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.

TANF Waivers Back in the News

Trying to keep up with the flurry of activity in recent weeks on immigration reform and WIA reauthorization is hard enough, (the House held a hearing on their WIA bill this past Tuesday, which I wasn’t able to catch), but another issue that I think has potential impact on adult education is the continuing controversy over the Obama adminstration’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) waiver proposal, which I wrote about last July when the policy was announced.

The House Ways and Means Committee is hold a hearing this morning on the policy, which Republicans say guts welfare’s work requirement. My view has been that allowing states more flexibility on how they adminster TANF could potentially lead to improved acccess to educational opportunities for TANF recipients.

Here’s the opening statement from today’s hearing from Human Resources Chairman Dave Reichert (R-WA).

History of TANF Block Grants Illustrates Why WIA Block Grants Pose a Threat to Adult Education Funding

Yesterday I gave a short talk on federal adult education policy issues at the WATESOL Fall Convention in Maryland, as part of a larger panel discussion on advocacy.

One of the policy trends I mentioned was the Republican inclination toward reducing the number of federal programs and consolidating them into state block grants, thus providing states with more decision-making power in how those federal funds are used. (They also tend to want to reduce federal spending to begin with, of course, at least for non-defense programs.) Their argument is that state officials are in a better position to decide how federal funding can best meet the particular needs of their state.

I want to describe in detail why I think federal program consolidation is a threat to federal funding for adult education.

My specific point of concern is with House Republicans’ Workforce Investment Act (WIA)  reauthorization bill, H.R. 4297 (The Workforce Investment Improvement Act of 2012), which was passed by the House Education and the Workforce Committee in June, (but has yet to be voted on by the full House, and probably won’t be). This bill would consolidate all of the different WIA job-training programs and convert them into a block grant program for states. It’s worth noting that the 2012 Republican platform also proposes consolidation of federal workforce programs into state block grants “so that training can be coordinated with local schools and employers.”

Title II of WIA—which specifically supports programs focused on helping people improve their literacy skills—is not subject to this consolidation provision. However, H.R. 4297 would give states the option to further consolidate their federal adult education funds—and a bunch of other non-WIA training funds—into a Workforce Investment Fund that would be also created under this bill. This option can be thought of as the turbo version of consolidation. If states chose to do this, they would have a great deal of flexibility on how to use the dollars they assign to the WIF. Most significantly, from an adult education perspective, once Title II money is assigned to the WIF, it would no longer have to be used to serve the specific purposes of Title II.

And the evidence seems to be pretty strong that this is exactly what would happen if this bill (or something like it) should ever become law.

The history of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grants is instructive. As noted in a recent report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), in the years since the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program was converted into a block grant program, states have often used the flexibility of TANF block grants to redirect TANF funds to plug holes in state budgets or free up funds for purposes unrelated to TANF’s stated purposes.

We also know that money tends to flow away from adult education when public officials have the flexibility to re-purpose adult education dollars. The most dramatic example is in California, where in 2009 the legislature passed a bill that gave individual school districts the flexibility to take money from one funding category and move it into another. In the years since the passage of this bill, hundreds of school districts have used funding originally intended for adult education to fill gaps in their K-12 budget. This has reduced overall state adult education funding in California by nearly half, from $754 million to $400 million. (I argued last year that the CBA is probably the worst piece of legislation for adult education in the entire U.S. over the last several years.)

I’ll concede that in some states, it’s possible that enlightened leadership might actually use the flexibility under the Republican approach to increase services for adult education—and theoretically states could even target more money towards individuals not well-served under the current system. (CPBB notes, for example, that in the case of TANF, some funds were used for child care and welfare-to-work programs— and other reasonable welfare reform efforts—particularly in TANF’s early years.) But I think the evidence above suggests that the opposite is more likely over time: that states would tend to use the flexibility of block grants to steer WIA money away from it’s intended purposes, and that this would lead to budget gaps in job training programs when demand is high. State officials would then be tempted to move adult education funds over to job training programs to shore up those gaps, in the same way that school officials in California diverted adult education money to shore up their K-12 budget gaps.

In it’s report on TANF, CPBB warns that “block grants can lead to less accountability, lessened federal direction and oversight, and significant amounts of federal funds being spent in ways that Congress did not envision or intend.” Given what we know, diminished federal oversight over adult education funding will likely result in a substantial reduction in that funding across the country.

WIA reauthorization my be on hold for now, but I expect consolidation to be part of the WIA debate in the next Congress.

Will State TANF Waivers Improve Coordination Between TANF and Adult Education?

(Updated Below)

A couple of weeks ago, the Obama Administration announced that it would begin allowing states to apply for waivers to current TANF rules so that they can “test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.” LaDonna Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently wrote a blog post in which she argued that the granting of these waivers, which has apparently annoyed some Republican members of Congress, will strengthen welfare reform. She believes the increased flexibility will permit states to not only design more effective strategies for helping recipients prepare for, find, and retain jobs, but also “measure their accomplishments in more meaningful ways than the current system allows.”

One of her arguments is that waivers will provide states with greater flexibility to align their TANF employment programs with other employment, training, and education initiatives:

The TANF work requirements are very narrowly defined and often are inconsistent with the requirements in other job training and employment programs.  If HHS allows states some flexibility to increase the effectiveness of their TANF work programs and activities, states will be able to maximize coordination among TANF and other programs including the Workforce Investment Act, Adult Education, and Vocational Rehabilitation. This will help to streamline programs and make it easier for unemployed parents to be served by the program best suited to help them secure and retain employment and increase the effectiveness of the bigger employment and training system. (my emphasis)

It will be interesting to see whether any states use this opportunity to improve coordination between TANF and adult education services. It seems to me that this could also be a potential opportunity for adult education advocates and TANF advocates to work together to improve educational opportunities for TANF recipients.

UPDATE 7/30/12:  Greg Kaufman, writing about the proposed waivers in his “This Week in Poverty” blog for The Nation, argues that these waivers represent modest reform only, and argues that what is needed is something more along the lines of Congresswoman Gwen Moore’s RISE Act:

Can you imagine the outcry if there were good, aggressive reforms offered by Democrats—the kind found in Congresswoman Gwen Moore’s RISE Act? Among the smart changes Moore calls for are: adjusting each state’s block grant for inflation so it’s no longer frozen at 1996 funding levels, unchanged for the past 16 years; allowing education and job training to count towards work requirements; providing childcare for all work-eligible parents; and prohibiting time limits of less than 60 months.

Now that would indeed be the end of welfare reform as we know it. Or at least the end of some of its most egregious failures—and the beginning of a system with the interests of poor people at its heart.