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School Opens With Mixed Picture for Adult Ed.

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There were no school bells to announce the beginning of the school year for the nation's roughly 4 million adult-education students.

Some students found new basic-education and literacy programs. Others found their choices greatly reduced. And the least lucky found no classes at all.

This fall finds states looking at changes in adult-education programs, weighing the balance between programs that emphasize basic skills and high school equivalency diplomas and other programs that stress work and on-the-job training. And experts say the new federal welfare-reform law promises to change the adult-education field even more.

"There's a really mixed picture," said Ronald S. Pugsley, the director of the U.S. Department of Education's adult-education division. "Some states are downsizing adult-education investment, but some are increasing workplace training."

Federal spending on adult education has leveled off in recent years at around $252 million a year, while state and local spending jumped from $622 million in 1990 to $890 million in 1995, according to estimates by the Education Department.

But that trend is changing. In Michigan this summer, reductions have taken center stage in a state considered a leader in adult-education spending.

The state reduced the adult-education budget to $100 million this year, or about $85 million below last year's levels. Michigan spent $375 million in that area five years ago.

Other issues further confounded Michigan school administrators. The rule changes and state budget were not passed until late this summer, giving adult educators little time to respond. Others are still waiting to find out if they will share in a $17 million grant program.

Educators Scrambling

"It was an impossible situation. It was just scramble, scramble," said Chris VanderWall, the director of community education for the Grand Rapids school system, which served nearly 5,000 adult students last year.

After closing the program for the summer, she plans to begin classes two weeks late this fall, operating on a budget that fell to $2 million from $8 million last year.

"We're still working out the details," she said. "There are going to be some winners and some losers." The losers will be adults age 20 and over, who will see class options reduced and many satellite classrooms closed, she said.

On the other hand, a rule change means that students 16 to 19 years old will still have the same access to General Educational Development and high school diploma courses.

The situation is more dire in the rural Wyoming, Mich., district, where 20 teachers and 22 professional- and support-staff workers were laid off.

All of the vocational education programs have been eliminated, and adult-basic-education and English-as-a-second-language courses that served 5,000 students four years ago might reach just 450 this year.

"In the past, we've been real creative in what we've done here, so this has been hard," said Thomas L. Spaak, the executive director of the district's adult-education program.

John Truscott, the press secretary to Gov. John Engler, defended this year's reductions and said the Republican governor will probably seek more cuts next year.

"We have had lots of people in adult education for a long time, and many schools were padding their general-fund budgets with adult-education money," he said.

Instead of pumping money into adult education, Mr. Engler will continue to seek more funding for workforce and literacy training, Mr. Truscott said.

"If we can get people working, maybe they can pick up the cost of continuing education," he added.

New Directions

As it turns out, Michigan and several other states may be leading a national movement to replace traditional literacy and GED programs with workforce training.

That trend should get a boost from the federal welfare bill signed by President Clinton this summer, some state education officials say.

The overhauled approach to welfare requires states to put a portion of their welfare recipients to work.

But that provision worries adult-education advocates, who say that basic skills like literacy will get short shrift as states spend more money on worker training.

"Without having functional literacy as part of that program, they're doomed to failure," said Judy Koloski, the executive director of the National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium in Washington.

State officials play down those concerns.

"We're going to talk to companies about hiring welfare recipients, but we'll also guarantee that we'll be with them and providing academic skills they need," said Bobby B. Dees, Alabama's director for adult education.

His office works with more than 500 companies that have on-site adult-education programs that are linked to job requirements. Five years ago, that number was about two dozen.

Mr. Dees also pointed out that Republican Gov. Fob James Jr. signed an executive order in February establishing a State Literacy Workforce Development Council and charged it with finding a way to eradicate adult illiteracy in five years.

The document is the only one of its kind nationwide, he said.

Preparing Citizens

The new welfare law also promises to drive up enrollments in English-as-a-second-language and citizenship programs by requiring legal aliens to become citizens in order to qualify for welfare and other assistance programs.

Citizenship and ESL courses are staples of many adult-education programs, accounting for about one-third of adult-education students from 1990 to 1994.

Mr. Pugsley of the Education Department said it's impossible to gauge the impact of that part of the welfare law.

But he said the department estimates that up to 10 million new people may now seek such courses.

"There are already waiting lists," he said. "But nothing's in black and white. There will be phase-in periods, so it's hard to see when the impact will be."

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