The Unseen Casualties of the Budget War

You’ve heard about the severe budget cuts to K-12 schools, and you’ve probably seen countless stories about the dire straits colleges and universities are in. Chances are, you don’t know much about the schools that have been hit the hardest: California’s adult schools.

About 10% of adult schools have already closed, and about 15% more have been cut 50%-90%. That’s about 25% of adult schools that have had their funds cut by half or more. The “lucky” ones have only been cut by about 30%. There are numerous developments that could eliminate adult schools altogether, and more threats coming all the time.

So what’s so great about adult schools? Adult schools help students obtain high school diplomas and equivalents, provide job training, teach English, literacy, and citizenship, provide education for the handicapped, help seniors stay active and connected with their community, and a lot more. And they provide all of these services at a much lower cost per student than other types of schools.

Before the cuts, adult schools served about 1.8 million students. Today, they serve about 700,000. The University of California system serves only about 200,000. 1 in 10 Californians attended “night” school in 1950. Today it’s 1 in 37.

Yet the need is rising. According to the California Department of Education, 5 million adults lack high school diplomas, 7 million adults are not fluent in English, and 1/3 of California youth drop out before graduation. 80% of the need is unmet.

So why are adult schools under such threats? Part of the problem is lack of visibility. Most people don’t even know what adult schools do, let alone how valuable they are, and how cost-effective. Many citizens who vote – even those who support public education – don’t know. Many teachers at other types of schools don’t know. Even the politicians who decide the state budget, including school budgets, don’t always know.

Another problem is that it’s easy to pose education funding as a choice: Either we fund schools for kids or we fund schools for adults. Given that choice, who wouldn’t help the kids? But it’s a false choice, as you’ll see later.

The most direct way these problems have harmed adult schools so far is called flexibility, or categorical flexibility. In the state budget, adult schools are classified as categorical programs. Categorical programs are things other than teachers and textbooks that the state thought were important to fund, such as school lunch programs, special education, school buses, and adult schools, which for some reason were put into that group. Categorical programs used to receive dedicated funds, meaning those funds could not be used for anything except the program that the state specified. All this changed in 2008.

You know what happened in 2008: the recession was in full swing, and so was the budget axe. At this time, the state government cut school funding. The politicians reasoned, “We’re cutting funds. Let’s at least give school districts more control over the funds we do give them.” So they changed the law to allow districts to use categorical funds for other programs. Sounds great, right? If a school doesn’t need school buses, or it doesn’t have many students who need free lunches, it can use that money to avoid laying off a teacher or to buy textbooks. The problem is that adult schools and other programs that need the money were swept up in the same stroke of the axe, or the pen, as it were. Many districts, which had already received cuts to their K-12 budgets, decided to make up the money by taking it from their adult schools. According to a self-reported survey, 82% of adult schools have had some funds taken away due to categorical flexibility. That’s how many adult schools lost 50% to 90% of their funds, and others were closed outright. And the politicians didn’t have to take any heat for it. They set up the system so that school districts chose to do it of their own free will: Fund the schools for kids or fund the schools for adults. Naturally, they chose the kids.

But how can children succeed if parents don’t? Studies show that the biggest predictor of children’s success is their mother’s literacy level. And who teaches the mothers? Adult schools.

And what about the kids who don’t succeed in high school? For many, adult school is their last chance to graduate.

Plus, it benefits everyone if all people are educated. It’s doable if we want it. More on this later. But first, there are other threats to adult schools we need to take a look at.

Another threat is the weighted student formula (WSF). During 2012 budget negotiations, Governor Brown proposed WSF to try to redistribute the money the state is spending on schools. He wanted to give a larger portion of the money to districts that need it more, such as districts with more poor students or more English language learners. It’s generally a good idea. The problem is the way it was being done. The governor started by lowering the base amount that schools would get. Only some schools would get more money under WSF; many would get less. Also, he created this proposal without input from schools, teachers and parents. What’s more, he completely removed funding for categorical programs from the budget. You remember categorical programs? That’s right, that includes adult schools. The governor’s plan would have eliminated funding for adult schools altogether. And who teaches the parents of those English language learners that WSF is supposed to help? Adult schools. Of course, districts could choose to continue funding adult schools, if they wanted less money for kids. But they won’t. We’ve seen what happens when districts are faced with that choice, even with small cuts. What happens when adult school funding disappears completely? Then the districts will use their money for kids and close all the adult schools.

