Perspective: Funding Adult Education Is a Perceptual – Not an Economic – Problem

This is a perspective piece by myself, Cynthia Eagleton.  I am the facilitator of this blog and I try to provide information and inspiration to renew and rebuild Adult Education.  From time to time, I share my own perspectives as well as the perspectives of others.

In this particular perspective piece, I weave a lot of threads into a tapestry that may or may not make sense to you.  Some threads may seem obvious and true to you and others may seen invisible or wrong.  Like everyone, I have blind spots which I cannot see and vantages from I view things and these affect how I perceive things and what I think of them.  Bottom line, read at risk of disagreement or dismay.  Then again, you might agree in whole or part.  Either way, I hope it will stimulate you to consider your own perspective, your own blind spots, and how important it is for all of us to describe the part of the problem each of us can see, so that together, we can identify the animal in the center of the classroom.



I came up with the phrase “Adult Education Matters” as a means to address a perceptual problem.  At about the same time, in the way the cultural zeitgeist works, someone else came up with the phrase, “Black Lives Matter” to address a different but not unrelated perceptual problem.

It would be some time before I heard the phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” but when I did, I instantly understood it’s value and why it was quickly taken up by the movement. 

Both the Black Lives Matter movement and the movement to restore Adult Education in California are rooted in efforts to shift how we see things, to reframe what and who has been perceived as a “problem,” to assert the value of people often pathologized, feared, denied, marginalized, and painted as a “drain” on resources, rather than as mighty and precious contributors to resources we all share, full members and participants and providers in our civic, social, economic, and cultural body. 

This piece is not intended as a compare and contrast essay on the Adult Education Matters and Black Lives Matter movements.  I will not go through them, point by point, to showcase where and how they are similar and different.

I do want to make clear, however, that both movements are pushing back against perceptions that have bound and shamed important members of our people as effectively as shackles and chains. 

How we see things, how we understand them, is always where everything begins.

Funding Adult Education is NOT an economic problem.  There is PLENTY of money for education this year.  Every branch of public education in California received an increase in Governor Brown’s budget proposal.  Only Adult Education did not see an increase.

Adult Education Budget
Slide from CFT 2016 State Convention
workshop on the California Budget

Community College
Slide from same source

Early Childhood Ed Budget
Note that Governor Brown wants to
create a Block Grant for Early Childhood,
similar to Adult Education

K12 Budget

UC Budget
(no slide was provided for CSU system)

Why? 

Why must Adult Education “prove” that it can wisely spend 250 million less than what it used to handle well? 

Adult Schools were ALWAYS the cheapest, most cost-effective branch of public education, a system that could turn on a dime to open or close classes.  A system with the lowest overhead and teaching pay (outside of Early Childhood Education – which says something how about how we perceive the value of caring for and educating young children). 

So why, after being completely re-shaped, must it now “prove” that it can handle money well?

Why, for that matter, was it made the blood donor to the K12 system during the financial crisis?

Even more ironic, why was funding for Adult Education Financial Literacy eliminated after the financial crisis?

No branch of Public Education caused the financial crisis.  Big banks, Wall Street, and lack of federal oversight and accountability caused it.  (See:  The Big Short.)   Education, social services and maintenance and improvements to public infrastructure were cut.  “Regular people” paid the price not only in terms of cuts that greatly impacted their lives but also literally, through federal taxes that bailed out the banks.  And since California pays more into the federal system than it takes out, we paid more than our share. 

All branches of Public Education in California were cut by Governor Schwartzenegger and the Legislature in response to the financial meltdown.  Nothing surprising there.  But only the Adult School system was made into a donor system for another branch, a choice which nearly caused its death.

Broadly speaking, Adult Schools survived in some form in the most affluent of areas and were worst cut or eliminated in the poorest.  In other words, they were eliminated from where they were needed most and retained where they were needed least.   (They are needed everywhere but these remain the facts and you get my point.)

