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Literacy activists urge state to boost adult education funds


Maryland's large percentage of adults without high school diplomas and with poor reading skills are leaving tens of thousands of families doomed to a cycle of poverty, literacy advocates told a Senate committee yesterday.

"Maryland may be one of the most educated states in the nation, but we cannot continue to ignore the division between those who have and those who have not due to the lack of an education," said Sonia Socha, executive director of the nonprofit South Baltimore Learning Center.

Socha and other literacy activists asked the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee to support a bill requiring a near doubling in state funding for adult education programs, to $2.4 million beginning with the 2003-2004 budget. The bill comes from a task force charged last year by the General Assembly to study adult illiteracy and education.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget proposal for the coming year calls for $1.25 million in adult education services, in addition to about $6.6 million in federal funds.

"You can pay now or pay later," said Raymond Bryant, Montgomery County's associate superintendent for student and community services.

The state task force found that as many as 959,000 Marylanders age 16 and older do not have a high school diploma, but adult education programs have space for about 3 percent of those people.

About 20 percent of the state's adults are functionally illiterate, meaning they cannot read beyond the middle-school level and are unable to cope in most job settings, according to the task force. The problem is most acute in Baltimore, where almost 2 in 5 adults have poor reading skills.

"This inevitably creates that cycle of poverty and crime that the community pays for," said Clifton Scott, Johns Hopkins Hospital's director of employee/labor relations and work force diversity. Of the 800 job titles in the hospital system, Scott said all but two require high school diplomas.

The task force found that while states such as West Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and South Carolina have comparable literacy problems, Maryland's adult education spending is the third lowest among East Coast states.

"Maryland makes a very, very low commitment," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and sponsor of the bill.

The prospects for the bill are uncertain. Advocates emphasized that the bill does not call for new spending in the coming year, but the Assembly has indicated it is reluctant to approve legislation that calls for future financial commitments.

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