Straw into Gold or Else! — Strange Math and Magical Thinking at the March 11 Legislative Hearing on Adult Education

The title of the March 11, 2015 joint informational hearing of the Assembly Education, Assembly Higher Education and Senate Education Committees was “Adult Education: Moving Forward”. The hearing was primarily an overview of the recently completed Regional Consortia planning process. But despite the optimistic title, the atmosphere was far from cheery. Also, there were many numbers that did not quite add  up. Statistics have been bolded in this post so you can follow me on a journey into strange math. You can view the video of the hearing here:

Senator Carol Liu, chair of the Senate Education Committee, started off the proceedings with a sobering statistic: four million California adults in need of education services are currently unserved.   She observed that the Regional Consortia planning process was intended to take steps towards utilizing the state’s adult education resources better.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office Provides Context

The first presentation, by Natasha Collins, Fiscal and Policy Analyst for the Legislative Analyst’s Office, provided a brief history of the adult school and community college systems, including the origin of adult schools 150 years ago, the development of the community college system within the adult school system, and the separation of the two systems in the 1940s which created the independent community college system we have now. According to her figures, adult schools and community colleges together served about 1.5 million students in 2010, and during the years of categorical flexibility, 2009-2013, adult schools lost half their funding as school districts “flexed” their funding to balance their budgets in the face of severe cuts to education funding. Community colleges, which have a different funding system also experienced cuts at this time, though they were not as severe.

In response to questioning from Assembly Education Committee Chair Patrick O’Donell, Ms. Collins stated that during the years of categorical flexibility , the number of adult schools in the state dropped from 620 to 554, an 11% decrease.   During that time, adult schools experienced a 36% drop in enrollment, while community colleges experienced an 18% drop.

Strange Math Note #1: How Many Adult Schools? The official number of adult schools we used to have and have now, as well as the number of closures, has jumped significantly recently. The 2012 Legislative Analyst’s Report (LAO), Restructuring California’s Adult Education System, which is the most extensive recent study of the adult school and community college systems, gave the number of adult schools in California at that time as 300, down from 335 before categorical flexibility. That amounts to 35 closures of adult schools due to categorical flexibility. Now Ms. Collins, who also works for the LAO, gives a much higher numbers for both before and after flexibility: 620 before and 554 after. That amounts to an even more appalling 66 closures during the period of categorical flexibility.

What could be the reason for this discrepancy? Has the state suddenly found a large number of adult schools it didn’t know about? Or is the state defining adult schools differently, so that more institutions qualify as adult schools according to the way the state counts them? Another possibility is that the numbers were spun or otherwise suppressed back when the state was contemplating having the community colleges take over all of adult education. As it was, the idea of 112 community colleges taking over the work of 300 adult schools raised serious concerns about reduction of access for adult students; if the true ratio was 6:1 rather than 3:1, the alarm would have been much greater. Now that the state has more or less decided to keep both adult schools and community colleges functioning under the consortium system, the real number of adult schools can be used. However, for doubt about the state’s commitment to maintain the two systems, read on.

AB 86 Regional Consortia Final Report: Things Get Tense

Debra Jones of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and Russ Weikle, of the California Department of Education made this report on the regional consortia planning process, which was recently completed. Their recommendations included restoration of dedicated funding for adult schools, and they noted that the money in the governor’s budget proposal is not sufficient to restore services. They recommended reopening adult schools and community college satellites that have been closed, and noted that there would need to be additional full time faculty and counselors to work on aligning curriculum and helping students transition to jobs and higher education. They recommended social supports for student like transportation and child care.

Then they recommended that the financial burden on students needs to be reduced. The noted that fees are very different across adult school systems and programs, and recommended that there either be no fees for adult school services, or that consistent low fees be adopted across the state. They asked the legislature to provide guidance about this.

At this point, things got tense, as Senator Liu angrily interrupted the proceedings. She berated Jones and Weikle, saying “I can’t believe you are just putting this (fees) on the legislature.” She said she was very frustrated that “the two bodies haven’t come together”, and said the recommendations are not adequate because “We’re not going back to before the cuts.”

Debra Jones explained that the original recommendation was that there be no fees, but when they took this recommendation to the field, some adult schools said they couldn’t survive without fees on the reduced amount of money they have been receiving. Note: Remember that adult school funding has been reduced by one half and frozen there. The governor’s budget for next year will provide funding for adult schools through a block grant, but it does not increase adult school funding by a single penny. There are vague plans to increase funding after next year.

