Carolina Romo learns how to draw blood at a medical assistant's class at Metropolitan Adult School in San Jose. Photo by Neil Hanshaw

Carolina Romo learns how to draw blood at a medical assistant's class at Metropolitan Adult School in San Jose. Photo by Neil Hanshaw

Community colleges should take over all adult school programs from cash-strapped school districts, the Little Hoover Commission, the state watchdog agency, recommended yesterday.

The commission pointed out that successful examples already exist for adult school programs along those lines, most notably in San Diego and in San Francisco.

What’s more, that is the system in place in 32 other states, where community colleges effectively run adult school programs, not school districts.

The recommendation is one of several put forward in a 140-page report on community colleges released yesterday.

The commission, made up of 13 members appointed by the governor and Legislature, pointed to numerous school districts that have drastically cut back on their adult school programs, which offer courses in basic skills such as reading, writing and English as a Second Language. Some also offer classes in citizenship, parenting, home economics and other “life skills.”

Between the 2005-06 school year and 2009-10, the number of students in adult schools declined from 1.1 million to just over 776,000. “The state’s adult education system is crumbling, largely from budget decisions made in school districts across the state,” the report concluded.

Meanwhile, over the same period, the number of students taking similar basic skills classes in community colleges rose from 472,918 to 543,914.

Historically, the state’s K-12 schools have operated the majority of adult schools — which provide basic skills classes, high school diplomas and GEDs, and career technical education — and continue to do so today.

But two years ago, the Legislature gave local school districts the flexibility to spend the more than $600 million the state provided for adult schools on other purposes if they so chose.

That is precisely what many schools districts did. As a result, the commission noted, “an increasing number of school districts are sharply curtailing or eliminating their adult education programs.”

When Chris Nelson, Oakland Unified School District’s adult and career education administrator, learned of the new flexibility provisions, he said, “I knew we (adult schools) were in big trouble in Oakland because we have so many other high-priority needs.”

Oakland did end up cutting funding to adult education by 90%. The district eliminated almost all its English as a Second Language classes and numerous others, and by 2010 was serving just 2,400 students  — down from its peak of 25,000 just a few years ago. San Juan Unified near Sacramento shut down nearly all its programs a year ago. Anaheim Union has terminated its program completely. And Los Angeles Unified, which currently serves some 300,000 students on 30 different adult school sites, is considering doing the same thing, according to the commission.

These cutbacks are happening in the face of an enormous need, the commission noted:

Nearly 25 percent of the adult population in California is functionally illiterate, lacking basic reading, writing and math skills necessary to manage ordinary daily tasks such as filling out basic employment forms, communicating with children’s teachers, accessing public services or reading a prescription.

What’s more

More than 5.3 million adults in California have yet to earn a high school diploma or successfully pass the General Educational Development (GED) exam; half of these adults have educational attainment levels below the ninth grade.

The commission said that:

California “must act immediately to preserve access to critical basic skills programs that create pathways for students to become more productive citizens, whether through learning functional math and English or critical job skills.

The commission recommended that funds now going to school districts for adult school should be diverted to the community colleges to pay for extra basic skills classes they might offer. But the commission does not explain how schools would manage with fewer dollars — nor where or how the state would come up with extra funds if necessary to pay for community colleges to pick up the slack for local school districts.

In addition, adult school classes are more accessible and affordable than those offered elsewhere.

Carolina Romo, 28, is taking a medical assistant’s course at Metropolitan Adult School in San Jose. The program lasts for two semesters, at the end of which she will earn a certificate.

Romo had looked at similar programs at private colleges that she said cost about $30,000 compared to about $1,500 at the adult school. She also considered going to a community college.

Paul Hay, superintendent of Metropolitan Education District in San Jose. Photo by Neil Hanshaw

Paul Hay, superintendent of Metropolitan Education District in San Jose. Photo by Neil Hanshaw

“I would have had to finish two years of general education” (at a community college), she told EdSource yesterday. “That’s expensive and takes a lot of time.” If that had been her only choice, she said, she would probably not have signed up for the program.  The adult school program is a “big, life-changing opportunity for me,” she said.

Those who currently work in adult education are concerned that community colleges will not be accessible to as many adults if the programs were centralized on college campuses.

