Ruth Dunn, 72, of Berkeley raises her hand to add her point of view to a discussion about the Oakland reaction to the "not guilty" verdict in the George Zimmerman case during an adult education class on current events. The class for older adults is held at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley. July 18, 2013. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

Ruth Dunn, 72, of Berkeley raises her hand during a current events class for older adults at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

An effort to narrow adult education’s core mission is being met with resistance from advocates for older adult and parent education programs, which would lose funding under a budget compromise crafted by supporters of adult education and Gov. Jerry Brown.

“A lot of people think supporting older adult and parent ed programs is a lost cause,” said Kristen Pursley, who teaches English as a Second Language courses at West Contra Costa Adult Education. “But we think they are too important to give up.”

The programs have typically been offered by adult schools, which themselves were the focus of a budget fight in Sacramento this year when Brown attempted to shift oversight of the programs from K-12 districts to community colleges. Brown relented as part of a budget compromise, deciding instead that districts must keep their adult education programs afloat for the next two years while working with their local community colleges on a plan to streamline the courses by developing regional consortia to oversee the programs. The governor has proposed spending $500 million on adult education in 2015-16, with current programs being given priority for the money. But he is clear that older adult and parent education classes will not be part of the mix.

Senate Bill 173, introduced by Sen. Carol Liu, D-Glendale, enacts the compromise, providing funding to K-12 districts only for adult school classes offering elementary and secondary basic academic skills, English as a second language or preparation for citizenship; short-term vocational programs with high employment potential; and programs for disabled adults. Community colleges could offer ESL and citizenship classes for free, but the campuses would have to charge fees for all other classes.

Robert Oakes, Liu’s legislative director, says she had to look at the primary purpose of adult education in an era of diminished resources.

“We want to focus on the knowledge and skills people need to participate in the workforce and civic life,” he said. That view is supported by reports from both the Legislative Analyst’s Office and the California Department of Education, which recommend limiting the focus of adult education.

But George Porter, who teaches older adult classes for the Berkeley Adult School and is chair of the Commission on Aging in Berkeley, disputes such arguments. Seniors may not be in the paid workforce, he said, but they contribute economically and are active in society – volunteering, supporting their grandchildren, and taking part in local community and political issues.

“Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you are no longer a productive member of society,” he said.

With the large generation of baby boomers beginning to retire, older adult programs are seen as vital to help keep seniors participating in society as well as mentally and physically fit, which can provide larger societal savings in medical costs, Porter said. By 2030, almost one in five Californians will be over age 65, according to the California Department of Aging.

Older adult programs

Older adult programs offer a variety of courses aimed at keeping seniors mentally and physically fit. For example, West Contra Costa County’s older adult classes, held at a church in El Cerrito on Monday mornings, include Spanish, German, current events and line dancing. Most older adult classes are free or offered for a nominal price.

Instructor George Porter leads an adult education class for seniors on current events at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley on July 18, 2013. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

Instructor George Porter leads an adult education class for seniors on current events at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley on July 18. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

Porter teaches a two-hour current events class for older adults each Thursday afternoon at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley. The dozen or so participants who met one recent Thursday ranged in age from the early 60s to 97. Discussions covered a wide range of topics, from the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case to Syria.

“The only social events in my life at this time are the classes,” said 73-year-old Shelly Davis, who is recovering from cancer and the recent death of her mother. “It is the high point of my week.”

Davis has been commuting from Richmond for many years to attend classes on Mondays and Thursdays, including the current events class, at the community center.

“Often when you get to my age, your friends have died and you end up alone,” she said. “You can give life to people when you share your time, conversation, knowledge, and kindness with them. I could write a book about how meaningful these classes are for me.”

Parent education classes

Parent education classes teach parents how to help their children succeed in school and include topics such as how to engage children in reading as well as in positive disciplinary techniques, anger management, and how to prevent older children from joining gangs.

“Parent education classes are not frills,” West Contra Costa’s  Pursley wrote to the Senate Education Committee. “Classes like these can literally save lives.”

