by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Adult education is suffering from an identity crisis. It’s been the neglected stepchild of public education for years, and it’s now on the verge of a comeback. Kind of.
Run by K-12 districts, adult ed classes are designed for those over 18, but teens who dropped out may enroll. It’s not college, but there are programs on community college campuses. And colleges will soon be playing a much larger overall role. As if that’s not confusing enough, adult education programs throughout the state have received both proclamations of death and announcements of rebirth within a single year because of on-again, off-again funding.
Depending on who you talk to, adult education is either about to be revamped in a way that ensures its survival — or entering a new state of uncertainty and chaos.
A roller coaster ride
Adult schools offer free or low-cost classes for adults 18 and older. In its heyday, all students could enroll in adult education courses to graduate from high school, pass the GED (General Educational Development) test, learn about jobs, learn to speak English, or learn how to become U.S. citizens. There was a plethora of parenting classes, enrichment classes such as conversational Spanish and computer skills, and classes geared for older adults.
Adult schools operate at much lower levels today in K-12 districts, and community colleges offer some adult education programs, referred to as “noncredit” or “community” courses.
How did adult education reach a near-death state?
After years of gradual cutbacks, adult education entered “flexibility” or “Tier III” status in 2009, landing at the bottom of categorical programs. The cellar-dweller designation maimed adult education. Districts were given the right to raid funds from Tier III programs or shut them down completely. Many districts decimated once-thriving adult education programs or dismantled them to fund K-12 education. CTA called the move to Tier III status “short-sighted” for depriving adults of important skills necessary to securing employment.
Public outcry was huge in 2012 when Gov. Jerry Brown proposed shifting all adult education programs to community colleges within two years. Protest from faculty prompted the governor to relent. In a compromise move, he endorsed AB 86. Under this plan, K-12 districts must fund adult education programs at the same levels as 2012-13 for the next two years, while working with local community colleges to “streamline” services and develop regional consortia to oversee programs.
The 2013-14 budget allocates $25 million for “planning and implementation” grants that community colleges can apply for to begin collaborating with their local K-12 districts on adult ed. The governor announced plans to spend $500 million on adult education in 2015-16, with existing programs first in line to receive funding.
SB 173, which enacts the governor’s compromise plan, funds adult education elementary and secondary basic academic skills, English as a Second Language (ESL), citizenship classes, short-term vocational programs with high employment potential, and programs for disabled adults.
Through omission, parenting education programs and programs for older adults won’t be funded.
“I’m very concerned about these omissions,” says Matthew Kogan, chair of CTA’s Subcommittee on Adult Education. “I don’t know any role in society that is more important than parenting. Courts refer parents to these classes. And programs for older adults cost such a small amount of money. They provide physical and mental stimulation and an opportunity to socialize for seniors who have paid taxes their entire lifetime. It seems mean-spirited to ignore them.”
Can K-12 schools and community colleges work together?
“I think some of the direction of AB 86 is very good, and I like the idea of secure funding in the future,” says Kogan, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), who teaches ESL at Evans Adult School. “Some of our colleagues are afraid of working with community colleges, but I think competing with community colleges is scarier than working together. And working collaboratively with them will secure us more support from state lawmakers.”
Ernest Kettenring, UTLA director for adult education and a member of CTA’s Adult Education Subcommittee, hopes collaboration will ensure continued survival, noting that Los Angeles has one-third of the adult education programs it once did, and is still considered to be a “survivor” compared to other districts.
“There have been structural deficiencies in adult education programs for a number of years, and those need to be addressed. One of the deficiencies is a lack of coordination with the community college system and duplication of services. Collaboration could provide a pathway that will transition adult education students into the community college system. That was missing before.”
Lynette Nyaggah, Community College Association president, is pleased with AB 86, because community colleges did not want to “poach” adult education programs from K-12 districts in the first place, even if the governor tried to give community colleges control.
While people are afraid their “territory” may be taken away from them, “it’s not a territorial issue,” Nyaggah says. “The issue is how to make the very best adult education we can in the state so our students get the education they need. There’s no one-size-fits-all. We need to put teachers in the room and have them talk about what size fits their population.”
She encourages those involved to apply for the grant money to collaborate between community college and K-12 communities. Not applying will hurt local programs in the long run because they won’t be funded, she says.
CTA has a role in the transition
As part of the implementation process, a series of town hall meetings with the adult ed consortia were scheduled around the state, with stakeholders providing testimony and comment. Nyaggah attended a few with other CCA members. She is concerned there are no faculty, either K-12 or community college, on any of the decision-making bodies listed on the AB 86 website, just administrators.
“The Department of Education and the Chancellor’s Office need to hear CTA members say that faculty must be involved, since we are the ones who will live with these decisions in our classrooms.”
Hank Mollet, chair of CTA’s Adult, Alternative, Career and Technical Education Committee (which oversees the Adult Education Subcommittee), is concerned that AB 86 lacks “teeth” to make the community colleges work with school districts, so CTA members must do it themselves.
“If we don’t work together, change will be done to us, not with us. Our best opportunity is having CTA members take the lead in developing a plan through their association. We need to keep the conversations going, tapping into service centers and setting up meetings. A lot of resources can be brought together to make adult education and career education in our state more powerful. Now is the time to make it happen.”
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