Of all the signs that Minnesota is disinvesting in its future -- crowded classrooms, rising tuitions, deferred highway projects -- few are less visible but more galling than its failure to support the program known as Adult Basic Education. This low-cost service is a crucial tool for improving the skills of Minnesota workers, yet it has been systematically underfunded since the budget cuts of 2003, and it deserves the $10 million infusion that key legislative panels will consider this week.
Adult Basic Education is mostly invisible to the average taxpayer. Classes meet in church basements and neighborhood libraries, rely on part-time teachers who earn modest wages despite holding advanced degrees, and educate adults in math, reading, English literacy and other basics for the modest sum of $600 per student per year.
And yet it plays a vital role in building the workforce of the future. It is the leading source of English instruction for the state's booming immigrant and refugee population and is a top source of GEDs for the 12 percent of Minnesota adults who lack a high school diploma.
It's no surprise that demand for Adult Basic Education is booming. Enrollment has zoomed from 48,000 in 1998 to 77,000 last year as immigrants sought to improve their English skills and welfare-to-work parents sought to polish their job skills. Yet state funding is about where it was five years ago, when adjusted for inflation, which means that per-student outlays have dropped by 35 percent and that providers have turned away an estimated 3,000 students in the last six months. Gov. Tim Pawlenty's Workforce Development Council noted recently that waiting lists for the program's English classes are at an all-time high and recommended extra funding.
Minnesota didn't get to be above average by coasting or by luck. It got there because its people wanted to improve themselves and because the state helped them do it. There are few better exemplars of that philosophy than Adult Basic Ed.
This article appeared on the Star Tribune website: http://www.startribune.com/561/story/1068320.html
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