on highest priority next steps to take in this period of extreme funding constraints.”

Those surveyed, according to CAAL “stress[ed] that we can achieve a great deal, despite stagnant funding, if we set priorities and are all traveling in the same direction toward a comprehensive shared vision for the future.”

But is this true? You can obviously prioritize and work more efficiently to make do with what you have in almost any circumstance, (which is where a report like this one is useful), but I think we let policymakers off the hook when we say that “we can achieve a great deal” when budgets are drastically reduced, as they have been in many states in recent years. People in this field work so hard to figure out how to move forward with scarce resources—in doing so, my fear is that scarce resources are all we are ever going to get.

A Call to End the GED in New York

Thomas Hilliard, a Senior Fellow in Workforce Development Policy at the Center for an Urban Future, thinks the revamped GED, scheduled to launch in January, 2014, “could be a disaster for New York.” In a commentary published by the Times Union on July 17th, Hilliard notes that the state of New York as yet to come up with a plan to address the increased cost of the test or provide for an alternative:

The GED Testing Service, which has long administered the GED, announced plans to revamp the test to ensure that anyone who passed it would be ready for college-level coursework. This is understandable given the premium on college credentials in today’s economy. But as it set out to create a new test, the GED’s stewards decided to enter into a partnership with Pearson LLC, the world’s largest educational publisher. Pearson took over leadership of the GED Testing Service, and in May 2012 announced plans to raise the price of the GED to $120, effectively doubling its cost to New York state.

The increase is particularly troublesome because New York state bars the charging of a fee to take the GED and pays the full costs of testing out of the state budget—roughly $2.7 million last year. Unless the state doubles its expenditure—an unlikely prospect—the number of test slots for people to take the GED could fall by half, from 45,000 to 22,500.

As a result, New York could easily lose thousands of GED holders a year, a damaging blow to the state’s economic competitiveness and the job prospects of low-income youth and adults.

Hilliard concludes his piece by calling on New York State policymakers to drop the GED altogether: “It’s time for the state to end its partnership with the GED and give New Yorkers an alternative high school equivalency exam—preferably one that is less expensive but every bit as accepted by employers and colleges as the GED.” While acknowledging that the state has begun exploring alternative tests, he implores them to step up their efforts, noting that “time is running out” to establish an alternative by the end of 2013.

In related news, New York City’s unemployment rate climbed to 10 percent in June.

Arizona Budget Compromise Drops Proposed Restoration of Adult Education Funding

The budget agreement that was hammered out late last week between Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and Republican state legislative leaders appears to drop Governor Brewer’s initial recommendation that state funding for adult education be restored to a “minimum” level that would enable the state to access federal Workforce Investment Act funds. “She’s drastically revised down her (education) spending initiative,” according to Luige del Puerto of the Arizona Capitol Times.

The budget proposal released by Governor Brewer in January proposed a minimal investment of $4.6 million dollars for adult education. That document noted:

Without additional funding, the State will lose eligibility for federal Workforce Investment Act dollars targeting adult education and will lose capacity to serve Arizonaʹs under‐ educated adults and support economic recovery in the state. The Executive Recommendation of $4.6 million is the minimum required to draw down $11.8 million in federal Workforce Investment Act dollars and maintain adult education services statewide.

However, according to this document, released by the Arizona Children’s Action Alliance on Friday, the Governor agreed to drop this request in the compromise agreement.

How Would Adult Education Funding Fare under H.R. 4297?

(Updated below)

The National Skills Coalition has posted helpful summaries of each title of H.R. 4297, the Republican Workforce Investment Act (WIA) reauthorization bill recently introduced in the House, which they call “The Workforce Investment Improvement Act of 2012.”

H.R. 4297 doesn’t tinker much with Title II, (the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, which, under this bill—and this is most innocuous example of the tinkering I’m talking about—would be rechristened Adult Education and Family Literacy Education Act), yet I think an argument could be made that if passed into law, H.R. 4297 would likely lead to a dramatic drop in both federal and state funding for the programs funded under Title II—especially for those serving people at the lowest levels of literacy.

Why? The answer lies primarily in the dramatic and far-reaching changes the House Republicans are proposing in Title I.

First, section 127 of Title I would authorize states to consolidate all the job training funds under Title I, the adult literacy funds under Title II, and a bunch of other federal programs (TANF, Trade Adjustment Assistance, Community Services Block Grants, and others), into one big Workforce Investment Fund. (See section 127, pp. 138‐140.) Under these unified plans, “[s]tates may treat any funds consolidated into the Workforce Investment Fund as if they were original funds allotted to the state for that purpose.” That suggests, for example, that states could use the Title II funds for purposes other than adult education/literacy, and completely ignore the requirements under Title II to serve adults with low basic skills.

