Governor Delays Controversial Plan to Restructure Adult Education, Yet Concerns Remain

California’s adult education system is a vital resource for millions of low- and middle-income individuals, helping them obtain the basic knowledge and skills necessary to advance in their careers and participate in civic life. This system helps Californians achieve educational goals such as learning to speak English; passing citizenship exams; earning a high school diploma; boosting their job skills; and obtaining the proficiency needed in reading, writing, and math to succeed in postsecondary education.

For the past several years, California’s adult education system has operated with a significantly decreased level of funding, due to the combination of severe budget cuts and a policy change that has made previously dedicated funding more flexible. In 2007-08, the year before the economy hit bottom and the Great Recession deepened, adult education received more than $700 million in dedicated funding. Due to declining revenues, the state implemented two consecutive years of double-digit cuts to adult education beginning in 2008-09. Also in 2008-09, legislators gave school districts the flexibility to shift funding specifically dedicated to adult education to other educational uses as they saw fit, magnifying the impact of the spending cuts. Subsequently, many districts redirected either significant portions or all of their adult education funding into other program areas. In fact, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) estimates that as little as 40 percent — roughly $250 million — of the money currently allocated to adult education is actually being spent for that purpose, a decline of well over 50 percent from the 2007-08 level.

In January, Governor Brown called for a restructuring of the state’s adult education system. This plan would have shifted significant responsibility and funding for adult education away from K-12 school districts, where adult schools have traditionally resided, to community colleges, which often have little experience providing courses similar to those offered at adult schools. The Governor’s January proposal also included $300 million in dedicated adult education funding for community colleges in 2013-14, roughly in line with the LAO’s estimate of current adult education spending but still less than half the 2007-08 level.

Faced with significant criticism from advocates and educators regarding the adult education restructuring in his January proposal, and a rejection of the plan by a key Assembly budget subcommittee in March, the Governor issued a re-worked proposal for adult education in his May Revision. The revised proposal would essentially put the restructuring plan on hold for two years, during which time the Governor proposes to allocate $30 million to help transition to a new regional partnership program composed of community colleges, school districts, and other adult education providers. Yet while the proposal promises $500 million of dedicated funding in 2015-16, the May Revision includes no dedicated program funding during the two-year transition. As an incentive for school districts to continue funding adult education programs during this transitional period, the Governor proposes that 70 percent of the $500 million promised in 2015-16 — or $350 million — would go to current providers, as long as they maintain their current spending levels for the next two fiscal years.

As the budget deliberations in the Legislature move forward, two key questions will shape the policy debate around adult education in California:

  • Would the Governor’s incentive for school districts to maintain adult education funding be enough to stem further program cuts and closures? While some districts have already acted to restore some adult education funding in response to the Governor’s May Revision, others have not, and — in the climate of cutbacks to adult education in recent years — there is no guarantee that adult education spending and programs would be maintained during the two-year transition period.
  • Who would have ultimate responsibility and accountability under the new adult education regional partnership structure envisioned by the Governor? While many of these details would likely be worked out during the two-year transition period, some in the adult education arena have raised initial concerns about community colleges being designated as the fiscal agents, with promised future adult education funding flowing through community colleges to K-12 districts and other providers.

The debate on the future of adult education comes at a time when the need for adult education remains high. Nearly one in five adults in California have yet to earn a high school diploma or pass the GED exam. Additionally, nearly 25 percent of California’s adult population is functionally illiterate, lacking basic skills necessary to accomplish ordinary tasks such as filling out job applications or understanding and accessing public services. Furthermore, federal immigration reform could result in millions more California residents seeking help from adult education programs, such as basic skills, civic education, and English-as-a-second-language (ESL) courses .

Adult education is a critical but often overlooked part of our state’s system of education and career preparation, especially for low-and middle-income Californians. A strong adult education system that meets the needs of these residents would benefit all Californians and contribute to a better-trained workforce and a stronger economy.

— Phaelen Parker