SB 173 and SB 174: Proposed Legislation Regarding Adult Education

Two bills regarding funding for adult education, SB 173 (Liu) and SB 174 (Liu) have recently been referred to the state senate committee on education, and may be acted on as soon as  March 8. SB 173 is concerned with classes in health and safety only; it provides that neither adult school nor community college non-credit classes in health and safety are eligible for state funding, as they are under current law.

SB 174 is much more sweeping in its scope; it revises the list of classes that qualify for state funding. SB 174 has some excellent features, chief among them its provision that adult schools will remain part of the K-12 system.  However, the bill unnecessarily narrows the mission of adult education and cancels state funding for some effective programs that serve vulnerable adults well.  It also allows districts to charge a fee for all courses, removing the mandate that basic literacy classes, such as High School Diploma, Adult Basic Education and English as a Second Language must be offered free.  Since students without basic literacy skills in the United States tend to have very scarce resources, charging fees could price the students who need instruction most out of an education.

SB 174 is supposed to be a pro-adult education bill; California Council for Adult Education (CCAE) approached Senator Liu to request that she draft this bill in support of adult education.  The bill would be much stronger if it restored some crucial adult education programs that make important contributions to the well-being of California communities and restored the mandate that basic literacy classes, at least, be wholly state funded.

Keeping Adult Education with K-12 Districts: Better Access to  Education for All Californians

If adult schools are to be organized as part of some larger educational system, keeping them with the K-12 schools will provide  much better access to education for California’s adults that reorganizing them under the community colleges, as the Governor’s Budget Plan proposes.  K-12 school districts are evenly distributed throughout the state; community colleges are not. You can view a map of California’s community colleges here:

As you will see by the map, while highly populated areas like the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles are served by a number of community colleges, there are counties in California, some of them quite large, that have no community college at all. For example, Trinity County, which covers an area of 3,178 miles, has no community college.  It has three adult schools. Under the governor’s plan,  either College of the Siskiyous, in neighboring Siskiyou County, or College of the Redwoods,  in Humboldt County, would be responsible for  all adult education in Trinity County. Other large counties with no community college include Inyo County  and Modoc County.  Some large counties like Mendocino and Lassen, have only one community college which is quite remote  from other parts of the county.  Reorganizing adult education under the community colleges cannot help but result in reductions in service in these areas.

Even in urban areas that are served by a local community college, K-12 adult schools provide better access.  As part of the K-12 system, adult schools have access to K-12 sites, so they can offer students classes right in their neighborhoods.  This is very important for low-income and immigrant studtens, who often have limited access to transportation and need classes they can access on foot, by bike, or by bus.Holding classes at K-12 sites has the added advantage of getting parents more involved in their children’s schools, and making schools into real community centers.

So SB 174 offers a much better model for adult education service than the Governor’s Budget Plan, and is to be supported for this.

Perhaps at some future time, legislators might consider making adult schools into a stand-alone system that collaborates closely with both K-12 schools and community colleges.  While that model is not on the table now, it is something to consider for the future. Adult school has its own mission, an important one, which is to provide basic literacy services to adults. Having to be subservient to the mission of either K-12 or the community colleges has sometimes hampered adult education in this crucial work.  Occupying a territory between K-12 schools and community colleges, adult schools would be better equipped to provide support to both if it had its own structure and its own completely independent funding.

Narrowing the Mission: What’s In?  ESL, Citizenship, Adult Basic and Secondary Education, and Career Technical Education (CTE)

SB 174 almost completely rewrites Section 41976 of the California Education Code, leaving about six of the original words in place.  However, some of the wording is replaced almost verbatim; the section on English as a Second Language and Citizenship is almost the same, except that “civic participation” is added to the list of programs for immigrants eligible for state funding.  This is another very good feature of SB 174; it recognizes the importance of English as a Second Language and Citizenship programs and provides state funding for them.

The section on adult basic and secondary programs is amended to include GED programs and preparation for the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), a needed update to the original language.  Interestingly, SB 174 eliminates the original language requiring that state apportionments for high school diploma classes can only be generated by students who do not already possess a high school diploma, except in the case of some remedial courses.  In a bill that seems to be generally concerned with tightening up what can be funded by the state, this is a strange omission; it seems to leave open the possibility that the state might fund some classes required for the high school diploma for students who already have a diploma and arguably don’t need them.

