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Will juggling the city’s literacy services help more people learn to read?

On Sunday, June 24, dozens of churches in the D.C. area celebrated “Literacy Sunday.” The event was an effort to get the city’s clergy and congregations involved in the growing effort to persuade thousands of D.C. adults to improve their reading, math, and computer skills.

Before the 12:30 p.m. Mass at St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Northwest, Carolyn Bass stepped up to the pulpit and gave her own testimony about the power of literacy education in transforming her life.

Bass, 45, is what educators call an “adult learner”— a person over the age of 16 who has not graduated from high school or who cannot speak or write fluent English. More than two decades after dropping out of D.C. public schools, Bass, who works as a self-employed seamstress, voluntarily decided to finish her education.

Bass could read and write, but her task still wasn’t easy. After struggling in a program designed to prepare her to earn a General Education Diploma (GED)—the most common high school equivalency degree—Bass found help at Covenant House, which is one of more than 20 nonprofit groups that receive grants from the State Education Agency for Adult Education (SEA) to provide adult literacy and education services. She enrolled in an External Diploma Program—one of the national alternatives to a GED, geared toward older students with work experience—and eventually earned her degree.

At the pulpit that morning, Bass told the congregation, “I was afraid of people’s negative reaction when they learned that I hadn’t finished high school.” People simply assumed, she said, that she had a drug problem, or had gotten pregnant, when neither assumption was true.

Literacy activists have long understood the psychological and social barriers confronting adult learners. But a looming deadline on federal welfare benefits and the latest skirmish in an ongoing bureaucratic tussle between Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ administration and the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) may combine to erect another barrier for those who want to follow in Bass’ steps—a lack of space in the city’s already limited adult-education classes.

“For years, the city has fiddled and done virtually nothing while the 1995 five-year limitation on federal welfare benefits was running out,” says Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a member of UDC’s board of trustees, who chairs the university’s ad hoc committee on literacy. “Now that the two-year extension will expire in March of 2002, the city has suddenly focused on ‘literacy education’ as the solution for the more than 2,000 or so families who will lose their benefits in a few months.”

Kinlow sees changes proposed in the structure of the District’s literacy programs as a last-ditch effort to bolster the city’s welfare-to-work efforts at the expense of other constituencies for literacy services. “They should have seen this coming years ago,” he argues.

The Williams administration already is weighing proposed changes to the city’s approach to adult-literacy programs, which often include teaching math and computer skills. The alterations to literacy policy would include changes in structure and in funding.

“Literacy education is profoundly important to the economic future of the city,” says Gregory McCarthy, director of the city’s Office of Policy and Planning. “Employers constantly tell us that one of the main reasons they hesitate to move into the city is because the workforce has a very low level of basic skills.” McCarthy also cites a February 2001 survey of more than 300 D.C. businesses that found that two-thirds of them had trouble hiring local adults because of their poor reading, math, or computer skills.

Illiteracy throws a wrench into the city’s immediate economic revitalization efforts, but it’s a problem that has been brewing for some time. According to figures provided by the mayor’s office and the SEA, failing public schools, teen parenthood, and rapid immigration have combined forces to leave an estimated 130,000 D.C. adults in need of literacy services, at a time when even entry-level jobs require an ever higher level of education.

As the number of those who need adult education has risen, the amount of available cash to provide it has tumbled. Through cuts mandated by the District’s financial control board to resolve the city’s budget crisis, city funding for adult education declined from $4.5 million in 1994 to $640,000 in 2000. As a result, only about 7,300 adults were enrolled in D.C.-funded adult-education programs between July 1999 and July 2000, with almost half of them (3,000) being city employees enrolled in a skills-development program run by the Department of Employment Services (DOES). Another 1,500 taking classes were adults receiving welfare payments (now known as Temporary Aid to Needy Families, or TANF), and a further 2,800 residents were served by community-based programs funded in part by the SEA.

Volunteers are helping to fill some of the city’s literacy gaps, and an additional 2,500 District adults obtained literacy services from 60 organizations that receive no city funding. But even if these organizations served another 10,000 people every year, the demand for adult-education services would dwarf their present availability in the District.

McCarthy says that it is exactly this need that has led Williams to “reorganize” the manner in which D.C. delivers its literacy services. At present, there are at least seven city agencies that provide some sort of literacy services to children or adults, including the DOES, the District’s Department of Human Services (DHS), the public schools, and the city’s public libraries.

McCarthy maintains that this diffusion of responsibility creates tremendous logistical problems. “The city spends a lot of money providing child care,” McCarthy argues, “but those slots may not be located anywhere near the places where we’re teaching adult-education classes, so people who need child care can’t benefit from them….We had one agency saying that they needed more computers at a time when the Department of Recreation had a computer lab that was standing empty at night. We have to find a better way to coordinate these services.”

The devil—both in the present system of providing literacy services and in any proposed reorganization—is always in such details.

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The changes that Williams is proposing involve consolidating authority for literacy services in his office. It is precisely this detail that is creating political friction between the mayor’s office and other entities—including some D.C. councilmembers, UDC, and a number of the adult public and private groups providing job training, reading tutorials, and other adult-education services.

The conflict revolves squarely on such questions of control: After already eliminating half of the elected representatives to the city’s school board, should the mayor’s office have even more power over D.C.’s educational agenda? Should welfare recipients have priority over Latino, Asian, and African immigrants, or working people such as Carolyn Bass?

One Williams idea, floated in a report called Keeping the Focus, was to create a position for a “literacy czar”—at a salary of $90,000 to $100,000 a year— to coordinate literacy activities under the deputy mayor for children, youth, and families. It also involved designating an “intra-agency literacy coordinator” at each city agency. However, many of the other important details, such as the number of students who would be expected to increase their literacy levels from 2000 to 2003, were left completely blank.