Fortunately, the legislature didn’t pass Governor Brown’s proposal – this time. Brown wants to bring it back in next year’s budget. This way, the governor will have time for lots of input. But he doesn’t want it. Assemblywoman Julia Brownley introduced a bill (AB18) to form a commission on alternative formulas for school funding. The commission would have members from various parts of education, including parents and students. They would examine the situation and report their findings to the legislature. Yet Governor Brown vetoed the bill because he said it would take too long; the study couldn’t be completed for next year’s budget. That’s right, it’s better to quickly change education funding without any information whatsoever than it is to take a little time to study the matter, get input from those it will affect, and figure out what will work best.

An additional development threatened Los Angeles’ adult school program. Earlier this year, the LA school board voted to close its adult school entirely. The LA adult school program was by far the largest in the state. It served well over 200,000 students. The entire UC system serves only about 200,000, less than this one adult school. And remember how cost effective I said adult schools are? The LA Adult Education program used only about 2% of the LAUSD’s budget and served 27.7% of the students in the school district, according to the Huffington Post. After the adult school mobilized the community to conduct a large protest movement, the board voted to keep the program open, but with severe cuts.

A threat to the LA adult school is a threat to all adult schools in California. Since it is so large, a cut to it is a large cut to adult school funding for the state. And it’s easier to justify further cuts when there’s hardly anything left to fund.

So, there have been numerous changes and threatened changes to schools and school funding that have harmed adult schools. Perhaps they were intended to do so, or perhaps they did so inadvertently. It doesn’t matter. The state needed to cut funds to education. The state needed to cut all kinds of public services. There’s a recession, and huge deficits, and we just don’t have the money, right? Wrong.

California is the richest state in the richest country on earth. Its economy is the 8th largest in the world – larger than that of most countries. And that figure from the state finance department is not from 2006, when the economy was booming; that’s from 2011, after years of deep recession. California has plenty of money. Yet, according to the California Budget Project, California ranks 46th of the 50 states in per-pupil spending.

If California has so much money, why aren’t we spending it on education? Lots of reasons. Some people have other priorities. Many people believe the state really is broke. Some may not care about public education. Some may just have too many other things to worry about. Some have other agendas.

There is a movement around the country to privatize and profitize public education. The leaders of this movement are pushing charter schools. Now don’t get me wrong, charter schools aren’t all bad. They were invented to allow teachers and parents to start a new school with public money if they felt the existing school wasn’t meeting their children’s needs. What a great idea: Give parents and teachers control over how to teach their kids.

Unfortunately, this movement has been co-opted. Most charter schools today are not started by parents and teachers. They are being fought for by wealthy people and large corporations. They claim that they are providing a better education for children. In some cases that’s true, but studies have shown that most charter schools don’t educate children better than public schools; they’re usually the same or worse. So why are wealthy people and corporations interested in them? Because they can make a profit off of charter schools.

Charter schools cut costs by paying teachers lower salary and benefits than public schools. They accomplish this by not allowing teachers to unionize. This is the real reason for the attacks on teachers and teachers’ unions. They don’t get in the way of quality education, and they don’t get outrageous salaries and benefits; it’s the leaders of large corporations who do that. Teachers get in the way of profits.

Charter schools have also been known to kick out students who do not perform well and who are harder and more costly to educate, such as special education students and at-risk students. They do this rather than helping students perform better – in other words, they choose not to educate the students who need education the most. Why? Because it’s too hard and therefore too costly. Public schools do not have this option, and we don’t want them to. These lower costs don’t help kids and they don’t translate into tax savings for you and me. They translate into profits. That’s why the wealthy are pushing for more charter schools, not because charter schools are necessarily better.

Another way corporations make a profit is by providing textbooks and standardized tests. Of course, textbooks and tests are essential for education. But when corporations push these things their agenda isn’t just to educate children; it’s also to make a profit. Now, making a profit isn’t a bad thing – except when it becomes more important than the students. Then it pulls teachers and schools away from their primary purpose.

