LAO Report: Restructuring California’s Adult Education System

LAO Report: Restructuring California’s Adult Education System

The Good, the Confusing and the Ugly


The California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) report entitled “Restructuring California’s Adult Education System”, issued on December 5, recommends that the California legislature restore dedicated funding for California’s adult schools. This recommendation is cause for celebration for California’s adult schools, battered as they are by the financial insecurity created by “Tier III Flexibility” in 2009. Unfortunately, the LAO report also makes some recommendations that would be harmful to some of adult education’s most vulnerable students; those recommendations need to be carefully examined and criticized.  Additionally, while the report itself is clear and informative, there are features of its general presentation that may confuse the public and create the impression, not born out in the report, that adult schools are doing a poor job.  In fact, the report recognizes the value of adult schools.  The “confusion” and “inconsistency” so often invoked by the report actually refer to confusing and inconsistent regulations imposed by the state legislature, not to the way adult schools serve students. However, the misleading features of the report may already be causing a public relations problem for California’s adult schools.


While the LAO report contains many recommendations that are good for adult schools, some of its recommendations would hurt the most vulnerable adult school students. Let us look at this ugly side of this report first, to avoid forgetting those most in need in the midst of the general celebration.  The ugliest recommendations are two:  1) “Focus State Support on Core Mission” Translation: Throw Grandma from the Train! , and  2) “Adopt Consistent Policy for Enrollment Fees: Translation: Choosing Between Food and Education Builds Character! For an analysis of how these recommendations will deny needed services for vulnerable Californians, read on.

1) “Focus State Support on Core Mission” Translation: Throw Grandma from the Train! 

 “Focus the mission of adult education” sounds so practical and reasonable; it is necessary to point out the cruel, unnecessary and discriminatory nature of what this recommendation actually means.  It means that the state should stop funding adult school programs for senior citizens.

This recommendation is cruel because it recommends defunding the one adult school program that is literally a matter of life and death for some students.  In 2009, West Contra Costa County Adult Education cut the summer program for Older Adults as a response to the budget cuts. Every summer since, the Older Adult teachers have struggled to keep their programs going over the summer, volunteering all their time, holding garage sales to raise insurance money, and generally scrambling, because they know some of their students may not make it to fall if they close their doors for three months.

State supported Older Adult programs serve many fragile elders, the ones who rely on their local senior centers for stimulation and social contact.  On fixed incomes, they can’t always afford the “community services education” classes supported by fees that the LAO recommends for them, nor can they access those classes or parks and recreation department services, which may not be in their neighborhood and are often aimed at children and families.  As for the senior centers recommended by the LAO report, the directors of those senior centers are often adult education teachers, and the senior centers might close if those teachers lose their livelihood.

This recommendation is unnecessary because it proposes defunding  a program that works well for its vulnerable students, apparently in the name of some bureaucratic need for consistency.  In fact, the  report does not offer a  clear explanation of why programs for older adults can’t be part of the “core mission” of adult education. It talks about adult education’s mission being “too broad”, and recommends that the number of authorized state-supported adult education instructional programs be reduced from ten to six.  But there is no explanation as to why ten is too many, or what is magic about the number six.

One has to read between the lines of the list of programs the report calls adult education’s “Core Mission” to guess why the LAO thinks Older Adult programs don’t fit in.  The recommended “core mission” instructional areas are:  1) adult elementary and secondary education, 2) English as a Second Language 3) citizenship and workforce preparation 4) vocational education 5) apprenticeship and 6) adults with disabilities.  What do these things have in common?  They narrow adult education’s mission to academics and workforce preparation (the report specifically mentions that adults with disabilities programs should be kept because they involve employment preparation (p.22)).  If this is  the mission, the thinking seems to go, what are we doing serving people whose work lives are over?  They may have worked and paid taxes all their lives, but unless we throw them away like the peel of a fruit that has been consumed, adult education will not look serious enough.

The recommendation is discriminatory  because it targets a particular group  based on age, and the report uses the language of discrimination to justify its recommendation.  On page 21-22, the report states: “Though many types of instruction can be of value to students, we believe the ten statutorily permitted instructional areas of adult education are not all of equal  value.” (their emphasis on “equal”).  The report goes on to say, “Rather, the most important programs in adult education are those that provide the knowledge and skills students need to participate in civic life and the workplace.”

