Jesus Lupian works on a framing project in his carpentry class in San Jose. Photo by Neil Hanshaw.

Jesus Lupian works on a framing project in his carpentry class in San Jose, California. Photo by Neil Hanshaw.

As school districts throughout California make major cuts or consider abandoning their adult schools, advocates for adult education programs are searching for ways to prevent their demise, including a possible heightened role for community colleges.

According to an EdSource report released today, At Risk: Adult Schools in California, 23 of the state’s 30 largest districts have made major cuts to their adult education programs since the beginning of the Great Recession, including Anaheim Union High School District, which eliminated its 73-year-old program in 2010–11. Only one district — Montebello Unified — reported no change. (The full EdSource report can be downloaded here.)

Just last Friday, the Los Angeles Unified School District — which has a $138-million adult education program — negotiated an interim agreement with union negotiators, and backed away from the threat of terminating its adult school program entirely. But the district is still planning on making significant cutbacks.

In a report issued earlier this year, the Little Hoover Commission, the independent state oversight agency, recommended that community colleges take over all adult education programs in the state.

Currently, community colleges run about a quarter of these programs, which include classes in English as a Second Language (ESL), high school diploma/GED preparation, career-tech, basic reading and writing, citizenship, and parenting. The rest are managed by school districts, which since February 2009 have had the flexibility to use adult education funds to meet K–12 needs.

“With this flexible funding, we see those adult school students being lost in the shuffle,” said Stuart Drown, executive director of the Little Hoover Commission. “Community colleges are in a better position to help them – they have a stake in the outcome.”

About 90 percent of all incoming community college students arrive unprepared for college-level math, while about 75 percent are not ready for college-level English, according to the commission’s February 2012 report, Serving Students, Serving California: Updating the California Community Colleges to Meet Evolving Demands.

In the executive summary of its report, based on a series of hearings held in 2011, the commission argues:

The community college system explicitly states that basic education is one of its key missions and, as many of these students go on to take more community college classes, the system has a direct stake in having these students do well.

Colleges not only understand the need to prepare those adults, but they also know what college-level courses require, Drown said. “They have an incentive to do a good job (with these older students),” he said. “K–12 districts don’t have the same incentive.”

Other advocates for adult education support keeping the programs under the jurisdiction of school districts. Assembly Bill 18, introduced by Assemblymember Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, the chairperson of the Assembly Education Committee, would restore funding for adult education as a separate “categorical program” so that funds previously designated for adult education could not be spent on K–12 programs as is currently the case.

The Little Hoover Commission’s Drown said that finding the funding to implement its recommendation for an expanded role for community colleges would be a major challenge. He would like the state to allocate those funds previously earmarked for adult education programs in school districts to community colleges. But many districts have already absorbed the funds to support their K–12 program, making it difficult to extricate them.

“We don’t dispute that it would be difficult,” Drown said. “But it is a smart way to invest that money. It’s the way to spend what little there is most efficiently.”

Currently three of the 30 largest school districts — San Francisco, Santa Ana, and San Diego — rely on community colleges to serve adult education students. San Diego does offer a high school diploma preparation program, but San Diego Community College District provides the rest of the adult school classes.

Drown pointed to successful community college adult education programs, such as City College of San Francisco, which offers classes in 150 different locations throughout the city. The majority of City College students began as adult education students, according to Leslie Smith, associate vice chancellor of Governmental Relations at City College.

“When we think about the health of the college, we need adult education students,” she said. “And if you are looking on a long-term basis about really serving your community, how do you do it if you don’t have adult education classes?”

Drown admitted that with public education at all levels facing state budget cuts, it is a difficult time to launch a new policy proposal, even if the idea makes sense.

“Adult education is extraordinarily important and has to be preserved,” Drown said. “Legislators are aware of this and will become more aware as more districts cut adult education. They told us, let’s start slowly with the campuses that want to do it. Build on positive examples such as City College of San Francisco and San Diego Community College.”

With the current state budget proposal keeping adult education funding for school districts flexible, it is not clear if the commission’s recommendation will be able to be implemented even on a limited basis.

“Sometimes it takes years for ideas to take hold,” Drown said. “The first thing you have to do is get the idea out there on the table.”

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