Adult Education can be very effective when it reaches out to the community, offering classes near schools and community centers, said Paul Hay, superintendent of the Metropolitan Education District in San Jose, which has an adult school and a regional occupational center offering career technical education.

In its report, the commission acknowledged that making programs as accessible as possible is important for their success. “Where possible, the community colleges should use satellite campuses and centers, as well as community college campuses, to provide opportunities for students to study in smaller, more individualized learning environments, in locations closer to students’ homes, work sites and children’s schools,” it said.

That is the model used by City College of San Francisco, which offers adult education classes at 150 locations, including eight major campuses, according to Leslie Smith, an associate vice chancellor at City College.

“We reach out,” she said. “We don’t just keep it on a college campus.”


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  1. Susan Price says:

    As a Family Advocate for over 10 years in my local elementary school which serves a neighborhood with a large, low-income immigrant population, I can say that the adult education program created a few years ago in our local high school district has the accessibility and the skills to work with this immigrant population. Many immigrants arrive here after suffering trauma in their own country or during their travel here. On top of that trauma is the difficult task of adjusting to a new culture. Immigrant parents are more likely to attend classes that are held where their children attend school, a place that they have learned to trust. Adult Education, if done properly, can assist people adjust to their surroundings, help to teach them how to live here, and prepare them for success in more the formal community college environment and/or prepare them for employment in the community. And, Adult Education is the place where high school students who lack sufficient credits to graduate can make up classes in the evenings in order to graduate on time. Furthermore, Adult Education is where those who dropped out of high school can go to earn their GED. Adult Education occupies a critical stepping stone in the educational pathway for many people who might not otherwise be prepared or qualified to attend community college.

  2. Bob Harper says:

    Embedded in the report are some contradictions. Yes, many states attach basic skills adult education to the community colleges; yet those states do not accomplish all the things that the public adult education system in California have accomplished. Family literacy and parents’ educational level is one of the greatest variables to predict a child’s success in school. Pre-school services are demonstrably more successful when there is a parent education component. Will community colleges be able to provide this expertise to local elementary school commmunities? And moving the money, while it would validate the need to educate adults and not children, would not, in itself, move the expertise. Public adult education has served California for more than 150 years. Those who work in public adult education have a passion and expertise to serve the specific low basic skills population. Do you dismantle a system with all the resources in place simply to add some minimal amount of funding to the already over-burdened community college system? The services and success in San Francsico and San Diego have been developed over decades…. it won’t be able to be replicated in Oakland nor Los Angeles simply because you code the funding accounts differently. It is a complicated issue to address the critical educational needs of California’s adults.

    1. Larry Teshara says:

      Moving Adult Ed students to the community colleges will reduce the flexibility essential for working adults and dramatically increase the cost to tax payers. The result: much higher costs and fewer students served. The most needy are the least likely to move through the maze of the larger system.

      1. Jim Gormley says:

        There is a lot of things that need to be deliniated in this discussion; there are many forms and clusters of “Adult Education” Basic skills classes for native speaking adults is very different than classes for immigrants with quite different needs, focuses and timeframes. My experience is that community colleges allow for much more flexible schedule and variety of class times than do classes held in secondary schools; also, many returning adults do not want to be going to secondary schools for classes–they view themselves and what they are doing as separate from secondary education.

  3. Chris Stampolis says:

    Little Hoover’s recommendation reminds of “kick the can.” Community Colleges don’t have billions of dollars buried under sports fields or asphalt parking lots.

    If K-12 no longer has resources for adult education, so be it. The UC and CSU systems both have raised tuition sufficiently that increasingly growing cadres of qualified students choose Community Colleges for their first two years of university transferable public education.

    We now have four systems of public education, each with a different focus:

    1) preK-12;
    2) Community College (2-year degrees, career technical ed and, permissively, basic skills);
    3) CSU (Bachelor’s and Master’s);
    4) UC (Ph.D., J.D., M.D. levels).

    Rather than putting even more responsibility with less funding on Community Colleges, it’s time to bring municipal governments into the discussion. Colleges are….colleges! Non-college level community education is a community responsibility – at least in terms of financial duty.