Older adult programs may not prepare students for the workforce, but they certainly help them participate in civic life.  So why are programs for them not of equal value? Is it because the people these programs serve are not of equal value?  These people will never contribute to the economic wealth of the state again, so they are worth less.  Is that the reason?  The report gives no other.

The report mentions ,in several places, reducing the ten authorized instructional programs to six, but it never lists the original ten, so, aside from the Older Adult program, it isn’t clear what other programs are being targeted for elimination.  There is a passing reference to Home Economics, but that leaves two programs we are in the dark about.  Yet the Older Adult program is repeatedly mentioned as something that has to go. One has to at least give the report credit for honesty.  Other recent policy documents, such as the State Strategic Plan for adult education, have hinted in this direction by delicately leaving  Older Adults out of the “core mission” of adult education without mentioning that these programs are part of adult education now. The LAO report says it loud, proud and repeatedly, “Throw grandma from the train!”

This recommendation is insidious, because, while the process of restructuring adult education, particularly finding the money and passing the legislation to enact the many good things the report proposes, will take a long time, the report recommends that adult education providers do what they can to get ready now.  The good things may never come to pass, but adult schools can cancel their Older Adult programs tomorrow, in obedience to what they may see as a state directive.  Sadly, much of the work has already been done.  A lot of adult schools cancelled their Older Adult programs in the wake of the 2009 budget cuts, or they will tell you, yes, they still have an Older Adult program (which charges fees), but they no longer serve frail elders.

In West Contra Costa, where the Older Adult program has managed to hold on, many of the Older Adult students and teachers worked for Proposition 30 and for a local parcel tax to support the schools, partly in hopes that their adult school program would be saved.  How is that for “participation in civic life”?   It would certainly be a slap in the face to end their program now, simply because it doesn’t fit in with some bureaucratic idea of what adult education’s mission should be.

The LAO recommends discarding Older Adult programs without examining their value.  Older Adult programs are a low cost and effective way of serving seniors that keeps them healthy and active so they don’t need more expensive state services.  With support from Older Adult programs, many seniors volunteer, becoming positive assets to their communities.  There is some benefit, also, in giving older adults a direct stake in their local school system, since seniors vote in large numbers.  But the LAO report does not consider any of this.

The LAO report gives a very good history of the laws establishing adult education programs, including the fact that programs for older adults were established in 1950.  It’s sad to think that our policies towards senior citizens are less enlightened now than they were in 1950.

2)  “Adopt Consistent Policy for Enrollment Fees: Translation: Choosing Between Food and Education Builds Character!

 The LAO report recommends charging a fee of $25 or so for adult literacy classes currently mandated by state law to be offered free.  This includes non-credit ESL and Citizenship classes offered by community colleges, and high school diploma and adult basic education (the equivalent of an elementary school education) offered by both adult schools and by community colleges as non-credit classes.

A $25 fee may not seem like much to a middle class person, who might spend that on lunch.  But these are literacy classes.  In the U.S., people who lack basic literacy are at a significant economic disadvantage; $25 might be groceries for the week.  After all, a person on food stamps has less than $5.00 a day to spend on food.

In West Contra Costa, the adult school offers ESL classes in 12 elementary schools and one middle school.  In all of these schools, well over 50% of the children are eligible for a free or reduced price lunch on the basis of their parents’ income.  In most of these schools, the percentage of children eligible for a free/reduced price lunch is well over 80%; in two of the schools, it is 100%.  The parents of these children, mostly mothers, are in the adult ESL classes. These are the parents who can’t afford to buy their children lunch.  Where are they supposed to come up with $25 or even $10, for an English class?

Yet the education of these women is the best investment the state can make in their children’s achievement in school.   It is well established that the literacy of the parents, especially the mother, is the best indicator of a child’s school success.  But low-income families need to use their resources carefully, and, for them, the mother’s education may have to be sacrificed if it costs too much.  If they have $25 to spend on an English class, they may decide to spend it on a class for the father, in hopes that he may be able to increase his earning power.  Charging for these classes is particularly injurious to low-income women.