This explanation did not satisfy Senator Liu at all. She proceeded from scolding to threatening. “How long will this take?” she asked. “You’ve been meeting for 2 ½ years and you don’t talk to each other. If you can’t resolve this the state will simply assign all of adult education to one system.”

Assembly Member Das Williams then chimed in, saying “We can’t provide money.”

Senator Liu’s threat was both alarming and confusing. On the surface, she seemed to be berating two government employees because she didn’t like the job they did. But she can hardly have meant that Jones and Weikle, as individuals, were not talking to each other. She was clearly angry at adult schools and community colleges because they had not come up with the solutions she wanted. And her threat, while it seemed to encompass both systems (“the state will simply assign all of adult education to one system”), was clearly aimed at adult schools. The state is hardly likely to hand over the community college system to K-12 school districts. Senator Liu seemed to be indicating that the governor’s 2013 recommendation that all adult schools be closed and their functions handed over to the community colleges is still on the table, in spite of the fact that the LAO recommended that the two systems be maintained and the state has just spent $25 million on planning to keep both systems and get them to work together more effectively.

So while Senator Liu appeared to be upset with both parties in the consortium negotiations (“you don’t talk to each other”), her threat was against one party to the negotiations, adult schools. To the other party, community colleges, the carrying out of the threat, if it were to happen, might be experienced more as a reward. That is hardly a way to get two parties to negotiate more effectively.

It is hardly fair to blame and punish adult schools for any perceived failure of the consortium planning process. There is no evidence that adult schools are any more to blame than community colleges for any failure to communicate or resolve problems. Adult schools are, if anything, more invested in the consortium process than the community colleges, because their future funding depends on it. And, because they lack independent funding, adult schools are the weaker party in the negotiations. Negotiated outcomes are rarely controlled by the weaker party. Perhaps Senator Liu was angry because she felt adult schools were not conciliatory enough, did not give up enough. Perhaps, in her mind, the result of the consortium planning was supposed to be little different than the governor’s original proposal: complete control by the community colleges.

Those of us who participated in the planning process for our consortia were never told it was our primary task to find ways to save the state money. We were told to find ways to collaborate in order to serve our students better. In fact, I remember participating in an exercise where we were asked to design a dream system without considering the cost. This was a brainstorming activity, of course, and everyone understood that we would not really have unlimited money, or even much money. But we were encouraged to think about what would really make the system better without regards to expense. This exercise was led by staff from a consulting firm that was involved in the planning process for many of the consortia, and was paid out of consortium planning funds. Their work is done now, and they are off somewhere, probably counting their money. Meanwhile, adult educators are still here, being scolded by Senator Liu.

One of the main tasks of the consortium planning process was to find gaps in service and design ways to fill them. A serious attempt to find and address gaps in service means, by definition, that adult schools and community colleges are going to be doing more, not less, than they were doing before. That can’t help but mean more money will be needed.

But Senator Liu’s testy “We’re not going back to before the cuts”, along with Assemblymember Williams’ curt, “ We can’t provide the money” seems to imply that there will never be any more money for adult schools. Do they really mean that adult schools can never hope to return to the modest level of funding they had before the financial crash, no matter how prosperous the state becomes? While the rest of the state recovers, are adult schools alone to be singled out for perpetual austerity, never to receive more funding than they received at the very nadir of the worst financial collapse California has experienced  since the Great Depression? How can the state justify that, with four million people adults going without basic literacy services? Yet Senator Liu seemed to feel justified in lecturing two state employees for making recommendations that were obviously about the long term, not next year. After all, the amount of money that will be available for next year has already been announced, and everyone involved is clear that adult schools will not receive any more money than they did last year. But apparently, even at a hearing entitled “Adult Education: Moving Forward”, it is heresy to suggest that adult schools will ever need any additional money as they move into the future.

It is probably significant that Senator Liu’s anger flared up right after the subject of fees was mentioned. For some policy makers, the notion that there can never be any more money for adult schools is coupled to the idea that adult education must be partially funded by student fees in both adult school and noncredit community college classes. While all of the AB86 programs have been offered as part of free public education for decades, including during the Great Depression, there are many who believe the state can no longer afford this dedication to basic literacy for its citizens.