The truth that children do best – academically, socially, and physically – when raised by parents with access to economic, civic, and linguistic means, and not devastated by poverty, racism, anti-immigrant hatred, and other burdens – seemed invisible to Governor Schwartzenegger and the Legislature.  

You do not lift children up by removing access to education from their parents, extended family, and community.

You don’t save K12 programs by eliminating Adult Education.  In fact, you hurt them.

Governor Jerry Brown understood there is inequity in the state our culture and the K12 system and came up with the Local Control Funding Formula as a means to address it.  But perhaps because he grew up with wealth, status, and privilege, and is not, himself, a parent or caregiver, he has failed to make the connection that children are raised by parents, families and communities and that a healthy social bank is just as important to our mental, physical, civic, and economic health as a financial bank.  He seems to see workforce training as the solution to all things economic. 

Sad and ironic, given his own education, which was far from workforce focused.  Both Jesuit schools and UC Berkeley are known for their reverence of learning and inquiry and it was his education from these institutions, along with the privilege, status, and connections he was born to, that Governor Brown owes much of his success to.  Sure, he made much of them – and hats off to him for doing so – but had he grown up poor, brown, undocumented, gone to a workforce focused charter school “Academy,” obtained his GED at an underfunded Adult School, and then to a college he could “afford,” I doubt he’d be the man he is today.  On some level, he knows that – and thus his efforts to work for justice – and very real and valuable efforts they are.  I publically thank him for them.  At the same time, he seems blinded to some of what most helped him – not just privilege and money, but a certain kind of education.  An education that was predicated on the value of learning as a process, not just a means to a measurable result.  Why does he get to have such an education but others don’t? 

That’s not fair – and just as importantly – it’s detrimental to our social, civic, and economic health as a state. 

We will not find the solutions to all our problems in workforce training.   College and career are not the answer to everything.   And not everything of value can be measured on a six month or six year scale. 

Here I refer you to this post because I’ve already written more than intended on this thread of the tapestry. I want return now to the central thread – which is that allocation of funding is based on perception of value – not just on how much there is spend.

If Adult Education – and most importantly, if the people whom Adult Education serves – were valued to the same extent as other branches (and people) – it would be adequately funded.

This is especially clear in years of plenty – as this year is.

In years of lean, we can expect cuts to all branches of Public Education and we can expect deeper cuts to branches deemed less necessary to the survival of the tree.  These are what are called “hard choices.”  You have ten dollars.  You have to feed six people.  Yes, everyone should have five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.  But you don’t have money for that.  So you buy rice and beans and some onion and garlic and some tomatoes.  You make it work.  When there is more money, on a different day, you buy salad and chicken and if there is a lot of money, you may even buy ice cream.  That’s understanding how life works and keeping people alive.

(Sorry if I moved from trimming trees to feeding a family.  Hopefully you understood what I was saying.  And at least I didn’t talk about picking apples off trimmed trees and making pie and applesauce… although come to think of it… )

But this is not a year of lean.  It is a year of plenty.  Every branch of Public Education is getting more.  Except Adult Education.

And… and also very importantly… this happened at the same time that Adult Education was forced to change.  And change in a way that not everyone liked, wanted, or asked for.

There is a lot of pressure within the Adult School community to keep quiet about what we don’t like. This is not necessarily top-down.  It is so internalized we do it with ourselves and with each other.  This is a not uncommon phenomenon in groups which are lower down in a power hierarchy.  Keep your head down.  Don’t ask for too much.  Don’t be angry.  Anger scares people, including people with power.  Don’t make the people with power angry.  Don’t mention injustice.  Be the good group, the good individual.  Prove your worth.  Make a case for your value with stats and facts and ask for less than others get to be sure you’ll get something – and then be sure to write a thank you note afterwards. 

In shifting that, pushing back and speaking up, we see again the connection with the Black Lives Matter movement.  The Black Lives Matter movement is not apologizing for pointing out there is inequity.  The Black Lives Matter movement is not apologizing for pointing out that Americans of African ancestry have great worth and bring great value and gifts and contributions to the nation that is the United States, even though they have suffered injustice and oppression and continually sustained assaults and cultural badmouthing for over four hundred years since they were first enslaved and brought here in chains.  And all that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.  So the uncomfortable people and the scared people and the people benefiting the power structure as it exists now tell the Black Lives Matter movement to be quiet.

