Why no literacy programs for 30 million in U.S.?

Original Reporting | By David Noriega |

A problem, and a population, ignored

Beyond simple congressional inaction, advocates pointed to longer-standing factors behind adult basic education’s low position on the scale of priorities, especially in the larger context of education. Compared to children and college students, for example, uneducated adults tend to be viewed as altogether beyond repair or unworthy of resource-intensive efforts.

“I think we’re still dealing with the overlooking of this population as undeserving,” said Foster of the National Coalition for Literacy.

Added MacArthur, of the University of Delaware, characterizing a common perception of adult learners: “They went to public school for twelve years, and they didn’t learn what they should have. So now they’re in adult education, and what are the chances that we’re going to be successful this time?”

According to Carter, the advocate in Washington, for policymakers this translates into an unwillingness to invest in a population towards whom many people feel indifferent or unsympathetic. Carter also pointed out that, even among those willing to address the problem, investing in adult learners is politically riskier than in early childhood education and other programs aimed at children. This is because, compared with children, adults are expected to deliver more immediate results.

Even though there are generally agreed-upon principles and practices that work better than others, and even some potential model programs, the question of how to implement them on a large scale is only now being asked. The result, as described by most advocates and experts in the field, is a vicious cycle of neglect. Because insufficient resources have been devoted comprehensively assessing approaches to deal with the problem, there is a dearth of solutions that have been confirmed to be effective. This, in turn, saps the political will to direct more resources into bolstering, researching and fixing the systems that do exist.

“It’s sort of like having a car with no wheels and no engine,” Carter said. “And then you have people saying, ‘Well, we’re not going to give you any more money to fix up this car until you show me it can run’.”

Stagnating efforts

Remapping Debate reached out to 13 members of the House and Senate of both parties, all with high-ranking positions on the relevant committees and subcommittees and many with past action on adult literacy on their records. Besides one who cited a scheduling conflict, only three responded, and of these only one—Rep. John F. Tierney, Democrat of Massachusetts—gave more than an emailed statement.

Tierney, who sponsored the Democratic House bill that would have nearly doubled funding, said the waiting list for adult education programs in his state has remained at close to 20,000 since he came into office in 1997. “The resources clearly are not sufficient,” Tierney said. He added that, while securing those funds is difficult in a House bent on cutting billions in food stamps, this doesn’t mean the money ins’t there. “We understand we have to make some hard decisions on prioritization, but there are plenty of places within our budget—if you include the military as well as the domestic budget—where we can move resources to the places they have to be. And this is a place where it’s obviously appropriate to do that.”

Rep. Phil Roe, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Health Education Labor and Pensions subcommittee of the Education and the Workforce committee, emailed a statement detailing the intentions of the Republican bill that passed the House. In the statement, Roe characterized the bill as intended to improve adult literacy by cutting down on inefficiencies in the current system rather than by devoting more resources to the problem.

The office of Sen. Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa and chairman of the senate’s Health Education Labor and Pensions committee, emailed a brief statement summarizing the bipartisan bill that passed his committee but did not respond to follow-up questions about whether more funding is needed.


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