The section on Career Technical Education (CTE) is expanded, providing quite a bit more detail on what kinds of programs are covered. It also provides that programs that meet the prerequisites for advanced postsecondary programs are part of CTE.  The designation that state funded CTE programs be “short term” is dropped, so the old identification of CTE with “vocational education” no longer applies.  SB 174 offers a much more expanded definition of CTE.

Narrowing the Mission: What’s Left Out? Or, Farewell to “Ripple Effects”

“The devil is in the details”, as the old saying goes; and it’s not always easy to determine where the Horned One resides in any particular document.  Not so with SB 174; His Satanic Majesty is firmly enthroned in one little sentence labeled “subdivision (b)”.

Subdivision (a) has four paragraphs. Paragraph (1) deals with adult basic and secondary education, Paragraph (2) deals with ESL and Citizenship,  Paragraph (3) with Career Technical Education and Paragraph (4) with “Civic Engagement”.  Civic Engagement includes classes on “issues of aging”, classes for disabled adults, parenting, family literacy, health, financial literacy and civic participation.

Then comes subdivision (b), which says, that only the programs described in paragraphs 1-3 are eligible for state funding.  Adult schools may offer the programs  delineated in paragraph 4, but those programs will be paid for by student fees.  At least, student fees are the only other funding source mentioned in the bill; if other kinds of funding are contemplated, they are not mentioned in SB 174.

Since many of the programs listed in paragraph (4) are eligible for state funding under current law, the consequences of the changes proposed in SB 174 will be disastrous for many adult education students. The following programs would be defunded:

Defunded: Programs for Older Adults: The California Strategic Plan hinted at it, the Legislative Analysts’ Office report on restructuring adult education said it a little more boldly, and SB 174 delivers the coup de grace.  If this bill passes as is, state funded programs for older adults will be gone.  It isn’t clear what is driving this relentless assault on an effective and low cost program, but it seems that the frail elders who depend on these programs are to be sacrificed on the altar of workforce preparation.  Paragraph (4) replaces “Adult programs for older adults” (the deleted language) with “ courses focusing on… issues of aging”, as if older adults would not be interested in studying anything but their own aging process.  Existing programs for older adults are much broader than that; though they do address issues of aging in a variety of ways, they also offer many kinds of stimulating classes at locations accessible to seniors with limited mobility.

Many seniors on fixed incomes would have to discontinue their adult education classes if they had to pay for them with fees as SB 174 provides.  Without the stimulation and social support provided by their adult education program, some would decline more quickly and soon be in need of more costly state services.  Defunding adult school programs for older adults is cruel, unnecessary, and discriminatory. It is also penny wise and pound foolish.

Defunded: Programs for Adults with Disabilities: While the recent Legislative Analyst’s Office report on restructuring adult education recommended retaining programs for adults with disabilities as state funded programs, SB 174 eliminates state funding for them.  Paragraph (4) provides that adult schools can provide courses “ assisting disabled adults to become self-reliant, productive and effective community members”, but according to subdivision (b), these classes could not be state funded.  Currently, programs for adults with disabilities consist of classes that help disabled adults prepare for and stay in the workforce, as well as programs that help more profoundly disabled adults care for themselves and function better as community members, as the language in paragraph (4) describes.  SB 174 does not say anything about workforce preparation and workplace programs for disabled adults; it appears to eliminate them entirely.

Disabled adults who are able to work with the assistance of their adult education programs have very limited resources; adults too profoundly disabled to work have less.  It is a fantasy that they could support their adult school programs with fees, as currently provided by SB 174.

Defunded:  Parenting Programs:  SB 174 unites adult schools with K-12 districts, but then defunds some of the most effective ways adult schools support K-12,  parent education and family literacy. Parent education includes such serious services as court-ordered classes for parents in family law proceedings.  In low-income areas especially, classes on how to keep children out of gangs are in high demand.   Parent education classes can also help parents and children benefit from the latest research on how children learn, and can improve family relationships. Parent education classes should be expanded, not eliminated.  Low-income adults need parent education classes as much as more well to do parents, perhaps more, as families in poverty often face greater challenges.  But if parent education classes are to be funded by fees alone, many parents will be unable to afford them.   West Contra Costa Adult Education’s thriving Parent Education department dwindled to almost nothing when the district started charging fees for all its classes, and only began to come back slightly when the adult school found some funding that allowed it to offer some classes at no charge.