The LAO report asserts that charging fees causes positive behaviors in students, such as “making them more deliberate in their selection of courses.”  This is, frankly, a silly assertion when it comes to literacy students, because they are placed in courses based on assessments; there isn’t a lot of choice if you are a beginning low level ESL student or an Adult Basic Education student in need of basic math.  Besides, this seems to be a solution to a non-problem.  The report doesn’t offer any evidence that students are making poor selections when it comes to the courses they are taking.

On the other hand, the LAO recommendation of a $25 fee per course could discourage some good language learning behaviors in which many ESL students already engage.   Many ESL students who have the time take both a day and a night class to accelerate their learning.  A fee of $25 per class might put this excellent language learning strategy out of their reach.

Community colleges charge by the unit for credit classes, but they offer fee waivers for low-income students.  The LAO report says nothing about fee waivers for non-credit community college and adult school classes, however.  So these additional fees are recommended with no accompanying recommendation for relief.

Charging fees can also cause logistical problems for adult schools, especially if they are offering accessible classes in elementary schools and other sites far from their main offices.  The students who take a class at their child’s school often come on foot and don’t have transportation to take them to the main office to pay a fee.  Collecting and storing money in the classroom can be dangerous for the teacher and the class.  The necessity of charging fees for these classes might deter adult schools from the good practice of offering classes at accessible neighborhood locations.  Adult schools might retreat into their main buildings, and limit their services to those students who can get to the main office to pay a fee.

These “modest” fees, that burden low-income students, also don’t add that much to an adult school’s coffers.  They may not bring in much more than the money it takes to hire the additional clerical staff to process the fees.

Historically, the state of California has shown a strong commitment to adult literacy by mandating that literacy programs, such as adult basic education, adult secondary education , English as a Second Language and Citizenship classes be offered free by adult schools and as non-credit community college classes.

In 2009, the laws governing adult schools, including those mandating that certain classes be offered free, were temporarily suspended, not repealed, as part of that year’s gimmick-filled budget fix.  This rather irresponsible approach by the state legislature left adult school programs in limbo, and some of them did start charging fees, though the legality of this was unclear.

Only last year, in late 2011, the legislature passed AB 189, which  temporarily allows adult schools to charge for English as a Second Language and Citizenship classes, but no other literacy classes (adult basic education and high school diploma must still be offered free).  The law sunsets in 2015; the original legislation did not include a sunset date, but the bill was amended to put a limit on how long fees could be charged, once again demonstrating the legislature’s strong commitment to adult literacy.

Because of this temporary, stopgap law, which will be up for reconsideration in a little over two years, the LAO report deems state policy on enrollment fees for adult education and community college non-credit literacy classes to be inconsistent and in need of a fix, namely charging fees for all these formerly free classes. But  if you remove AB 189 from the picture, the state policy on fees is quite consistent: literacy classes for which no college credit is awarded and citizenship classes should be free.

The LAO does ask a very good question about AB 189, which is, why were fees permitted for ESL and Citizenship classes only, and not other literacy programs?  The answer is simple: ESL students make up the largest percentage of students for most adult schools.  Adult schools wanted to charge for these classes because they were struggling to survive in the face of Tier III Flexibility. The law is arguably discriminatory and unfair, but the way to fix it is not to charge for everything else.  It is to make adult school ESL and citizenship classes free again.

Fortunately, the ugly aspects of the LAO report are rather peripheral to its central findings and key recommendations that adult schools be adequately funded and that legislation be enacted to allow adult schools and community colleges to collaborate more effectively.  The enactment of the report’s many excellent recommendations does not depend on these ugly recommendations. They both seem like remnants from the period of financial uncertainty that we may now begin to hope is falling behind us.

Before we move on to the good aspects of the report, let us consider its confusing aspects so that the good stuff can be more easily understood. 


To begin with, the title of the report is misleading, because “adult education” in everyday usage refers to California’s adult schools, which are part of K-12 school districts.  However, the report actually examines California’s adult schools and community colleges equally, using the term “adult education” to refer to both.  In fact, many of the “confusing” and “inconsistent” state regulations criticized in the report are regulations governing community colleges, not adult schools, and these regulations do lead to some inconsistent practices in community colleges, but not in adult schools.

