By CASEY HULL
Capital News Service
LANSING — Adult education is handcuffed by a stagnant budget that critics say keeps the state from alleviating cycles of poverty amid one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation.
Over 1 million Michigan residents don’t have their high school diploma or equivalent, according to Stepheni Schlinker, a communications specialist for the Michigan Talent Investment Agency.
State funding for adult education programs was cut from $75 million to $20 million in 2004. Enrollment dropped with the funding from 76,000 in 2001 to 35,000 by 2005.
Adult education classes are free services provided around the state for individuals wanting to get their high school degree or improve their basic literacy skills.
This year, adult education programs are receiving $25 million in state funding. Federal grants also contribute but have declined from $17 million in 2003 to $13.3 million in 2018. Adjusting for inflation, adult education would require an additional $11.5 million to match the 2003 funding level.
Around 28,000 state residents participate in the programs each year.
“We administer the governor’s budget, and we’re certainly trying to run our programs and expand our programs,” said Joe Billig, the director of the Office of Talent Policy and Planning for the Michigan Workforce Development Agency. “We always look to ways our programs can improve, even if more funding is not available.”
By encouraging students to co-enroll in other government programs to spread costs around and by moving tests and textbooks online, the agency has been able to keep providing services with less money, Billig said.
“We know that children of parents who have low literacy skills are 72 percent more likely to have low reading levels or drop out of school,” said Krista Johnson, the director of Education and Career Success for the Workforce Development Agency.
The graduation rate for Michigan K-12 students was below 80 percent and tied for 40th- worst in the nation for the 2015-16 school year. The rate for low-income students was only 67 percent, according to the U.S Department of Education.
For Northwest Michigan, funding challenges come as the population of adult education students has undergone a significant shift.
“It used to mostly be 35-to-50-year-olds — now we’re seeing them in the 18-to-24 range,” said Christy Nelson, the adult education coordinator for Northwest Michigan Works!
Her agency covers Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee and Wexford counties and serves between 600 and 700 students every year in adult education programs. Last year, 330 of them were between 16 and 24 years old.
The low high school graduation rates put pressure on adult education programs.
“Most of the kids that we see coming in fell so far behind in their credits that it’s easier to just get a GED,” Nelson said.
State funding for adult education programs is based on how many people in a region lack high school diplomas or who speak English as a second language.
“We’re definitely underfunded,” Nelson said. “The largest cost that we have is teachers’ salaries. When we have less income, we reduce the number of hours they work per week.”
Northwest Michigan Works! employs six teachers at learning labs in Petoskey, Kalkaska, Cadillac, Manistee and Traverse City.
One of the students’ main complaints is the lack of nighttime schooling options, Nelson said. “Many of our students work several low-income jobs just to make ends meet.”
Programs forced to close mean further driving distances for students.
For example, “Livingston County does not have an adult education program as the result of cuts,” said Peter Ruark, a senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy. “Students from Livingston County drive 30 miles to Novi in Oakland County in order to attend a program.”
“In the Upper Peninsula, there are people who have to drive 50 miles both ways because it is so sparsely populated,” he said.
“We’re concerned about the people with families, the people with jobs that are stuck in a low-wage spiral of poverty that need to build their skills in order to get jobs that pay well so they can be economically secure,” he said.
Nelson said participation in adult education programs fluctuates with unemployment. “When unemployment is high, we see higher traffic.”
More distance learning programs could help those with job conflicts or who need to stay home with a child, she said, adding that Northwest Michigan Works! bought an
an online learning program that students can access from home. Students also can reach teachers through video calls and email.
By CASEY HULL