When districts cut funding for adult education during the recession, some programs started charging fees to keep classes going.

Kenneth Ryan, who teaches parent education for West Contra Costa Adult Education, said fees didn’t work at his adult school, which like many throughout the state caters to low-income families.

When the school offered parent education classes for $100, “parents in our community couldn’t afford it,” Ryan said, and the district wasn’t willing to fund the program on its own. Currently only one district-funded class – with a waiting list – is offered on anger management, which is often ordered by the court for parents in danger of losing their children.

Parent education programs ultimately benefit school districts, Ryan argued, because parents can do a better job of supporting their children academically. However, districts have limited funds and lots of needs.

“One of the reasons we want dedicated funding from the state is that it’s really hard for us politically to go up against wealthier families who want the school district to spend its money on class size reduction,” Ryan said. “The communities we serve don’t have as much political power.”

‘Continuing discussions’

SB 173 breezed through the Assembly and Senate education committees and is now scheduled to be heard on Aug. 6 in the Assembly Committee on Higher Education. Advocates for older adult and parent education programs are hoping the bill will be amended to include funding for their programs.

Advocates have caught the ear of at least one senator, Ted Lieu, D-Redondo Beach, who voted for the bill but has since started a petition to urge his colleagues and the governor to continue to support older adult programs.

Dawn Koepke, a lobbyist who represents two statewide adult education organizations, the California Council for Adult Education and the California Adult Education Administrators Association, says the groups have to uphold their end of the compromise with the governor in order to ensure long-term funding for adult education. Given that the administration is “adamant” about narrowing the focus of adult education, Koepke said SB 173 should be amended so that districts could use adult education funding for older adult and parent education programs until 2015-16, when the regional consortia plans are set to be implemented. That would give districts two years to find funding from other sources for the programs, she said.

Oakes, from Liu’s office, said the senator is open to hearing what the advocates are proposing.

“We definitely are interested in continuing the conversation,” he said.


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  1. Peter Romero says:

    Thanks to the foresight of the administrators I work with in Baldwin Park, we have been able to sustain a creative drama group for senior citizens. I am the teacher that teaches and directs the drama program.

    My wife worked as a resource teacher that taught and ran several adult programs for the El Monte School District. But, after 30 years, she lost her contract and the adult programs have all shut down. In fact, many other adult programs have shut down as this article reports.

    So, it is equally important that we support those programs that have survived. Because they are a testament for those adults still attending and the people still supporting these type of programs. Even though the state has shut the faucet of funds to these programs it is now important to turn to private and public support to either restart a program or maintain it.

    This comes at a time when the largest senior adult population is now coming of age. The Baby Boomers were the political activist in their youth, it is now time to revive those passions and skills to build tomorrows programs. Count me in. Peter

  2. Marsha Mahoney says:

    The state will benefit by keeping adult education programs going. Programs, such as 50Plus Aerobics dance and fitness, include physical and mental exercises by incorporating different repetitive steps and routines to music, and each session is slightly different in variation. Since taking this class, my blood pressure has normalized, my balance has improved and my stamina has increased. Instead of considering theses classes a burden in the budget, they should be looking at the long-term benefits for the aging.

  3. Well said Cynthia.There are those in this country who would like to create a workforce which would be forced to work as peasants for a small one percent.

  4. Thank you for covering this important topic – and so well.

    I would like to add one other reason it is important to continue Adult Education classes for Older Adults:

    Many seniors will not retire. They will, in fact, keep working, and not necessarily at high paying jobs that afford them the means to the sort of classes and programs that keep them functioning at their best.