The cover of the report doesn’t help.  A smiling young teacher beckons us into the brave new world of adult education.  On a greenboard behind her, adult education’s “new” mission is written in chalk: “I am in class to .. graduate from high school, go to college, get my citizenship, get a job.”  The reasons for being in class suggest that this is an adult school class, since all but the last objective are typical of adult schools rather than community colleges.  So the cover, along with the title, suggests that adult schools alone are the subject of the report.  The young teacher in the photo makes an attractive report cover, but she doesn’t look like your typical adult school teacher.  Age her about 30 years and she would be right.  Adult school work in California is almost all part time, poorly paid, and without benefits. For this reason, adult school teaching is usually a second career undertaken by people who have made a nest egg to survive on doing other work.  Rarely do you see a young adult who wants to buy a house and start a family teaching adult school.  The issue of poor pay and working conditions in adult schools is not one of the concerns of the LAO report.

The report contains some sound-bite worthy and sensational  language such as “a program adrift” which have been picked up by the media.  For example, on December 5, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an Associated Press piece on the LAO report that begins, “California’s 2.1 billion adult education system is a disjointed hodgepodge of courses, fees and faculty and should be overhauled…”  and goes on to use the “program adrift” quote.  The article makes hash of the report, but at least if you read the whole thing, you would get a sense that the report treated both adult schools and community colleges.  But a casual reader, equating “adult education” with “adult schools”, since that is the common meaning, would read the first line to as, “The adult schools are a mess and are wasting the taxpayers’ money.”  In fact, most of the lack of coordination addressed in the report refers to lack of coordination between adult schools and community colleges, not disorganization within the two systems. The LAO could have avoided some of this confusion by simply including “Community Colleges” somewhere in the title of its report, to make the actual subject matter more transparent to the lay reader.

The “program adrift” quote, taken out of context as it is almost sure to be on many occasions, refers  to  adult schools and community colleges having been set   financially adrift by budget cuts since 2009.  It does not mean that adult schools or community colleges are adrift as to their mission or in the way they provide services.  Why the LAO decided to use inflammatory language implying these hard-hit programs are lost and lacking in purpose, instead of just saying they are severely underfunded and struggling, is anybody’s guess.


The report’s recommendations about adult school funding are excellent.Thereport recognizes that adult schools and community colleges have separate missions and that adult school’s perform equally as well as community colleges when it comes to educating adults.  It recommends that adult schools be funded as a separate categorical program within school district budgets, putting an end to Tier III Flexibility.  It recommends a plan to transition from Tier III flexibility back to categorical funding that will not shock districts that are using at least some adult school funds for other purposes (most of them are doing this), by allowing districts to  spend the same amount on their adult schools in 2014-2015 as they spent in 2013-2014.  Thus districts will not have to panic about what will happen once Tier III Flexibility sunsets.

The report does recommend some performance –based funding for adult schools, but does not propose that all funding be performance based; it mentions a figure of about 10% at full implementation.  It also recommends a mechanism for assessing regional funding needs and to make new funding available on a regional basis.  So if the legislature follows the report’s recommendations, adult schools will have a stable source of funding with the possibility of expanding their services to meet increasing need.

The report recognizes that the state has put community colleges and adult schools into competition with each other, and recommends reforms that will allow the two systems to collaborate.  Interestingly, the report actually recommends that per-student funding rates for adult schools and non-credit community colleges be equalized, which could mean more money for adult schools.  The report also notes that adult school teachers, who make less money than community college teachers, are required to have a teaching credential, which community college teachers are not required to have, and recommends that this requirement be removed from adult school teachers to make it easier for teachers to move between the two programs.

The report also recommends some measures that would make it easier for adult schools and community colleges to share data, such as adopting common course numbers and assessments.  It also recommends improved collection of outcome data for both adult schools and community colleges.

The report’s core recommendations about adult education, and about getting adult schools and community colleges to work together for the benefit of their students, are excellent. However, we should not let the report’s many good features excuse its bad ones.  Hopefully the legislature will enact the best features of this report, and recognizing that the bad ones are discriminatory and counter –productive, ignore them.



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