There is a similar dynamic in education circles.  Adult Schools should not ask for too much.  We should be happy with what we get.  We should not mention that mostly, Adult Schools did not ask for the new Regional Consortia system.  It was not our idea.  Because of the global financial meltdown and the consequent cuts to Public Education, in particular to us, we were put in a difficult situation where to survive and receive any money at all, we had to accept a new system, a system in which we’d have to work with and share funds with a group that had, on occasion, lobbied for our takeover
We would then have to operate under confusing new rules, help build and operate under a new system and new forms of bureaucracy (the Regional Consortia System and the Adult Education Block Grant), which was a tremendous amount of work, not to mention sometimes a huge headache, especially for the administrators who had to do all this extra work for free. 

And let’s not forget the cost of eliminating four programs we had provided for decades.  Funding for Older Adults and Parent Education – essentially eliminated.  Older Adults classes can be funded if they lead to employment.  One doesn’t have to think hard to understand why a governor in his seventies would like that idea.  And Parent Education is okay only as narrowly defined.  But the idea of simply supporting Parents in a variety of ways?  Understanding their role as a child’s first and most important teachers?  No.  Gone.  Just like funding for Financial Literacy and Home Economics.   Many schools had already eliminated these programs because of the cuts and/or because it was clear that funding for them would be eliminated.  Those schools which retained them had to now find a way to fund them – either through the narrow parameters of the Adult Education Block Grant or through fees.  Everyone had to let staff go, watch valuable programs die, and see communities go unserved.  There is a very human cost to all that.  And given the value of these programs (as outlined earlier in this massively long perspective piece), an economic one, too.

So… Adult Education first defunded, then reshaped.  Then further funding is withheld till we can “prove” that we can handle money and this new system well. 

If that doesn’t sound like a carrot and a stick to accept a new system we didn’t ask for, I don’t know what does.

Especially considering Adult Schools do not have a reputation for mismanaging funds.

Again, let’s remember:  Adult Schools did not cause the global financial meltdown.  Bankers and Wall Street did.  Probably a large number of whom went to prestigious private institutions of higher learning on the East Coast.  Do those institutions value learning for learning’s sake?  I don’t really know.  Just like Brown, I went to UC Berkeley.  I do know that both public and private universities are reflections of our culture, itself still mired in inequity, and both public and private universities invest in companies that do bad business in this world.  Public universities, however, are bound by covenant to serve the public.  They must try, at least some of the time, to do so.  And the University of California system is entrusted with funds to research on the public’s behalf.  Ivy League schools were founded to educate the elite and keep them in power.  When their graduates continue to do that, as many of the bankers and Wall Streets folks do, I am not surprised.  When their graduates do otherwise, I am happy and grateful. 

And again, I have to sit for a minute for this weird truth:  The near demolition of Adult Education was the result of Global Meltdown Domino Effect – and one of the dominoes that went down as a result was state-funded Adult Education classes in Financial Literacy.  What?!   Yeah, and I only ever heard one legislator speak to this.  Thank you, Assembly Member Reggie Jones-Sawyer.   Why am I not surprised he comes from a family who were pioneers in the Civil Rights Movement?  Again, things connect.  We just have to see the connections.

The LAO – the Legislative Analyst Office – in it’s 2012 Report on Restructuring Adult Education – never found fault with Adult School financial management.  It said there should be better coordination between Adult Schools and Community Colleges.

The LAO did recommend narrowing the mission of Adult Schools.  It recommended narrowing to a work and civics focus, what it perceived as the “core mission” of Adult Education.  Although, if you look at the history of Adult Education, you can see that “core mission” has changed a lot over the past 150 years.  Thank you again to Kristen Pursely, for researching and detailing the history of Adult Education in California.

