“We’re after the gold, and after that, the platinum!” or, why we’re not JUST fighting for 100% of Adult Ed

People who’ve known me for any significant stretch of time know that I am, culturally speaking, a “hip hop head”. As such, I often find that rap lyrics jump to mind when I’m pondering phenomena. Such has been the case for the past several weeks, as I’ve been thinking constantly about the fight to save adult education in Los Angeles. And the lyrics, paraphrased as the title of this piece, are from Reggie Noble, aka Redman, in his hip hop classic “Tonight’s da Night”.

So, how do these catchy words laced with urban swagger tie in to the struggle for Adult Ed? Well, to me there’s a point of orientation that ought to infuse the efforts of we who are fighting for these programs which dovetails quite nicely with this quote. Some background to the present situation will help illuminate what I see as the vital importance of such an orientation.

HOW HAVE THINGS COME TO THIS?

Turning back the clock several years, Adult Ed’s fiscal allotment comprised roughly double its present sum of $120 million, now a meager 2% of LAUSD’s total budget. And beyond being more bountiful, the funding in those days shone brighter with the assurance of Tier I categorical protection. That is to say that the monies set aside for Adult Ed programs were essentially off-limits; they could not be applied to expenses other than those for which they were destined: Adult Ed.

When the economic crisis hit, big changes befell our programs. With hindsight, it seems one of the most devastating shifts was the reclassification of Adult Ed funds from Tier I to Tier III status. This change meant that funds designated for Adult Ed programs would be granted the minimum level of protection—which is to say, none. Essentially, funds would be “penciled in” for Adult Ed, but would really be up for grabs should other programs be found needing. This put our programs on a slow death march which LAUSD is presently seeking to culminate.

In the intervening years, funding was pared back and caps were imposed on the maximum weekly working hours allowed for limited status (non-tenured) teachers. At the time, I was working at an adult school in southeast Los Angeles and my working hours, along with those of many of my colleagues, were abruptly cut. And beyond the hit we took economically, these reduced teaching hours meant that students also saw their class hours cut back.

In the atmosphere of gloom and doom fomented around the economic crisis by the mass media, many of us—myself included—felt powerless when these austerity measures were being imposed. Many of us also saw the real impact on our student population.

Students working in construction, restaurants and many other low-wage, high-stress jobs either found themselves out of work altogether, or found they needed to add extra hours to their already exhausting loads in these tough times. Many students who previously hadn’t worked, such as stay-at-home mothers, were now missing classes because they too had to find jobs. Ironically, the grip of the crisis pulled students away from the very programs they needed to find better employment opportunities in the first place.

In the vertigo of this downward spiral, many of us logically started seeking alternatives. Along with our students, we teachers began to investigate our “Plan B” to implement should the Adult Ed ship go down. Meeting after meeting was held where no news was the only good news, and more often than not we adjourned feeling less certain and more concerned for our future. Given that only a fraction of Adult Ed teachers are tenured, most of us already teetered on the verge of unemployment, even in good times. Our prospects were looking anything but optimistic.

WHERE DO WE STAND TODAY?

Now, a new wave of hope is rising. Recent months and weeks have seen our righteous cause thrust more prominently into the media and mass-consciousness spotlight. (See saveadulted.org for numerous inspiring examples.) Many among us have consistently fought, and their efforts—along with those of us newly coming forward—are bearing exciting new fruit.

The real impact and necessity of our programs are felt directly by hundreds of thousands of people actively enrolled in adult classes, and felt indirectly by the millions more they touch in their workplaces, communities and social groupings. The more people learn about the true scope of Adult Ed programs (I’m amazed myself to learn more everyday), the more patently outrageous and intolerable efforts to shut them down become. And I feel that we’ve only just begun to tap into this sentiment and unleash its creative potential. And let there be no mistake: the students and their supporters are the single greatest force we have to save these programs now and enable them to thrive into the future. And as they’ll tell you without hesitation, “¡Sí, se puede!”: “Yes, we can!”

MOVING FORWARD… WHAT WE’RE AFTER

Recently, the United Adult Students (UAS) organization (lastudents.org) unanimously endorsed a statement declaring that “Adult Education is a Human Right”. This kind of straightforward yet lofty declaration has struck a chord broadly among teachers, students, and the public, and it has been well received in the media. This message is powerful because it’s profoundly true, and its further popularization can only serve to strengthen our movement.

Another crucial element of the UAS statement is the demand that Adult Ed be “FULLY FUNDED—including all community locations, whether leased or not.” We must stand up for every school and every class, from the bustling central campuses to the community-based classes in rescue missions, churches and day-laborer centers. The shutting down or curtailing of the least—numerically speaking—among us is an intolerable attack against us all.

As our movement grows and continues to gain strength we need to constantly refine our message and broaden our aims. Much of the media coverage surrounding attacks on these programs has stressed that they’re a real bargain. And it’s resoundingly true. For 2% of the budget, approximately 300,000 students—about 27% of LAUSD’s total student population—receive world-class instruction in ESL, computers, parenting, citizenship, academics for high school diplomas, GED prep, career technical skills and physical education and other classes for older adults.

However, the other side of this steal-of-a-deal—the hidden cost—is that Adult Ed teachers have never been given the kind of compensation and protection they so richly deserve. Just to cite a few examples, Adult Ed teachers are contracted only as hourly workers (in contrast to salaried K-12 instructors). We are only granted employment on a semester-to-semester basis, which means that the majority of us who aren’t tenured can never quite rest assured that we’ll be employed for the coming term.

Furthermore, opportunities for salary advancement and tenure status are few and far between, and those that exist are nevertheless made exceedingly difficult to access. If you’re truly passionate about your craft, as so many of us are, chances are you’ll continue your own education to achieve advanced degrees in the subjects you teach. In my experience, the best teachers are first and foremost great students. However, such accomplishments essentially go unrecognized by the district once you’ve hit the low ceiling imposed on advancement.

Finally, there is a solid basis and a great need for our programs to be vastly expanded. Where efforts have been made to reach out into the community with Adult Ed programs, all kinds of wonderful classes have been launched at churches, K-12 school sites, workplaces, libraries, rescue missions, and more. The only limit is that imposed by our imagination and creativity, because the need is there.

TONIGHT’S DA NIGHT

Let’s return to the Redman quote that we started with, and why it’s stayed on my mind of late. Of course, the gold and platinum to which he referred were the accolades and record sales he unapologetically aimed for. In a related sense, we should be unapologetic about our demand that 100% of Adult Ed as it’s currently constituted be maintained—our “gold”. But, just like Reggie Noble, we cannot rest content with just that. We also have to raise our aims, our struggle and our demands to reach for the “platinum”. That is to say that Adult Ed programs and teachers must be granted FAR GREATER respect, protections and funding than they have been up to this point. In line with all that I’ve laid out, I think this is only fair. It’s what is needed, and it’s what is possible if we fight to make it so.

In closing, I want to urge everybody reading this to get involved NOW. If you care about this issue and you want to see a world in which the human rights of all are respected, please, do not hesitate. On May 8th, the LAUSD school board will be presented with a draft budget which they will mull over for a week, and which will be made public on May 15th. This is the point at which the future of Adult Ed, as LAUSD plans it, will be announced to the world. Everything we do between now and then will make a world of difference in the outcome. Let’s not wait ‘til tomorrow… Tonight’s da night!