Once modest fees have been imposed on all adult school and noncredit community college classes, the fees can begin their inexorable march upward, in the manner of fees for universities, colleges and community colleges. So we may see, in our lifetime, adult education students swelling the legions Californians mired in student debt, all in order to secure the equivalent of a high school or even elementary education. More likely, many people will just skip the basic education, and California will have a bigger adult literacy problem than before. But the students who can afford to pay will make adult schools and community colleges look good, because those who can pay are those more likely to succeed. Charging fees is an effective way of “creaming” the adult population, selecting for those students with more resources and stability. Those students are more likely to achieve good outcomes with less work by the school.

The timing of Senator Liu’s angry comments suggests that, for her, the suggestion that fees are a significant barrier to low income students was the last straw, even as part of a report on a process that was tasked with finding ways to remove barriers to education for California’s adults.

Strange Math Note #2: Straw into Gold! Senator Liu’s comments about the consortia were reminiscent of the fairy tale about the girl who was locked in a room for the night and ordered to spin straw into gold, with the threat that she would lose her head in the morning if she failed. Come to think of it, the consortium meetings did have a feeling of being locked in and pressured to come up with something fast. But Senator Liu’s comments seemed to imply that we were also supposed to perform magic. The senator opened the session by saying that four million Californians are in need of adult education services. According to the numbers from Natasha Collins of the LAO, community colleges and adult schools together now serve fewer than 1.5 million students. Now, with our resources reduced by half, we are supposed to find so many savings through collaborations that we will magically be able to serve another four million. And if we aren’t able to do that, we’ve failed, and aren’t talking to each other.

In other words, the state seems to expect a Cadillac system for the price of a broken down bicycle. You don’t need to be a financial analyst to figure out that even if every adult education class took place in a broom closet with the teacher writing in dust with the handle of a broken mop for lack of a blackboard, the system could not serve four million additional students on the money it receives now, much less get them into college or careers.

As long as legislators are not willing to dedicate more resources to providing services for the four million Californians who still need them, they are just using the statistic as a stick to beat adult education providers with. If they don’t mean to really serve those people, they shouldn’t trot them out to make a point.

The Department of Finance and LAO Explain Funding

This portion of the hearing was dominated by probing questions from the legislators about the proposed allocation committees that will make decisions about finances for each consortium. It was obvious they had been dying to ask questions like: “Who is the board accountable to?” “ What recourse is available to appeal board decisions?” and the straight-to –the –point “What about in-fighting?”

Assemblymember José Medina, Chair of the Assembly Committee on Higher Education asked simply, “Where did this idea come from?” As it turns out, it comes from the Department of Finance.

Assemblymember Shirley Weber asked, ”How much will it cost to have this elaborate structure?”, and remarked that presumably the funding worked well before . (It did.)

All excellent questions.

There was also a question about whether the meetings of the allocation board would be public, and if the board would be subject to the Brown Act. The rather unsettling answer was “The idea doesn’t speak to that”.

Strange Math Note #3: Allocation Boards.The proposed allocation boards are to be composed of seven members, each representing a different stakeholder: one for the community college, one for adult schools, one for the Workforce Investment Board, one for social services, and so on. This body would make decisions about the distribution of funds to the consortia. Some of the problems that are likely to arise with the allocation board model became clear in the next part of the program, where representatives of successful consortia presented. For example, the State Center Adult Education Regional Consortium encompasses 10 school districts and 55 partners. How would the one adult school representative on the allocation committee possibly be able to fairly represent all 10 districts, especially when that representative would almost certainly work for one of the 10? And what about the 55 partners? How could they possibly be represented?

Another problem with the allocation boards was pointed out succinctly by Larry Teshara of San Mateo Adult School, who noted that every organization on the allocation board, with the exception of adult schools, would have its own funding independent of the consortia. “They’re looking for dessert,” he explained, “We’re looking for dinner.”

Regional Consortia Experience

The presentations from successful consortia were interesting, although two of the four consortia who presented seemed to start out with significant advantages. In San Diego and Glendale, there had already been some collaboration between the adult schools and the community colleges before the consortia began. In fact, San Diego was able to build on a three decade collaboration with an adult school High School Diploma program. Also, in San Diego, there was only one adult school and one community college in the consortium. That is a very unusual situation, and very advantageous as far as collaboration is concerned, especially when the two systems were already collaborating to some extent before.