This attempt to profitize public schools is disguised behind the idea of making schools more efficient. But what they often mean is not that schools should use money wisely, which they should. They mean that schools should be run like businesses, with an eye to the bottom line. That means profits. When profit is the main motive, schools educate children poorly. Why? Because education isn’t their goal.

For those who have profit as their goal, the current public education system just gets in the way. The teachers and teachers’ unions get in the way by demanding reasonable salaries and benefits. (Remember, teachers aren’t getting rich.) School administrators get in the way by demanding that their schools’ purpose be education, rather than profits. Students get in the way by being difficult to educate.

Look at the logical extension of all these things. If they take away teachers’ unions, teacher salary and benefits, replace administrators who want to educate students with administrators who want to make a profit, take away the ability of parents and teachers to decide how to educate children by trying to standardize everything, take out the students who don’t perform well, and take away public school buildings for charter schools (as has been happening in many cities) what will they accomplish? In short order, they will succeed in destroying the entire public education system, not so it can be made better but so it can make a profit.

They have already destroyed 25% of adult schools and the rest are still on the chopping block. They are working on our unparalleled college and university systems, which used to be free, then low-cost, and now are expensive and becoming more so. Schools for children have not been spared and are threatened with further cuts.

Education must be the main reason that we have schools and that we finance schools. Not everything is a business. We can’t afford to leave the individuals out of education. They’re what education is for. Yes, it costs money, but it is money well spent. Graduates are able to earn more money and be more productive members of society, which more than pays for the investment we make in schools.

Education also enriches lives in countless ways not measured by money. It teaches people to read so that they are able to obtain information and insight that make their lives better. As knowledge is power, it also makes people less vulnerable to exploitation. It provides a foundation for lifelong learning, and it opens hearts and minds.

But schools accomplish these things less often when profit is the motive. We pay taxes for public schools, to fund quality education for all, while in many cities and states this money is being used for charter schools to provide a poor education, to a select few, to line the pockets of the wealthy.

And this is our money – yours and mine. Why should you and I pay taxes to support the wealthy? We shouldn’t. But we still need services. Education and other services are benefits we as a society choose to provide because doing so is good for everyone. We can’t provide services without funds.

So how do we balance the need for services with the fear that the government will spend our money on stuff we don’t want or need? We need to stop thinking of the government as them and remember that it is supposed to be us. Government is a way for us to work together to accomplish something we think is important, such as educating people. As the government, we need to choose what services we want, what level of services we want, and how much we’re willing to pay for them. Our representatives are the people we choose to do the work. We need to make sure they do it.

We can decide we’re not willing to pay for a good public education system. But then we have to live with the consequences: young people who are not prepared for jobs and are therefore more likely to resort to crime, young people who are not able to read well enough or think critically enough to lead the country in years to come or even to vote wisely, and a state and country that fall behind the rest of the world in education and then economically.

Or we can decide to invest in our children, our adults, our state, and our future. Yes, we need to make sure that our representatives spend our money wisely. But if we just stop paying taxes, or we always say that less tax is better, then we have no services at all. It’s a problem when we want or need services and don’t want to pay for them. We can afford to pay if the services are worthwhile. Public education is worthwhile.

In fact, it’s essential. It’s essential for democracy. People can’t be equal, participate equally in democracy, enjoy the benefits of democracy equally, if some are educated and some are not. This is easiest to see in the disparity between the quality of jobs and level of pay that high school and college graduates get compared to non-graduates. A study by the US Census Bureau (Cheesman Day and Newburger 2002) shows that non-high school graduates earn $18,900/year, high school graduates earn $25,900/year, and those who graduate with a bachelor’s degree earn $45,400/year. Having well trained people is better for everyone. Yet disparities like this one play out in countless ways in the lives of the disenfranchised. Education is the solution.

Education is a way to lift up everyone. Whatever problems schools face, we can’t solve them by pulling resources out from under them. California is the richest state in the richest country in the world. We can afford quality public education for all. We must provide it. The future of the state and its people depends on it.

David Doneff has been a teacher for 15 years at the San Mateo Adult School in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as having taught at other language schools in the area. He has high school experience inside and outside of California. He has a B.A. in the fundamentals of learning from the University of Chicago and has done graduate-level work in education at Johns Hopkins University.