But yes, let’s stop and think about the LAO’s take on the core mission, for a minute.  Where, really, do you hear talk in all that is going on about civics?  Where is the emphasis on citizenship classes?  Where is the emphasis on immigrants becoming voters?  Where is the emphasis on residents and citizens of California fully understanding our complex civic life so that they can participate in it?  How many times have you heard the Governor, the Legislature, or any unions, state agencies, coalitions, or immigrant organizations talk about this?  Yes.  Not many.  I think this is not because folks in these groups think civics is unimportant but because in the rush toward “College & Career,” civics was forgotten or ignored – and that speaks to priorities.  Maybe civics is considered important – but not as important as work.  And why is that? 

Hmmm… complex.  Do we really want everyone to engage in civic life?  To understand how things work and speak up about them?  Do we really want everyone to obtain citizenship and once obtained, to vote?  I think the answer is “that depends.”  That depends on who is thinking about the situation and who would be learning more about how things work and what they would think about it and what would they say and to whom and who would be becoming citizens and who would be voting and what they would be voting for.  Real democracy is scary.  It’s hard, complex, messy, and it doesn’t always go the way we want it to.  That’s why we so often try to control or obstruct it.  Whatever we try to control is powerful and even with a saddle, reins, and a bit, a horse can run away.  And when a lot of horses run in the same direction, some of us fear we’ll be trampled.

As to why the LAO considered work to be the other part of Adult Education’s core mission, well, I can guess it is because we as a culture do not value relational skills, social banks, families, community connections.  We consider these things to be “soft skills” and our culture likes “hard” – hard skills, hard data, hard men, I really want to talk about Trump’s hands here but I’m going to restrain myself.

Parent Education and Older Adults programs strengthen and maintain families and social relationships.   In turn, these social banks relationships maintain mental, physical, civic and economic health.  But these are not connections are culture currently sees.  We don’t see the connection between the social bank and the economic bank.   We don’t see they are two banks of the same river, two sides to the coin of our people.  Our wealth begins and ends in our health.

Think about it, the word “wealth” – has it’s root in “weal” – well being, health, abundance, happiness.  The people’s health, well-being, and happiness are in direct relationship to the economy.  We tend to see this as flowing in one direction only.  Poverty creates misery, that kind of thing.  And it’s true, it does.  But we fail to see where the people’s health – mentally, socially, physically, their well-being – creates wealth.  Michael Moore does.   As so do many countries around the world.  This is what his new documentary, “Where To Invade Next” is about.  See it, as well as “The Big Short.” 

Our culture sees value in work – although not enough value to pay it well – thus the Fight for Fifteen Movement – yet another movement that is about pushing back on how we view people working “unskilled labor” jobs. 

There is no such thing as unskilled labor.   Taking care of children, being patient with difficult customers, cooking safe to eat, delicious food, planting and harvesting crops, caring for old people, providing customer service over the phone – all these jobs and every job receiving minimum wage require a wide and important array of skills.  If they didn’t, we wouldn’t complain so loudly when they are performed badly.

Before I became a teacher, I was a housecleaner, nanny, caregiver for older folks, and gardener.  Basically, I took care of things that were alive, with the aim to help them thrive.  There was a lot of skill involved.  Just as much skill as in what I do now.  But not much pay.  And definitely not much respect.  Even more shocking than receiving decent pay and benefits when I became a teacher, was receiving respect.  For me, it felt strange to have people respect me – simply because of my job title.  I never received that kind of respect in my work caring for children and old people, even though that work is – in my opinion – more valuable and sometimes much harder.  But our culture doesn’t respect such work.  Not really.  It’s not high up in the hierarchy of labor. 

Why?  Well, it doesn’t take much pondering to realize that “women’s work” and work close to the earth and the body – soil and bodies that soil, food and what digests our food, anything to do with producing life, including women’s bodies, is a very complicated thing for our culture.  We want these things.  We want life, the earth and all it provides us, women and all they provide us.  On some level we value these things.  On the other hand, something is going on – because we don’t acknowledge their value in an open and honest way.  Give us the food but don’t make us value the earth or the people who bring it to us, who plant it, pick it, truck it, cook it, serve it – or pay them well.  Give us the children but don’t make us value the women who grow them inside their bodies or the people who raise them.  Don’t make us give respect or provide adequate support or pay, for giving life and care to children, families, communities, and old people. 