    “As the baby-boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) ages, the share of workers in the 55-years-and-older age group will increase dramatically, with almost all the boomers reaching the older age group by 2018. As we age, the body undergoes certain changes. Some of those changes include loss of strength, flexibility and motion, reduced grip strength, decreased reaction times, and reduced visual acuity. These changes alone or in combination can affect the ability to perform some tasks and can lead to higher risks of injuries. The number of workers’ compensation claims actually decreases with age, but the injuries sustained tend to be more severe and the median number of lost days increases.” http://www.statefundca.com/news/FeatureArticles2012/110712-SeniorsWorkplace.asp

    More in a similar vein here: “He plans to join the record 7.3 million workers 65 or older trying to shore up finances battered by the recession that ended three years ago and stay productive. An aging population, longer and healthier life spans and changes to retirement-benefit plans will mean rising competition for jobs and limited wage gains even after the economy strengthens.” http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/More-seniors-staying-in-the-workforce-longer-3668200.php

    I do not, in fact, support the model that the state should only care about the workforce. Strong families and communities save the state money in prison, healthcare, police and other costs. The state should think about the people as a whole (and the people should remind their representatives to do so).

    But even if you view education through only the lens of “workforce training,” seniors are still important.

    I think our cultural disregard for older people makes being older shameful. I can’t even say we talk a good game but don’t live it because I don’t even hear “the talk” (respect your elders) anymore.

    (I’m fifty three and I did hear this talk – from my elders – growing up.)

    So our elected representatives who are themselves seniors, Gov. Brown and State Senator Carol Liu amongst them, don’t crow about their age.

    Most women in elected positions dye their hair and are often criticized for, in essence, not being someone you’d want to sleep with. Wake up call to America: I’m not electing someone so I can sleep with them although looking at both voting patterns and scandals, I think some people are.

    Elected officials not boasting about their age or taking a stand as seniors is understandable, given how we as a people treat seniors. We fear aging – in ourselves perhaps more than in anyone else.

    Wake up call number two: Denying something doesn’t make it go away.

    I hope that how we see aging will change. I think, as the Boomers age, it will – because the Boomers always shift things. Whatever they are doing becomes important. They’re starting to age – so I expect to see not just more wrinkle cream, but hopefully, more services and a new way of understanding the aging process. Perhaps “new” being a return to the old way, but the with addition of neuroscience and shea butter.

    In the meantime, I hope we don’t eliminate the wonderful Adult Education programs for Older Adults that we have now. They do so much good. And rebuilding them would be costly and is unnecessary.

    And as noted, even if we only use the workforce lens, Adult Ed classes for Older Adults are important to maintain – and strengthen – because an increasingly large amount of the workforce will be seniors and we need them to be operating at peak form.

    I haven’t mentioned the many, many reasons to support Parent Education. They are numerous and include decreased prison costs, decreased police costs, and decreased juvenile suicide.

    Thank you for covering this important matter, as no other branch of the media has.

  5. Paul says:

    The state’s action is short-sighted, but it perfectly matches public perception of what is and isn’t valuable in education. School at all levels is to be reduced to mere career training. Any link between education, pleasure, intellectual growth and human development is wasteful. (On a separate but related note, just wait till taxpayers realize that the Common Core goes beyond procedure, into sense-making. We will be told that that’s another unnecessary luxury.)

    I’m all for means-testing program participants and recovering costs where it makes sense to do so, but the very existence of senior classes and worthwhile family education classes like anger management is threatened.

    Community college students are means-tested. Low-income students receive a generous waiver of all fees, the Board of Governors Waiver. I don’t think anything would stop seniors from claiming BOG Waivers, but fee waivers wouldn’t do much good if community colleges opted not to take over the classes. The colleges’ own general interest adult and senior classes were defunded several years ago, written off by politicians, taxpayers and voters as discretionary. In fact, this has been a recurring political theme since the 1970s, when there was public outrage over ostensible “basket-weaving” classes in California’s community colleges. I very much doubt that colleges would be willing to take over senior classes from school districts’ erstwhile adult schools.

    To the extent that participation is court-ordered, anger management classes for families should be funded from legal settlements. Still, it seems that some families would benefit from proactive access to such classes. School districts know the clients and so are better-positioned to house family education courses. Barring restoration of state funding, smart school districts will choose to spend some of their local control funding on classes like these.