School districts throughout California are weighing the fate of adult education courses that serve dropouts, recent immigrants and others at the margins of the economy as Gov. Jerry Brown proposes shifting the classes from K-12 to community colleges.
While the move is part of Brown's goal to give local schools more control over their money, the idea has college leaders wondering how they would manage the new responsibilities and adult students pondering what would happen if their programs are forced to close.
"That will mess a lot of people up, really," said Cierra Craig, a 20-year-old mother who said she started a GED class in Oakland last month so she could go to college and land a decent job. "The people that made mistakes in their life and are trying to fix it, that will stop them."
The plan would give community colleges an additional $300 million to set up similar adult education programs, including high school diploma or equivalency courses, vocational education and citizenship classes. College leaders note the amount is less than half of what the state spent on adult schools five years ago, and that colleges have no experience running some of these programs.
"We've never been in the business of doing GED (the high school diploma equivalent), nor have we done anything with citizenship," said Ron Galatolo, chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District.
Brown and other proponents say the shift would both free up more money for K-12 schools and strengthen the adult education system, making it easier for students like Craig to move up the educational ladder. Currently, there is little coordination between the K-12 adult schools and the community colleges, and there is no clear path for a student to move from one system to the other.
"There's duplication, and we believe it is more appropriate to have a single system that's housed within the community colleges," said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Finance.
Even so, school districts wouldn't be forced to cut their adult education courses, Palmer said. The money supporting the programs today would continue to flow to K-12 districts, though it would be designated as general-purpose dollars that could be spent on other needs. Colleges would have the option of contracting with existing adult programs rather than inventing their own, he said.
But the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst's Office cites "major problems" with the plan and urges the Legislature to instead invest the money in a special fund for adult education, managed by K-12 school districts.
With no requirement to spend the money on adult education, school districts will have no incentive to dedicate the money to adult programs, said Paul Hay, superintendent of the Metropolitan Education District, a nonprofit adult and career technical education provider in San Jose. Hay said MetroEd will likely have to close its adult education programs for 2,300 students if the final state budget includes the funding change.
Nowhere is adult education needed more than in Oakland, where so many students quit before graduation that researchers with the think tank The Civil Rights Project once labeled its schools "dropout factories."
Now, despite a 27 percent dropout rate, the school district might close all of its GED programs if the funding change takes effect. The district's administration said it needs the money for other initiatives.
Others critical of the proposal say it's poorly timed: Congress is considering immigration reform, which could swell demand for English-as-a-second-language courses as illegal immigrants race to meet a likely language requirement.
"I think before the state moves so definitely away from its historical commitment to adult education, it should consider the tidal wave of demand that will come racing toward these systems," said Margie McHugh of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
For years, community colleges have also offered remedial courses, including English as a second language, but have generally targeted higher-skilled students, while adult schools -- often in courses set up at a school or community center -- have worked with school dropouts and recent immigrants and refugees, including those unable to read or write.
Adult schools once were relatively independent of school districts, with special funding only they could touch. A state budget crisis changed that: In 2009, the Legislature temporarily gave school districts the right to spend adult education funds on anything and cut 20 percent of the $750 million fund. The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates K-12 adult education now receives about half the roughly $600 million the state allocates for it.
Overhauling adult education, like all other plans in the January budget, must first make it through the Legislature, where much of the lobbying appears to be against the proposal.
While the risk to adult education and other programs is real, the governor has the right idea, said David Plank, a Stanford University professor and executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education. Brown's plan to give school districts more control of state dollars will let school districts in the area respond to communities' needs, rather than state mandates, he said.
"There is a downside, but on balance, I think this is a big step forward for California," Plank said.
Oakland's adult education program, the state's second-oldest, illustrates the effects of such local control. Its main campuses closed in 2010, and enrollment -- once 25,000 -- is 1,300.
Lori Parris said she can't imagine many of the students she teaches at the East Oakland support and job-training center Youth UpRising succeeding right away at a community college. Some came straight from prison and others are homeless. They need a good deal of encouragement and patience. Most of them found the GED class only because it's offered at a neighborhood youth center.
"My fear is that a lot of them will go back to the streets," she said. "You have to realize that for a lot of them, it's their last hope."
Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.
In 2009, the Legislature gave K-12 school districts in California the go-ahead to spend adult education money however they wanted and also cut funding by 20 percent. What happened next?
Funding statewide: In 2007-08, $750 million; in 2012-13, $300 million (estimate)
Oakland: In 2007-08, 25,000 enrolled; in 2012-13, 1,300 enrolled
MetroEd (San Jose): 2007-08, 10,000 enrolled; in 2012-13, 2,300 enrolled
Source: Legislative Analyst's Office, Oakland, MetroEd
At www.mercurynews.com/extra read the state Legislative Analyst's Office report on "Restructuring Adult Education," the analyst's office critque of the plan and see the concerns of three state organizations -- The Association of California School Administrators, the California Education Administrators Association and the California Council for Adult Education.