Work that has traditionally been done by women or has a close relationship to the earth, food, bodies, the natural world of which we are a part and owe our life to – is generally low-paid and disrespected in our culture. For hundreds of years, African people were kidnapped and enslaved to do these jobs and/or kept in conditions close to slavery.  Where Americans of any ethnic background don’t or won’t do this work, immigrants who are low in power and status are enlisted to do it, a classic example of this being the fact that half of our food is harvested by undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America.  Often this work is divided into “women’s work” – caring for people of all ages and cleaning where we live and work – and “men’s work” – planting and harvesting crops, raising and slaughtering animals.  Men’s work is almost always higher in both pay and status.   The need for this work to be done as a normal part of human existence coupled with the fact that many people do not want to do it for reasons ranging from low pay and status to the level of difficulty involved is why the United States has a constant need for immigrants whether or not we allow them legal status.  For more on this topic, read Nancy Folbre, economist, especially her book, “The Invisible Heart:  Economics and Family Values.”   

Okay, wow, I am suddenly struck by the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger, an immigrant from Austria and the governor who made Adult Schools the sacrificial lamb during the financial crisis, signaling his belief that Adult Education, a large part of which is ESL for immigrants, particularly from Mexico and Central America, doesn’t matter…

… that this same man, during the time he made decisions that sharply reduced access to ESL classes, was denying any acknowledgement of a sexual relationship with his housekeeper, an immigrant from Guatemala…  as well as the child they conceived, a son who looked like him, a son just a few days younger than the son he conceived with his wife, Maria Shriver, a member of the Kennedy clan, as close as we come to American royalty.  All this happening in the same time period, the same household, everyone rotating around each other and aware of each other but only some folks fully acknowledged and valued as family.  It’s like the Californian version of Strom Thurmond

We on the West Coast are quick to see and call out the problems in the South –  slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, etc. while failing to see that as white is to black in the South, white is to brown in the West.  Latino and Asian immigrants, in particular but not exclusively, have been exploited and oppressed.  How many Californians graduate from our K12 system knowing about Brown vs Board of Education but nothing about Mendez vs Westminister, the 1947 case in addressing the same separate but equal issues that the Brown case did, but focused on Latinos in California?  I am one of those Californians who was never taught this – and not only did I get what would be considered a very good pre-prop 13 education, three years of that education were in schools in Calexico, a small town on the Mexican border, where this information would have been of special importance.

So knowing all that, let’s stop and think for a minute about an Austrian-born Governor who deprives immigrants, the majority of whom are from Mexico or Central American, access to ESL classes while also depriving his Guatemalan-born lover and their “love child” recognition, financial support, and respect.   If that seems like I’m “pushing it,” imagine the story were set in the South and his housekeeper was African-American and he cut funding for programs which significantly benefit African-Americans.  Would it still seem so outlandish? 

My point here is not Arnold but us. Our culture, of which he’s a member.

What and whom did Arnold value and desire?  And what and whom did he publically value and fund?  It’s one thing to desire or value something or someone and another to do so openly and honestly and literally pay them their due – with respect.

Back to our discussion of work and skilled and unskilled labor and what is valued… someone’s benefiting when these some jobs are not framed as “skilled” and the people working them are not framed as of the same worth as the people employing them – and it’s not the people working the jobs.

This is another long thread that we could follow but time being what it is and it being a miracle if anyone is still reading at this point, I refer you again to this post (if you want to read it) and move back to the central thread…

… which is, to say it again… that funding Adult Education is not an economic problem – it is a perceptual one.