Defunded: Family Literacy:  This one is a shocker.  Other programs that would lose their funding if SB 174 passes, like Older Adults, Adults with Disabilities and Parent Education, are programs that were listed as eligible for state funding under the original language of Ed. Code Section 41976.  There were hints in the State Strategic Plan and the LAO report that these programs might be defunded.  Family literacy was not listed in the original Ed. Code section, and there has been no discussion of defunding it until now.  A lot of family literacy classes are part of ESL programs, which are eligible for state funding under SB 174.  It is unclear how the language in SB 174 would  affect those ESL classes with a family literacy emphasis, but the SB 174  language would seem to put them in an insecure position.

Family literacy is a key way that adult education programs support K-12, and when adult schools pled with school boards not to completely close their programs, the service provided to the district by family literacy programs was one of the most persuasive arguments they had.  When large numbers of adult school students came to school board meetings, it was often the students in family literacy programs that made up the majority of the crowd.  Adult education students who told school boards they were in school to help their children with their homework were  family literacy students.

Research has shown conclusively that the education level of a child’s parents, particularly the mother, is the greatest indicator of a child’s school success, trumping even socio-economic factors in importance.  Improving the literacy level of parents is one of the most effective investments California can make in the success of its school children.  Family literacy programs support workforce preparation of children by giving them a better chance in school, and can also lead to parents eventually training for and successfully entering the workforce.  Parents, usually mothers, often begin a family literacy class with the goal of helping their children, but later decide to train for a job or enter higher education as their own academic achievement advances and they gain confidence.

At West Contra Costa Adult Education, most of the family literacy classes are ESL  classes held at Title I elementary schools.  At these schools, more than 50% of the children are eligible for a free or reduced price lunch. At most of the schools where these classes are held, the percentage of children eligible for a free or reduced price lunch is much higher, around 80% or more.  The parents in the family literacy classes are the parents who can’t afford to buy their children lunch.  These crucial classes would not survive if the students had to support them entirely with fees.

Defunded:  Health and Financial Literacy.  Currently, adult school health and safety classes are almost entirely supported by student fees already.  Still it is strange that, in the midst of an obesity epidemic, our state legislators are so carefully removing the possibility that these classes could ever be offered at state expense.  Financial literacy was not part of the original language of Ed. Code Section 41976, and so never was eligible to receive state funding.  However, it is worth pointing out that California’s economic collapse was due, in part, to a dearth of financial literacy.  Large numbers of people were trapped into bad mortgages because they did not have the skills to understand what they were being offered.  Adult schools could have been part of the solution to this problem if they had been given the right resources to teach more financial literacy.

Farewell to Ripple Effects:  The State Strategic Plan for adult education that came out in 2011 began with a section entitled “Return on Investment in Adult Education”. This section made a strong case for the benefits adult education produces for the state, particularly the “ripple effects” such as improved civic participation, better individual, family and community health, and improvements to children’s education for children of adults who participate in adult education programs. Unfortunately, the plan went on to considerably narrow the mission of adult education, and never mentioned the ripple effects again throughout the rest of the report.  Now SB 174, probably informed by the strategic plan’s recommendations but not its other content, systematically defunds the programs that cause the ripple effects.  These changes will have the unintended effect of reducing, rather than enhancing, the value of adult education to the state.

Now that the State Strategic Plan’s recommendations are about to be enshrined in law, it should be pointed out again that the process of creating the plan was not inclusive, fair or transparent.  Adult education teachers had no chance to have input into the plan until an October 2010 comment period, when the plan was already fully formed.  The October 2010 comment period was open to adult education professionals only, and comments by teachers from this period make it very clear that they and their unions were not consulted about the plan during its formation.  At the same time, comments by adult education administrators indicated that, at some point during the plan’s development, they attended workshops and saw presentations that were not accessible to other stakeholders in adult education and are not reflected in the report.

The general public, which includes adult school students and members of communities served by adult schools, had no chance to give input until an October 2011 comment period. The notice of the October 2011 comment period was preceded by an arrogant declaration from the state Adult Education Office that it would no longer consider significant revisions, but would like to hear what the public thought anyway. So essentially the public had no opportunity for meaningful comment during the “public comment period”, and most were probably discouraged from commenting by the announcement stating that their comments would not change anything.  Before the California legislature begins to enact legislation based on the recommendations of the strategic plan, they need to look carefully at the flawed fairness and transparency of the process that produced this document.

A note on civic participation: Classes on civic participation are mentioned in two places in SB 174; they are mentioned in subdivision (a) paragraph (2), which outlines programs for immigrants that can receive state funding, and in subdivision (a) paragraph (4) which delineates programs that are not eligible for state funding.  Thus it seems that civic participation classes for immigrants may receive state funding, but civic participation for the general public may not. This seems like it could lead to some confusing situations.

