Original URL: http://www.arizonarepublic.com/news/articles/0224ged24.html

Deficit threatens adult ed

By Robbie Sherwood and Maggie Galehouse
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 24, 2003

Imelda Aceves dreams of improving her English skills enough to land an office job far from the wrenching work at the laundry where she washes 200 loads of clothes a day.

James Woodruff is good with his hands, but poor reading skills have kept the talented mechanic and repairman in menial jobs for decades.

Martha Schulte, a former teenage mother and high school dropout, goes to sleep each night in a homeless shelter for women. She hopes one day soon to get a job, any job, to support herself and her 11-year-old daughter.

Their backgrounds differ immensely, but all three are banking on the same ticket to an improved life: the general equivalency diploma they are earning at Literacy Volunteers of Maricopa County.

But the state and federal money that pays for their free instruction could disappear under the crushing weight of Arizona's $1.3 billion budget deficit. Republican lawmakers trying to tackle the problem want to eliminate the entire$4.4 million state adult education and $1 million family literacy programs

"I've seen people here who can't read at all, and now they can help their families and their children who are starting school," said Woodruff, 58. "Education should be the last thing they look at to cut."

The cuts would trigger the loss of like amounts of federal funding for the programs, ending free instruction for more than 45,000 people a year.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Bob Burns said education and family literacy made the hit list because of the relatively few people they serve. The savings would go to pay for $200 million in mandatory increases to the K-12 education system, he said.

"We just can't do everything," said Burns, R-Glendale.

House Education Committee Chairwoman Linda Gray said she is aware of the help the programs provide. However, Arizona has complied with a court order and doubled its investment in English learner instruction in schools and can no longer afford other programs, Gray said.

"This is one of the areas that will probably be cut," said Gray, R-Glendale. "Why can't we have volunteers and churches providing classes for this instead of the taxpayer?"

In 2001, the most recent year with good data, 46,095 students took part in the state's adult education program, said Lynn Reed, executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Maricopa County.

"There's not enough volunteers in the world to help with this amount of people," Reed said.

Reed said that in 2001, nearly 27 percent of the 40,000 students in Arizona who completed high school came from the adult education pool. The state's cost per student was about $95.

Worth the cost

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said the program's expense is a pittance compared with its ability to get people off welfare and into the job market.

"This is a last-chance program for them to become fully literate in English and to obtain a degree that will enable them to compete for jobs," Horne said.

The legislative proposal is mystifying to many educators.

"We're living in the state with the highest dropout rate in the county," said Greg Hart, Pima College dean of adult education. "This recommendation is horribly shortsighted, an almost tragic public policy."

Students can pay for GED classes, but it's difficult, said Mina Frestedt, an adult education instructor.

Rio Salado College provides one of the most widespread adult education programs in the state, offering about 150 classes in 30 locations throughout the Valley.

In 2002, when it served 12,632 people, the college received $1.6 million in federal funding and $578,440 in state money for adult education.

On a recent night, 29 Rio Salado adult education students from around the Valley, their families, friends and instructors braved the rain to pack a cafeteria at the Maricopa Skills Center in Phoenix. Rio Salado was about to honor the students with membership in the National Adult Education Honor Society, a reward for students who make extraordinary progress and who help other students.

Honoree Dionicio Garcia spoke no English two years ago. But after three months in the program, he has moved into advanced English classes, despite working full time. Donna Steverson, a single mother, improved her reading level by seven grades in one year and is about to enter Rio Salado Community College.

Help for immigrants

The majority of honorees were immigrants, most Latino. But others hailed from Vietnam and the Middle East, and a few were U.S.-born.

None was aware of the impending cuts to the program.

"I hope they don't cut the budget, this has meant so much to me," said honoree Michelle Dobos of Phoenix, who dropped out of school as a youth. "I wouldn't have been able to change careers."

With her GED, Dobos can complete the last phase of her training to become a corrections officer.

Before she got her GED, Gladys Martinez stayed home with her two young children and earned occasional pocket money doing odd jobs.

She sewed children's clothes and bridesmaid's dresses, and helped with flowers at her local church. It wasn't much, but her husband worked two jobs and they barely managed on his salary.

But when both kids were finally in school, Martinez got serious about her education. Although she had earned high school and secretarial degrees in her native Guatemala, her English was shaky and she was nervous about entering the workforce.

Today, Martinez is a full-time employee at the school where she earned her degree, earning $10 an hour as an attendance clerk and an assistant secretary.