San Mateo Adult School, which also presented, faced a more typical consortium situation, though San Mateo is a basic aid district, which means the adult school enjoys a little more community support and more resources than some districts. The State Center Adult Education Consortium seemed to face the most challenges, as it encompasses ten school districts and experienced a 64% decrease in funding since categorical flexibility was instituted, with six adult schools in the region closing due to flexibility.

All of the four consortia presented some very interesting ideas, most of which could be copied by other consortia. Some intriguing ideas included:

  • Joint board of trustee meetings (community college and school district)
  • Soliciting ideas from faculty and students at the start of the planning process
  • Early integration of CASAS into consortium plans (CASAS is the standardized testing used by adult schools)
  • Bringing workforce partnership into the discussion
  • Student involvement
  • Sharing data between adult schools (and eventually community colleges, too) through the ASAP attendance system (an attendance system used by many adult schools)
  • College classes on the adult school campus
  • Community college comes to the adult school campus to register students
  • Apprenticeship collaboration
  • A community resource network
  • Creating a one stop for adult education services
  • Contacting the Workforce Investment Board early and hiring their researcher

All four presenters mentioned that the consortium planning process needed to be ongoing.

Senator Liu again seemed dissatisfied. She questioned the panel in tones that implied they had not really done their jobs, asking if they had done anything about curriculum development, fees, reciprocity (the term the state is using for allowing the same teachers to teach in community college noncredit and adult school programs) or student IDs.

Actually, some of these issues had been addressed in the presentations.   One of the consortia, State Center, had mentioned sharing of data through the ASAP system, which goes to the issue of student IDs (student ID numbers are an issue because adult schools and community colleges use different numbers, making it difficult to share student data). While curriculum development and alignment had not been named specifically by presenters, most of what they talked about touched on it in various ways: integration of CASAS testing, use of assessments as diagnostic tools, collaboration on an apprenticeship program, student and teacher input – what did Senator Liu think that was all about?

Senator Liu’s question was a bit strange, since at least one of the items she mentioned, reciprocity, can only be resolved by legislation changing the rules around teacher credentialing. Nonetheless, the legislators launched into a line of questioning about reciprocity that was alarming for what it revealed about how little the legislators understand about how both adult schools and community colleges work.

They asked about what qualifies a teacher to teach in community college noncredit, and got two different answers. In Glendale, both credit and noncredit teachers have to have master’s degrees because of a union agreement. In San Diego, noncredit teachers only need a bachelor’s degree (this is the case for most community colleges with noncredit programs).

Now these are just differences between two community college systems. And it seemed to completely confuse the legislators. They didn’t seem to get that all community colleges, and most adult schools, have agreements with their unions, individually worked out and widely differing, and that they can’t just cancel these agreements because they are in consortia.

Lest this be thought to be part of the supposed disarray adult education is in, let me point out that the same situation exists in K-12 schools. Pay rates and working conditions are worked out in separate union agreements in every district in the state, resulting in significant variations in pay and work conditions from district to district.

If the legislators don’t understand such a basic issue as union agreements, it is hard to see how they can make coherent laws around community college and adult school collaboration through the consortia.

Legislators also need to understand that the difference in pay between credit and noncredit community college teachers is an issue for unions representing community college teachers, because it creates a two-tier wage system for teachers. This is probably the reason Glendale has a union agreement requiring both credit and noncredit teachers to have masters’ degrees; it would be interesting to know if they receive the same pay. If they do, that is not the norm. In most community colleges, noncredit teachers are paid at a lower rate than credit teachers, and only have to have a bachelor’s degree. The difference in pay may also be part of the reason that many community colleges don’t even have noncredit programs; unions tend to resist them because of the issue of different pay.

Now , with the consortia, adult school teachers, who receive even lower pay than noncredit community college teachers, will be in the mix. And they will be represented by different unions, or no union at all. How the unions are going to handle that is anybody’s guess.

