Why Haven’t the AEBG Consortia Spent All Their Money?

While California’s adult schools have been severely underfunded since 2008, apparently some of the Adult Education Block Grant (AEBG) Consortia  have not spent all their money from 2015-2016.  So Sacramento’s answer to requests for  a badly needed funding increase for adult schools is now, “How can adult schools need more money when the consortia haven’t even spent the money they have?”

It’s a good question. So why haven’t the consortia spent all their money?

There are 5 million adults in California who need basic literacy services, and adult schools and community colleges together have only been able to serve about 1.5 million of these adults in the best of times.  So I don’t know why the consortia haven’t spent all their money.

In 2008, California spent $750 million on its adult schools alone.  Now the state spends $500 million on the AEBG consortia, which are a “collaboration” between adult schools and community colleges, with $350 million earmarked for adult schools.  That’s about half of what adult schools were getting  before the financial crash of 2008.  So I don’t know why the consortia haven’t spent all their money.

Oakland Adult School used to have about five buildings that were exclusively adult school sites and serve about 25,000 students.  Now they have about 15 classes and serve around 1,000 students.  Oakland hasn’t begun to recover from the debacle that was categorical flexibility for adult schools.  So I don’t know why the consortia haven’t spent all their money.

But some consortia (we don’t know how many) have unspent funds (we don’t know how much), and apparently for Sacramento that statistic trumps all the much more devastating statistics above.

This kind of reaction from our elected leaders makes me think of the old poster for the first Alien movie (I realize I’m dating myself) which bore the caption “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

In the consortia, no one can hear adult schools scream. Locked in the consortia, they are voiceless and invisible.  No one in state government wants to hear about adult schools anymore. They only want to hear about “the consortia”.

But adult schools still exist.  We have students, and our students have needs, urgent needs that are not being met.  Their needs are only likely to increase under the new federal regime, which seems hell-bent on enriching the comfortable and pushing everyone else to the margins.

I don’t know why the consortia haven’t spent all their money, but let me hazard some guesses.

  1. The Adult Education Block Grant provides funds to the consortia for two purposes. 1) $350 million is earmarked for adult schools; the portion allotted for each individual adult school is exactly the amount their districts were giving them in 2013, which for most adult schools was much less than they received in 2008; 2) $150 million awarded to the consortia to spend on innovative projects and addressing gaps in service.

I would hazard a guess that the unspent money is part of the $150 million awarded to the consortia, not the $350 million awarded to adult schools to run their programs.  Adult schools have been running on this inadequate $350 million for 5 years now and they need every penny.

Decisions about the $150 million that is not earmarked for individual adult schools rest with the consortia, which consists of all the adult schools and community colleges in a community college district.  My consortium has six adult schools and three community colleges.  Group decisions can certainly get bogged down, especially when the group is this large and the amount of money is relatively inadequate.  This might account for the unspent funds.  Adult schools can get hold of some of this money, but they have to beg, plead, come up with  “innovative” ideas that obligate them to additional expenditures  when what they really need is money to fund the programs they have now, etc.   I don’t think the unspent consortium money is really the fault of adult schools.

Someone should take a hard look at how adult schools are doing within the consortia.  Are they spending all their money, as opposed to “the consortium”?  I would guess that they are.

  1. The fact that the money is not enough may, ironically, be making it hard for the consortia to find ways to spend it. Obviously, the consortium that includes Oakland Adult School could spend every penny it has just to restore Oakland Adult without being able to come close to serving the students Oakland once served.  So they have to look for manageable projects that don’t really address the need, but don’t risk their going over budget.
  2. If some adult schools are failing to spend their whole allotment, it is probably because they are terrified of going over budget.  Before 2008, most adult schools had reserves that could cushion them against unexpected overages, but those reserves were mostly swept during categorical flexibility.  Now adult schools walk a financial tightrope; it’s no wonder if  they are sometimes too conservative in their spending.  Some school districts are sternly warning their adult schools that they had better not do anything that could impinge on district funds.
  3. On the other hand, there are districts that have decided to contribute some of their budget to their adult schools to supplement the AEBG money. This is probably more likely to happen in better-off areas where the district feels it can afford to be generous. Adult schools in more well-to-do areas are also more likely to have come through the period of categorical flexibility relatively unscathed.  So possibly there are some adult schools in prosperous districts that have more money than they know what to do with.  But should their lucky situation mean that all adult schools get no additional money?  One of the most grievous flaws of the consortium system is that it does nothing at all to address the unequal situation adult schools found themselves in at the end of their long ordeal.  Their situation was unequal to begin with, and while most suffered, privileges and disadvantages were exacerbated during the long downward slide.  The consortium system locked the inequalities into place rather than addressing them.  Now the most disadvantaged schools will get no help unless the most fortunate spend all their money.
  4. During the uncertain years from 2008 to 2013, much of the infrastructure that supported adult schools became badly eroded. With the survival of adult schools in doubt, many teachers stopped training for careers as adult educators. Adult school teachers who were laid off due to closures and cutbacks found other work.  The number of credentialing programs for adult school teachers was reduced, and the process of earning a credential became more difficult.  California is facing a shortage of all kinds of teachers right now, and the shortage of adult school teachers is worse.  The consortia may have some great plans to spend their money that they are unable to implement due to a lack of teachers.

All of the above are guesses, but I would venture to say they are educated guesses, based on my 20 years of experience as an adult educator and the experiences of other adult educators I know.  What I hope they show is that our elected officials need to look beyond the facile sound bite about the consortia not having spent all their money to find out what is really going on in the consortia and the adult schools locked inside them.  They need to look beyond the easy excuse to learn about the reality.  And they need to find a way to give adult schools, as opposed to “the consortia” a voice again.  Adult school students and teachers must once again be heard.

I am not against the consortia. The consortia hold out some great possibilities for collaboration between community colleges, adult schools, and other agencies that provide educational services for adults. I have participated in my own consortium with relish, interest, and hope. I have enjoyed meeting and collaborating with other teachers.

But I don’t really want to ask for more money for “the consortia”.  I want to ask for more money for adult schools.  But there is no way to do that now.  I have to ask for more money for the Adult Education Block Grant, with the hope that some of it will reach adult schools.

Adult schools have friends in the California legislature.  There are legislators who have been adult school teachers.  There are legislators who have been adult school students. There are legislators whose family members have benefited from adult school instruction.  We need to reach them and ask them to help us.

We need to keep up the letters to Governor Brown and to our legislators asking that more money be allocated for adult schools through the AEBG.  The fact that some of our elected officials are willing to keep things as they are because “not all of the AEBG money has been spent” is a reason to keep writing, not a reason to stop.  We need to ask our governor to try to understand us better, and ask our legislators to get beyond glib excuses and look for the truth.

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