Adult school leaders rose to save their programs in 2014, will they do it again

Steve Curiel, Huntington Beach Adult School Principal, wears a black suit and smiles for the camera
Steve Curiel, Huntington Beach Adult School Principal

When Luma Dadwood left Iraq for safer living in the United States, she said she “left everything behind.”

“I felt shy and lonely and had no friends,” she said.

After enrolling her children in school, she learned about Corona-Norco Adult School and enrolled in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program, and then signed up for a Career Technical Education. She is now working for that same school as a paraeducator and community assistant, and helps other adult students find employment.

Dadwood is not alone. Since the passage of the California Adult Education Program 10 years ago, over 5 million Californians have taken similar adult education courses, leading them to earn high school diplomas and find new career opportunities.

“We try to help the entire person. If you are going to be successful in a job, you have to be successful in other areas of your life as well.”

Diana Carey, President, Huntington Beach Union High School District Board of Trustees

Dadwood and the millions like her almost didn’t have this opportunity. In 2009, in the midst of a financial crisis, there was a real chance that the California adult school system was going to crash and burn.

To deal with the fiscal crisis, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called for a special emergency session. One of the many items proposed to deal with the crisis was to redo school financing, giving local school districts authorization to use previously protected adult school educational funds—along with other protected funds—for any proposed education purpose.

The resulting cutbacks to adult ed programs were severe. Statewide, school districts reduced their spending in adult education by nearly half, from $635 million to an estimated $300 million, according to a 2015 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO).

Consequently, the number of adult education ESL students dropped significantly, from 500,000 to 200,000. Basic education enrollments saw a decline from 375,000 to 220,000, while Career Technical Education enrollments fell from 290,000 to 210,000.

Huntington Beach Adult School Principal Steve Curiel said he was asked to prepare a budget eliminating 80 percent of an $8 million budget. After more than 100 adult students attended a board meeting to voice their concerns and disappointment about the proposed cut, the board ultimately approved a 50 percent cut for the following year.

“We had to lay off nearly 100 staff members, lost our main campus, and enrollment dropped by more than 10,000 students,” Curiel said. Since each district was handling cutbacks differently and at different times, he explained, it was not obvious to the general public and elected legislators that “the entire adult education program that served close to 1 million students was on the brink of disappearing.”

The K-12 Adult School Program was reduced to a shell of its former self. Then came a proposal from the then-Governor Jerry Brown in 2013: to transfer all K-12 adult education programs to the community college system. This notion struck hard at the heart of K-12 teachers and administrators who had passionately championed these programs, especially given the lack of supportive alternatives in local neighborhood schools. They feared that students, many of whom were already struggling and spoke little to no English, would feel overwhelmed by the prospect of transitioning to the community college system.

Faced with this disaster, the California Council for Adult Education (CCAE) and the California Adult Education Administrators Association (CAEAA) dramatically stepped up their efforts to save the adult school programs. There was a full-court press to inform stakeholders about the impact of school closures. In Northern California, adult school programs in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, working with N&R Publications, quickly put out an eight-page educational publication which was inserted into several hundred thousand copies of Bay Area daily newspapers. It was via that publication that countless potential voters—and many legislators—first learned about what was happening to their adult education programs.

The end result of this focused campaign was to change the political momentum away from eliminating adult school education and led to a compromise bill that would have $500 million of dedicated funding for adult education. The money would be distributed to the 71 regional consortia, made up of the local K-12 schools in each different community college district, and the fund’s first priority would be to maintain the remaining adult school programs in both the K-12 schools and community colleges.

This legislation essentially saved adult school education, though admittedly at a much lower level. Over the last 10 years, the California Legislature has been giving small but steady (mainly cost-of-living) increases to adult schooling. In addition to maintaining the program, over the last 10 years the adult schools have also developed a vast array of innovative new programs, including those to help individuals with disabilities, help justice-involved individuals with education and job training, and to develop health care and construction career pathways.

These programs require funding. With the updated school state budget deficit anticipated to be in the $75 billion range, every state budget—including adult school education—is potentially on the chopping block. Those adult school leaders who previously saw their programs nearly eliminated, only to be saved because of the extensive outreach campaign, are particularly concerned about this round of budget cuts.

“Adult education is a big deal.”

John Werner, Executive Director, Sequoias Adult Education Consortium
A professional photo of John Werner, Sequoia Adult Education Consortium Head, a smiling man in a black suit
John Werner, Sequoia Adult Education Consortium Head

“Adult education is to an economic recovery what an emergency room is to a pandemic,” said John Werner, Sequoia Adult Education Consortium head and a long-time adult school leader who has played an active role in numerous organizations such as COABE, CCAE, and others. “Adult education helps the most at-risk and marginalized populations engage literacy and training programs so that they can survive economic constriction impacts. Not only does Adult education provide essential literacy and workforce training, but it very often serves as the initial triage point for referral to supportive services for adults. And quite frankly, if you want to help a child in poverty you have to help an adult in poverty, because only the adult can get a job tomorrow.”

While programs that directly help children deserve our support, Werner believes that helping parents attain steady employment with higher wages is the most effective way to help families with children. Helping individuals with English and basic education is the most effective way to build up much needed healthcare, construction, and other state work forces, and more workers in these fields can in turn reduce poverty and healthcare and housing costs.

Ten years ago, when the school programs were in jeopardy, adult school leaders rose to the occasion to ensure that their story was told, thereby saving those programs. The obvious question now is if the 2024 adult school leaders will likewise rise to the current situation. As CCAE Legislative Chair Beth Cutter puts it, “I, like many adult school teachers and administrators, tend to feel more comfortable focusing on meaningful work within our classrooms rather than stepping into the role of a public advocate.

“…When I reflect on the incredible determination of our students…I find inspiration to step outside my comfort zone and advocate for their needs. If they can overcome such obstacles, then surely, I can too.”

Beth Cutter, CCAE Legislative Chair

However, when I reflect on the incredible determination of our students, such as those who bravely enroll in ESL classes despite language barriers or those who return to pursue a high school diploma despite past challenges, I am reminded of the resilience and courage they embody.

In their determination, I find inspiration to step outside my comfort zone and advocate for their needs. If they can overcome such obstacles, then surely, I can too.”

Luma and millions of other Californians are depending on us.

Written by by Jeff vonKaenel