Strange Math Note #4: What is Reciprocity? Reciprocity is a fancy name for abolishing the adult school credential, which would allow community college teachers to take adult school jobs more easily. This is really the only barrier to adult school teachers and community college noncredit teachers working across programs. A BA will qualify a teacher to teach in most noncredit community college programs, and all adult school teachers have BAs . But to teach adult school, they also have to have an adult school credential. The irony is that, even though they need less in the way of credentials, noncredit community college teachers typically make more than adult school teachers. Community college teachers of for-credit classes are required to have master’s degrees and typically make more than noncredit community college teachers and much more than adult school teachers. It is unlikely that the state wants to remove the requirement that for-credit community college teachers have a master’s degree, because for –credit community college classes are higher education, and an advanced degree is required to teach them. When the state talks about reciprocity, they are talking about reciprocity between noncredit community college and adult school programs.

The adult school credential does lead to some anomalies, like teachers who have taught for-credit classes in a community college for years having to get an additional credential before taking a lower-paying adult school job. It means that adult school teachers with master’s degrees have to get an adult school credential to teach in adult school when they could go directly into community college teaching (this happened to your humble author, for example). It makes a little more sense if you recall that adult schools are school, and all teachers in schools have to have a credential. A master’s degree doesn’t qualify a teacher to teach kindergarten, either.

While “reciprocity” is debated by policymakers as if it would somehow save the state money, it is not clear how that would work (this is the strange math part). Even if adult school teachers could start teaching with only a BA, their pay is already so low that it could scarcely be lowered further, especially when noncredit community college teachers make more with the same qualifications. Certainly it could save adult school teachers money.   They have to pay for the credential, and then take several expensive classes, including an adult pedagogy class, before the end of the first year to clear the credential. Thereafter, they have to periodically pay the state to keep their credentials current, even though, with teachers no longer required to submit anything the state really has to evaluate, like proof that they have been participating in ongoing training, they are now essentially paying to have the Commission on Teacher Credentialing make a few clicks on its website.

However, since all the reforms to adult education are supposed to improve it, it is strange to see the state seeking to remove a layer of professionalism. Don’t we want people who teach adults to know something about adult pedagogy? If we really want to improve adult education, wouldn’t it make more sense to have reciprocity go the other way, and require more of noncredit community college teachers?

K-12 and California Community Colleges District Perspective

Cynthia Parulan-Colfer, Superintendent of the Hacienda La Puente school district spoke eloquently for the K-12 side. I have to admit that I didn’t expect to like what she said, because the state has put adult schools in such an oppositional position with their school districts. So I was pleasantly surprised when she immediately demonstrated an understanding of the importance of adult education, noting that the education of the mother has a strong impact on the success of the child. She said it was hard to fund adult education from the LCFF, and that adult schools need dedicated stable funding because we need to educate both the child and the family. She also observed that it is hard to come to the table with nothing while others have something. She expressed concern about the allocation board, because they would not be accountable to who she is accountable to (meaning the board of education for her district).

Final Comment: Adult Schools Need More Respect and Less Strange Math

It is really time for the state to stop treating adult schools as if they were responsible for the Great Recession in California. That is the strangest math of all. All the impassioned rhetoric about “we’re not going back to before the cuts” and stern lecturing about how adult education needs to shape up make it sound like adult schools did something terribly wrong. In fact, adult schools are a relatively small, low-cost and effective program (even the LAO says they are just as effective as noncredit community college programs) that was subjected to tremendous losses in order to help K-12 districts weather a financial crisis. Perhaps that sacrifice was necessary, but now that the crisis is over, there is no excuse for freezing adult schools permanently in their damaged state.

Just to set the record straight, the Great Recession was caused by Wall Street, and was made worse in California by laws that made it possible for an anti-tax minority party to hold the budget hostage year after year. Ultimately Californians rejected the Republican austerity agenda and swept the Republican party into near-insignificance. Yet somehow adult schools remain as a pocket of austerity, kept poor and weak not so much by Republicans as by Democrats who need to demonstrate, from time to time, that they can be tough austeritarians too.

Far from causing the Great Recession, adult schools, battered as they were, provided a refuge for the recession’s most wounded victims. The people who lost their jobs and houses were in our classes. We couldn’t give them back their livelihoods or homes, but we gave them a place to tell their stories, a community to support them, and learning that gave them hope for the future. Now those people are slowly beginning to recover. They need their adult schools to recover too. When the state treats adult schools as a scapegoat rather than a valuable resource for students who struggle against many difficulties, often to achieve impressive results, it does those students a great disservice.



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