Subsection (c): Who’s Picking Up the Tab?

Subsection (c) would replace clear Education Code language about which classes districts can and can’t charge for with language that is unspecific and open to a great deal of  interpretation.  It a effectively removes all guarantees that basic literacy classes, such as High School Diploma, Adult Basic Education and English as a Second Language must be offered free, replacing them with language that holds neither the state nor school districts accountable.

The subsection reads: “If an adult education course is not eligible for funding from an apportionment from the Adult Education Fund, or if such an apportionment does not cover the entire cost of providing the course, a fee may be charged to cover the cost.”

Why leave the responsibility for funding the classes so unclear?  The language of subsection (c) seems like an invitation to the state to underfund adult education, and a blank check for districts to charge whatever they feel like charging.  There are no protections for low income students, no language about fee waivers or caps on what districts can charge.

Historically, the state of California has shown a strong commitment to adult literacy by mandating that literacy programs such as adult basic and secondary education, English as a Second Language, and Citizenship classes be offered free by adult schools.  Because people in the U.S. who lack basic literacy are at a significant economic disadvantage, charging fees for these classes will price those who most need them out of an education.  While some districts began charging for classes that are required by state law to be free in reaction to the chaos created by Tier III flexibility, these desperate measures should not be enshrined in law.  California needs to renew its commitment to basic literacy for adults and clearly delineate which classes must be offered free of charge.

Focusing the Mission: Some Animals Are More Equal than Others

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” – George Orwell, Animal Farm

It is notable that the original language of Education Code 41976 is basically just a list of classes that can be funded by the state.  There is no language that gives primacy to any one program, or identifies some programs as more important than others. By contrast, SB 174 sets up a hierarchy among adult school programs with the words, “The primary focus of adult education is to provide dropout recovery and support the transition of adult students to postsecondary education, training, and into the workforce.”

It is interesting that “dropout recovery” gets pride of place here.  The original language of Education Code 41976 does not mention dropout recovery at all.  Dropout recovery is a relatively new idea, and probably did not exist at the time the original legislation was written. The original language of the code section refers to high school diploma or adult secondary programs only.

A person of any age can complete his or her high school diploma through an adult education program, but dropout recovery programs are only for students young enough to still have their education publicly subsidized.  In California, students age 16 to 24 are eligible for dropout recovery if they are concurrently enrolled in federal or state job training programs.  Unlike older students, students in dropout recovery can benefit school districts; their attendance and graduation can count towards the attendance and graduation rates of the high school they last attended.

A 28 year old who graduates from an adult school secondary education program is just as great  an example to her kids as a 24 year old, and has improved her life prospects and earning power just as the younger student has. Her graduation is just as much of a triumph.  But by specifying that dropout recovery, rather than adult secondary education, is the “primary focus of adult education”, SB 174 effectively makes the 28 year old a second class citizen of adult education. A good dropout recovery  program can and should be a component of adult secondary programs, but there is no need to elevate dropout recovery over the rest of the program.

Workforce preparation and transition to post-secondary learning have always been, and will continue to be, crucial goals for adult education programs. It is almost unnecessary to legislate this; these goals will always be important to adult schools because they are so important to adult school students.  Adult schools that did not make workforce and post-secondary transition central to their programs would soon close their doors, as adult students vote with their feet.  They would quickly desert a program that ignored their needs.

But adult students have other needs, too, as citizens and parents.  To narrow the mission of adult education to only workforce preparation and post-secondary transition does them, their families, and their communities a disservice. Money spent to educate adult students is an investment that pays off many times over, and California will be better off when it begins to invest in adult education again.

Conclusion: SB 174 Is a Good Start

While there is much to criticize about SB 174, its central premise, that adult schools should remain with K-12, is a very good option for adult education.  With some small changes to its language, it could  become an excellent bill.  Here are some suggested revisions:

1. Substitute “high school completion” for “dropout recovery” as one of the primary focuses of adult education, and add civic engagement classes to the primary mission.

2. Restore parenting classes, programs for older adults and programs for adults with disabilities as programs that can receive state funding.

3.  Change subdivision (b) so that programs in paragraphs (1) to (4) of subdivision (a) are eligible for state funding.

4. In subdivision (c), remove the words “or if such an apportionment does not cover the entire cost of providing the course”.

These small changes would be a big improvement to the bill, and make a start on restoring some of what has been lost from adult education in California.

One Response

  1. Stop cutting education and help for the disabled and senior citizens to fix the budget instead cut the salaries of the State Politicians!!

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