We already know that adult basic education funding is vulnerable when it’s not protected from attempted raids by other sectors with a stronger political base. A case in point is California, where school districts are responsible for adult education. Since 2009, after the passage of the California Budget Act (CBA), school districts have been allowed to take money from one funding category and move it into another. This allows California school districts to use funding originally intended for adult education to fill gaps in its K-12 budget. This has been happening all over California for the last few years— the most dramatic example being Los Angeles, where the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board is still considering the possible elimination of the LAUSD’s adult education program, which would leave well over 300,000 adult students without adult education services.

Section 127 of H.R. 4297 doesn’t just leave federal adult education money unprotected—it practically encourages states to grab that money and use it for other purposes. But the whole point of having this funding segregated from job training funding was to ensure that states would address the needs of those with very low literacy skills. Under this bill, they won’t have to. (And it’s not as if there are states out there being forced to use WIA money on adult literacy when there is no need. There is no state in the country that does not have a significant number of individuals in need of adult basic education services. Most have waiting lists.)

Advocates for every program funded under WIA can probably make an argument as to why their program should be firewalled from Section 127 consolidation, but I think adult literacy has an especially good case. It’s a separate title under WIA for a logical reason. Adult literacy has always been at best an awkward fit under the current law, since adult and family literacy programs are not always directly focused on employment-related outcomes, but on academic goals. The original authors of the act hoped that by including the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act under WIA it would encourage more coordination between job training and adult education, but in order to best support the specific purposes of adult education, they wisely put adult education in its own separate title.

But even if the bill was modified so that Title II was eliminated from the list of programs eligible for consolidation under section 127, there is a change in Title II that I believe would result in a significant reduction in state funding for adult education. Specifically, the bill eliminates the current maintenance of effort provisions mandated by section 241. (See section 241, p. 171.)

Under current law, states must contribute a certain minimal level of non-federal state or local funding to adult education programs funded under Title II, (i.e. “match” funding); in addition, under the maintenance of effort requirement under section 241 , a state may only receive an allotment of federal adult education funds if the state/local non-federal funding effort meets certain previous levels. (If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can read about how all this is calculated here.) If a state reduces that contribution by more than 10% any given year, it’s supposed to trigger an automatic pro rata reduction in the federal allocation to the state.

In other words, under current law, states can’t make dramatic cuts to local funding for adult education without the possibility of a reduction in federal adult education funding coming to their state. Now, as a practical matter, I don’t know how often—or whether—that trigger has ever been pulled. It appears to me that the Department of Education works hard with states to work out arrangements so that a reduction in federal funding is not triggered.

However, I do know that a couple of years ago, here in the District of Columbia, local government officials, looking for cost-savings in the city budget during a challenging revenue year, analyzed their federal grants and stripped down the local funding contribution to the minimum required to maintain their federal match and/or maintenance of effort contribution(s). I think it’s reasonable to assume that the cut the administration proposed to local adult education spending that year (which was later rescinded by the D.C. Council) would have been much greater if that maintenance of effort rule had not been there.

Even if the maintenance of effort requirement is actually be relatively easy for states to negotiate, I believe it does exert at least some pressure on states to maintain at least some minimal funding base for adult education. Thus the elimination of this requirement would further erode an already shaky state/local funding landscape for adult literacy.

I haven’t had the time to study the legislation that thoroughly, so I’d love to hear from others in the comments section about what they think of it. Those were the funding issues that jumped out at me—I know there are other issues with the bill that others have and will point out.

Meanwhile, a hearing on H.R. 4297 is scheduled for tomorrow at 10am.

UPDATE 4/19/12: The National Coalition for Literacy has issued an action alert on the consolidation issue.

UPDATE 4/23/12: One clarification regarding my contention above that H.R. 4297 doesn’t tinker that much with Title II itself. Just to be clear, that is not to say there aren’t any other significant changes to Title II in the Republican bill than those I discussed. Most notably, H.R. 4297 eliminates authorization for the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL). But I’d still characterize that as relatively minor in terms of impact. That’s because in spite of the fact that NIFL remains an authorized program under current law, it closed down several years ago after Congress (with the support of the President) de-funded it. Also, the point of my article was to highlight the changes that would impact funding for programs, and NIFL is largely irrelevant to that discussion.

UPDATE 5/1/12: I received an e-mail from CLASP today with links to their analyses of both this bill and H.R. 4227, the Democratic alternative: