A revamped federal welfare program and a weak economy are spelling trouble for adult education and literacy programs nationwide.
Baltimore Reads Inc., the city's best-known literacy organization, has slashed its budget 49 percent to $1.8 million, reduced weekly classes from 36 to 22, and laid off 25 full- and part-time employees after key government grants vanished and money from United Way shriveled, said the organization's chief executive officer, Marlene McLaurin.
Fewer than 200 students are taking classes at Baltimore Reads this year, compared with about 300 last year, and dozens are waiting for places in classes. Quentin Sawyer, 45, a welder for the city of Baltimore, is waiting for an opening so he can finish the preparation for a General Education Development certificate that he began last year. "I need that diploma so I can move up in my job," Sawyer said.
Others have even more pressing needs. Byron Martin, 36, enrolled for classes at the Learning Bank on West Baltimore Street when he learned he could not get even a minimum wage job without a GED. Martin is hoping to get a job in a warehouse. "I have a lot of work to do," he said. "My reading and spelling are not too good."
Sawyer and Martin are among many people squeezed out by states shifting money to meet new federal requirements for elementary and secondary school students under the No Child Left Behind law and federal welfare reform efforts, said Lynda Ginsburg, senior researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's National Center on Adult Literacy. The programs are not holding up well under the strain, she said.
"What's happening to Baltimore Reads is typical of what's happening to adult literacy programs everywhere," Ginsburg said. "Adult education is the most vulnerable part of our education system. It is the most poorly funded, and those funds are first to be cut. Unfortunately, the people who need the adult education system are the most vulnerable, as well."
At best, 3 million of the estimated 94 million adults nationally who struggle to follow written instructions, read labels and count their change are getting help. "Adult literacy is marginalized in the field of education," said Barbara Van Horn, co-director of Pennsylvania State University's Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy. The estimated number of adults with serious reading comprehension problems - about 45 percent of all Americans over 18 - is drawn from a 1992 National Institute for Literacy survey.
Two years ago, a Maryland task force found state spending on adult education was among the lowest in the nation - about $45 per student. Arguing that bolstering adult education would boost the state economy and help children of nonreading adults avoid similar fates, literacy activists used the task force findings to persuade the General Assembly to almost double state spending on adult programs to $2.4 million.
"When you're spending next to nothing, and you double that, it's still not enough," said Ralph Galvin of the Maryland State Department of Education's Adult Education and Literacy Services.
The need for adult literacy education is greatest in Baltimore, the report said. Thirty-eight percent of the city's adults, or 218,000 people, read at lower than a sixth-grade level. Thirty-one percent, or 142,000 people, have failed to get a high school diploma.
Battling illiteracy has been a major city goal since former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke declared in his 1987 inaugural speech: "Of all the things I might be able to accomplish as mayor of our city, it would make me the proudest if one day it could be simply be said that this is a city that reads, this is a city that waged war on illiteracy."
A losing battle
It's a losing battle, literacy activists say. "When you see those numbers about people who can't read or who don't have diplomas, they don't include rising numbers of people between the ages of 16 and 21," said Beverly Arah, who directs adult education at Baltimore City Community College. "Those numbers have risen dramatically."
While the numbers of adults with reading problems rise, efforts to reach them are falling behind.
Baltimore Reads lost 71 percent of its government funding - going from $2.2 million in grants to $591,023. The big hit was the loss of a $1.2 million grant for teaching literacy skills to people who receive welfare benefits under the federal program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, McLaurin said. "That pretty much devastated our daytime program," she said.
The welfare grant was canceled by Baltimore's Department of Social Services to reflect changes in the federal welfare program dictated by the reform bill that Congress passed in 1996, said Norris West, spokesman for the State Department of Human Resources. "There is a greater emphasis on direct job training in the new program," he said.
Lennox McLendon, who heads the National Organization for State Directors of Adult Education in Washington, said, "The idea is to put people to work at all costs." McLendon said he and other literacy advocates are trying to persuade congressional negotiators to restore a basic education requirement into legislation that would reauthorize the welfare law and another law that funds job training, the Workforce Investment Act.
Along with changes in the welfare program, literacy organizations were hit with declines in private donations because of the weak economy and decreasing state education grants. The state reduced its grants to literacy organizations by about 10 percent, passing along a cut in federal education aid to the state.
While federal funding for adult education remained stable nationwide at about $570 million this year, Maryland's share declined by about 10 percent to $7.4 million because of changes in funding formulas. The state distributed $9.8 million in a combination of federal and state grants to adult education programs this year, Galvin said.
"Nonprofit organizations try to develop multiple funding streams," Galvin said. "But when times are tough, they're all going to go bad."
Baltimore City Community College managed to cover a 10 percent shortfall in its adult basic education budget by shifting money from its general budget, Arah said. The college is the city's largest adult program, with more than 7,000 students taking courses that range from basic reading and writing to English as a second language.
But smaller community organizations that also receive state funding for literacy programs had no cushion to prevent cuts. The South Baltimore Learning Center, whose budget is down 10 percent, or $70,000, has seen its waiting list for classes grow to as many as 200 people after trimming classes, said Executive Director Sonia Socha.
And the state's largest nonprofit literacy group, the Learning Bank, a program of Communities Organized to Improve Life Inc., lost $40,000 in United Way support, $25,000 from state grants and $10,000 in federal Community Development Block Grants - has reduced its staff and been unable to add evening classes to accommodate demand, the program's director, Dolores Bramer, said. The Learning Bank has 80 people waiting for evening classes and about 40 for daytime classes.
"The wait lists are phenomenal because people who come here are people who really need these classes," said Yvonne Butler, the Learning Bank's evening coordinator. "We have people who are trying to get GEDs so they don't go to jail. We have welfare moms and dads trying to keep their benefits. And we have college students who need extra help.
"What they get here isn't about school," she added. "It's about the rest of their lives."