Adult literacy advocates won a partial victory this week when the House of Representatives opted not to introduce an amendment to the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) consolidating five federal programs into one block grant. The proposal, part of the Bush administration’s budget, would have given states far greater discretion over how to spend workforce funds—pitting education against job training.

But another threat to adult literacy—a dramatic 64 percent budget cut—is still looming large. The reduction in WIA Title II funds would have a significant effect in New York City, where 38 percent of residents are foreign born and nearly half speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2000 census. The cut would eliminate an estimated 6,000 slots in CUNY programs alone.

In the well-lit cafeteria of the Brooklyn Public Library, where adult literacy classes are held Tuesday and Thursday nights, students were aghast at the proposal. “What am I going to hold on to if you pull this ladder out from under me?” asked Khadijah Ali, a soft-spoken 68-year-old from Barbados, dressed all in white. Ali volunteers with children at Kings County Hospital but hopes to improve her reading enough to become a nurse’s aide. “We are not asking you for handouts,” she said. “We are striving.”

And adult ed is striving to keep up. In January, the city reported that the number of adults who have trouble speaking English rose by 30 percent since 1990, to more than 1.5 million. But classes have not kept pace: Even with close to 50,000 slots citywide, some centers have resorted to lotteries and waiting lists.

Meanwhile, the WIA cut isn’t the only one on the table. The proposed elimination of the Community Services Block Grant program could also jeopardize local GED and English classes.

Providers point out the irony of an administration that encourages employment but cuts funding for reading. “We’re talking about people who need a GED to be able to get a job or to keep a job they have,” said Linda Avitabile, director of education at the Highbridge Community Life Center in the Bronx. “These are things the Bush administration says it wants.”

But the administration also wants measurable results and isn’t getting them from adult ed, according to the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) used by the Office of Management and Budget. While 31 percent of participants in 2001 found jobs after leaving the program and 36 percent advanced one or more education levels, adult education lacked “established targets” so its success, states an OMB report, was “impossible to assess.”

Although the score doesn’t directly impact funding, it does indicate an area of concern, said Sarah Hawkins, an OMB spokesperson. “The information that the PART provides…is one of many factors used in the budget decision-making process,” she said.

News of the low results score has helped mobilize providers, said Kevin Smith, executive director of Literacy New York, a nonprofit educational organization. “They’re so incensed by the notion that they’re useless,” he said. Adult education advocates and students have flooded Congress with letters and are holding a rally April 22.

But Smith is also fairly optimistic that a cut so large won’t make it past Congress. Even among Republicans, he’s heard, it wasn’t well received. “I think [Bush] is targeting things he has a sense the Congress will restore,” said Smith. “Then he can hold them responsible for not being fiscally conservative.”

Still, he and others caution against complacency. “There are so many cuts across the board this year, they’re going to have some very difficult choices,” said Robert Recklaus, communications director for Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), who sits on the education committee and opposes the cuts. “Out work is cut out for us.”

—Cassi Feldman

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