The “literacy czar” plan has now been abandoned, according to McCarthy. “There won’t be any literacy czar,” he says. “The efforts will be coordinated through the Workforce Investment Council, which operates under Eric Price, the deputy mayor for economic development.”

The shifting nature of the mayor’s adult-education overhaul has not engendered confidence among many literacy advocates. The upheaval in city economic policy after the departure of the administration’s third budget chief, Wayne Upshaw, has also caused many observers to wonder why the mayor’s office wants the additional headache of coordinating literacy when a structure to do so—approved by the D.C. Council only two years ago—is already in place.

At present, D.C.’s literacy policy and adult-education services are coordinated by the SEA, under the umbrella of UDC. The SEA, which administers District funds and federal grants under the Workforce Investment Act, was formerly under the direction of the D.C. Public Schools system (DCPS). It was moved in 1999 by a vote of the D.C. Council, however, after the DCPS mismanaged its grants program to the brink of having its own federal funds withheld by the U.S. Department of Education.

On a day-to-day basis, the SEA is run by K. Brisbane, a local attorney who helped to organize D.C.’s highly successful Oyster Bilingual School. Brisbane is reluctant to comment on the Williams administration’s literacy plans, beyond acknowledging, “The SEA has legislative responsibility for administering and overseeing literacy services, and our five-year plan for adult education in D.C. was approved by the UDC board of directors and accepted by the U.S. Department of Education.”

Brisbane also observes that the SEA already enjoys a good working relationship with city agencies. She points to a summer 2000 memorandum of understanding that coordinated referrals between the SEA and the DOES, but refers further questions to the UDC’s interim president, Anthony Jenkins, who was unavailable for comment as of press time.

Jon Randall, president of DC Learns, a private coalition of literacy providers, already sees the potential for friction between the mayor’s office and literacy providers. “The fact that important players such as DCPS and the State Education Agency are not under the control of the mayor’s office definitely means that there are going to be some turf battles,” he observes.

Randall says there’s general agreement in the literacy community that the SEA has done a much better job of administering adult education than DCPS did. “The SEA has made tremendous progress, in both the programs and the way they’re administered,” he says. “I just wish that more teachers from groups who don’t get SEA grants had better access to its training programs, but I think that’s just because Brisbane has limited resources.”

Kinlow argues that Williams’ attempt to place literacy policy in his office is another sign that the mayor sees UDC as a resource to be plundered, rather than an important institution to be strengthened.

“This is just like what happened when the mayor stripped away UDC’s historic Carnegie Library and gave it to the convention center authority,” he says. “No one, even the mayor’s office, has ever said that the SEA isn’t doing an excellent job. UDC has the legal mandate to operate adult education, and if we’re really concerned about the city’s long-term economic growth, UDC is the most logical place for it. The GED and English-as-a-second-language [ESL] classes feed perfectly into about nine or 10 of UDC’s programs, such as nursing or real estate licensing, that are creating long-term employment opportunities.”

At least one vocal member of the D.C. Council seems to favor Kinlow’s position.Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty observes that “the legislation giving the SEA authority over adult education seems very clear. If a plan to transfer its authority to the mayor’s office comes before the council, it would take a lot to convince me that we should change an agency we just set up a year or two ago, particularly when it doesn’t seem to be broken.”

Another reason that many literacy advocates harbor suspicions about the mayor’s reorganization cuts deeper than turf wars. They believe that Williams is less concerned with the broader issues of the SEA’s mandate (providing literacy services to anyone over 16 without a diploma or fluency in English) than he is with a narrower and more deadline-driven problem: thousands of D.C. families that have been unwilling or unable to get off welfare before their federal benefits expire.

Literacy advocates point specifically to the 2001-2004 state plan for adult education that UDC submitted to the U.S. Department of Education as evidence of Williams’ belated concern about the issue. The plan specifically notes that the mayor’s office never responded to repeated opportunities to comment on it. They also observe that, until recently, the mayor’s office had not proposed any additional funding for literacy beyond the $1.6 million for fiscal year 2001, added mainly at the insistence of Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous and some of his colleagues.

The effect of the welfare benefits deadline on literacy efforts is particularly worrisome to Pilar Laugel, executive director of the Language etc. center in Kalorama Heights. Laugel notes that many of the people in her programs are Hispanic immigrants who are not on welfare but are desperately trying to learn to read or speak better English in order to survive.

“Unless the city doubles, or even triples, what it spends on adult education,” argues Laugel, “the only way it can make room for all the people losing their TANF benefits is by displacing a lot of other poor people who are voluntarily trying to remain self-sufficient.”

Laugel’s concerns have been reinforced by recent D.C. Council hearings. At a June 22 hearing, the DOES revealed that only 73 of the 598 welfare recipients referred to the Project Empowerment-subsidized jobs program because their benefits were about to expire had attended the job-readiness classes. Most of the jobs were filled by people who had voluntarily entered the program, rather than by those who had been forced into it as a condition of losing their benefits. The Washington Post reported that DHS Director Carolyn Colvin had responded to the testimony by urging that such slots should be reserved for people without the initiative to seek employment assistance.

McCarthy, however, insists that the same will not hold for literacy classes, whatever the mayor’s office proposes. “This mayor has no intention of sacrificing one group of needy people for another,” he says. McCarthy points to a July 2 request made by Williams to Congress for permission to spend $4.5 million of the city’s reserve funds on literacy projects, including boosts for UDC and for ESL programs.

Some literacy activists suspect that the proposals for increased spending have come because Williams is feeling heat on the issue. They insist that the fight for control over the city’s literacy programs is not over, and that until that money actually comes through, a lot of the District’s adult learners will be holding their breath and hoping for the best. CP