Oklahoma’s adult education centers have historically offered low or no-cost GED prep courses, basic math and literacy instruction, and English as a second language (ESL) classes in every county in the state. But for two – going on three – consecutive fiscal years, adult education in Oklahoma has been wholly defunded by the state – falling from a few million dollars in state appropriations for most of the last ten years, to $0 in FY 2012 and FY 2013. Since these centers also receive a federal funding match, they were able to keep their doors open initially. Yet for many smaller and more rural counties, the loss of state funding and the slow wane of their federal match has put their adult ed operations in jeopardy.
Basic skills are a prerequisite to employment – even fast food jobs are out of reach for Oklahomans who can’t read or perform simple calculations. Even those considering Career Tech or college can’t move forward without remedial math, reading, and language instruction. State leaders seem to understand and continue to stress the importance of workforce development, job training, and adult education.
The Governor’s Council for Workforce and Economic Development warns of a “severe basic skills crisis”:
One out of four workforce age adults in Oklahoma lack the basic skills needed to succeed in an occupational training course or a knowledge-based job. These adults face severe reading, writing, math, and analytic skill shortages that doom them to a low-income future unless they gain those skills.
During Lt. Governor Lamb’s statewide listening tour on workforce development, business owners emphasized again and again how residents’ lack of skills and training hold back economic development. House Speaker Shannon pushed legislation to get adults ‘back to work’ and off public programs, citing his commitment to the value of work and personal responsibility. Yet he eliminated his bill’s work requirement once the cost of providing job training to unemployed food stamp (SNAP) recipients became clear.
Saying that we value work and responsibility, without demonstrating a commitment to those values, is distressing. We’re quite literally closing the door on the thousands of Oklahomans who show up to adult education centers looking to lift themselves up the economic ladder. Since adult ed was defunded, 150 full and part-time center instructurs have been laid off, classes have been scaled back, and nearly 2,000 fewer adult students have been able to enroll in classes.
If we continue to eliminate access to affordable basic education, the consequences for the state’s budget and for Oklahoma families will be severe. Too many working age adults, many of them parents, will find themselves without the skills to find and keep a good job and without opportunities to learn those skills. Oklahoma will find itself without a workforce capable of filling jobs in industries it’s trying to recruit.
Adult education funding falls under the authority of the Superintendent of Education. And while Superintendent Barresi has included statewide adult education centers in her budget requests, she ultimately de-funded them entirely after her department received far less than requested for education from the Legislature. Even though FY ’14 looks to be a better year for the common education budget, the legislative allocation of $74M in additional funding didn’t stipulate restoring adult education and the future of these vital programs remain very much in doubt.
Click here to read typed excerpts of handwritten letters from adult education students explaining why adult education is playing a pivotal role in their lives, and urging legislators to restore funding.
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