If we perceive immigrants – and all immigrants, not just H-1 visa immigrants or immigrants that are venture capitalists or Governor but also the people who picked the food you ate a littler earlier today – and your immigrant housekeeper and old people and children and people who didn’t finish high school and people struggling with economic and social injustice and the incarcerated or the formerly incarcerated or anyone else we put in the “other” box – as just as valuable as “us” (who and whatever that is) – then we are making choices about how we spend out money – the money created by us, all of us, together the makers of the EIGHTH LARGEST ECONOMY IN THE WORLD – and yes, that’s including the people who picked the cherry tomatoes you ate at lunch and worked in the slaughterhouse that produced the all white meat, no skin, no bone chicken breast you’ll eat for dinner.

… if we do that, if see value in all people and all work, then we choose to spend money on Adult Education.

And we don’t make the choice to punish people or Adult Education by continually defunding or destabilizing their programs.  And we don’t hold out carrots while threatening sticks until they quietly do as they’re told as if they are bad little children who must be taught to sit up straight and behave right.

And we find the courage within ourselves to say what we see, to embolden one another with the truth, to cheer one another on by sharing what we see and know, so that each of us doesn’t feel so alone.  We talk about our value, our strengths, our gifts, and our accomplishments.  Because, when you have continually been told you don’t matter, it takes courage to say that you do.

And we give voice to the truth of what happened and how it affected us and how we feel about it.  To talk about the fatigue, the discouragement, the cost of all this to us.  I have seen people go down through this process, to fall apart physically, to give in to discouragement, bitterness, cynicism, or despair, to disconnect and give up on things ever being better than what they are now.  So rather than give away our power to despair, we mourn, cry, stamp our feet, and grieve what has been lost.

And then we look at the crap.  We don’t turn away in aversion.  We put on our spectacles and look at it as something we, the people, have created.  We try to figure out how it got there, what it’s made of, and if it can be used as fertilizer.   And we go on, making the best of things and viewing everyone – including the folks who may have intended us harm, as other people of equal value to ourselves.  People we may need to be watchful of, maybe, until they learn better.  But people.  Just like us. 

And then we get all kinds of benefits.

We can begin to see the full picture.  We can see our worth and our weaknesses.  Our value and our vulnerability.  We can see have power, both alone and together – and that we use our power to help and to harm.  We can see that as a culture, we’ve elevated some talents, some jobs, some people above others, creating a hierarchy of worth where there is none.  We can see there is value in all people and worth in all work.  We can see our inter-connectedness.  We can set down the shame we all carry for needing love, attention, connection, food, tenderness, and touch and receive what we need  – without having to manipulate and exploit and devalue others in order to get our needs met.  

We need each other.  That’s the truth of being human.  And a beautiful truth it is, too, because it speaks to our underlying unity.  We are not, in fact “rugged individuals” who exist alone, birthed out of rock and sky.  We are a group species who, from the very beginning, are about connection.  Even in a test tube, it takes two to make a thing all right.  The only thing in this world we can truly do alone is die.  Everything else depends on others – most especially our creation, birth, and survival, not to mention, language, culture, and happiness.   When we can embrace that, we will no longer need to hurt and harm each other to meet our needs. We can share and negotiate as equals. 

That’s wonderful and important and liberating, all by itself.   We could stop right here!

But there’s this other thing:

Seeing things clearly is a skill.  It’s a skill that can be learned and strengthened and sharpened and improved.

But it can’t be learned or strengthened if we don’t use it. 

And why is this so important?

Because far, far bigger than the Teacher of Global Financial Meltdown is another Teacher… now appearing in classrooms all over the world.

Climate Change.

Our friend. Our enemy.  Our master.  Our liberator.

And if we do not begin to get into the habit of seeing the truth of things… of not finger pointing and blaming and badmouthing and hating… of not denying and repressing and cowering and shaking…  of not putting our heads in the ground and remaining bassakwards to what is real…

we are not going to make it.

Denial is a habit and whenever we practice it, we strengthen it just as wherever we set it down, it shrinks and becomes harder to take up again.

Climate Change, as no other teacher before it, is here to teach us that truth is not be feared but learned from.

Indeed, it is all that can set us free.

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