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Adult Education Feels the Pinch

Cuts to mature student programs show it's not just B.C.'s kids affected by the squeeze.

Katie Hyslop 14 Mar

Katie Hyslop writes about education and youth well-being for Tyee Solutions Society.

This article was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI). TCI neither influences nor endorses the particular content of TSS' reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other Tyee Solutions Society-produced articles, please see this website for contacts and information.

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Academics of austerity.

Not every teacher crying out for more school funding is doing it just for the kids, nor is every adult concerned about cuts to public education thinking about their children's future: thousands of adults in B.C. are directly affected by underfunding in public schools, because they are students too.

With over 23,700 adult students in the public school system (not including those enroled in government ESL classes), adult education is not an insignificant section of B.C.'s public education system. Representing students with a variety of backgrounds, from B.C. natives who didn't complete high school to immigrants and refugees who need to upgrade skills in a new country, adult education is an important tool that provides second chances and a solid education base in people's lives.

But much like the K-12 system, adult education has seen funding restructuring and cuts that make it harder for teachers and students to cope. School boards facing tough decisions when balancing budgets are raising minimum class numbers and cutting programs, while the Ministry of Education funds adult students less than students under 19 and won't fund special needs or English as a second language (ESL) adult students.

For some teachers, there's a sense that government and school boards put the most pressure on adult education just because they can.

"My sense is that changes come fast and furious in adult ed because it doesn't have the same kind of political traction as when you start to make cuts in programs that kids are in," says Sasha Wiley-Shaw, adult educators' president of the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers Association.

Supports aren't supported: Wiley-Shaw

Secondary schools and adult education centres are funded the same way: full-time equivalency (FTE), meaning each school receives a certain amount of funding for each class a student is in. In secondary schools, this is an issue because students aren’t funded for free periods, but still use the same amount of services the funding is supposed to cover.

It's a problem in adult education too, where the FTE number doesn't equal the number of students. For example in Vancouver, the FTE is 2,500, but Wiley-Shaw estimates the number of actual students going through adult education centre doors is between 6,000 and 8,000 each year.

This funding model causes problems for students on the self-paced track, who pick up their lessons, lesson materials and extra help from teachers and teaching assistants at education centres, but study outside of the classroom.

Since FTE funding was introduced, self-paced courses are considered to be year-long, when in actuality they last anywhere from nine to 17 weeks in Vancouver. Where once government may have funded adult education centres three or even five times a year for a self-paced student, now they are only funded once a year.

That's not all the government changed, however. Wiley-Shaw says government used to fund students over 19 the same amount as those under 19, but it recently ended that practice. In Vancouver, for example, under an equal funding system an adult student would have received $6,740 per course in 2010/11. Instead, they received $4,430. Wiley-Shaw estimates this has cut Vancouver's adult education funding by at least one-third.

"(Government) thinks there are certain supports perhaps the teenagers need that adults don't, but that's really missing the reality of who... adult learners are," she told The Tyee.

"Often people didn't graduate because there wasn't enough support in high school, so we're trying to provide them more support. Or we're dealing with people who are new to the country and trying to get credentials here."

Some of the services not funded include counsellors, special needs services and ESL programs. Wiley-Shaw says this causes difficulties for teachers and students alike when immigrants and refugees need to upgrade or graduate from high school in order to get a job or further their education in Canada.

"The benefit of putting those people through, and making the B.C. education standard available to everyone in the province (is) tremendous, but the actual delivery of it is really challenging. And that's where the gap between funding for older and younger students becomes a real problem. Is it really less beneficial to get a new immigrant active in the economy than it is to get a young person who's just to the end of their high school years into the economy?" she asks.

Priority is under 19: ministry

B.C.'s Ministry of Education says its priority is funding and educating students less than 19 years of age. They argue this isn't a Liberal government decision, but mandated in the School Act.

In an email to The Tyee, the ministry admits it changed the funding formula in 2010, however they added $400 for each FTE. The $4,430 allotted to each FTE works out to about $550 per course, and adult students, like K-12 students, don't have to pay tuition.

In addition to the base FTE funding, however, the ministry notes there's a difference in funding availability for adults who haven't graduated from high school, and those who graduated but want to upgrade and are eligible for the Education Guarantee special purpose grant for their district if they enrol in specific courses.

"An estimated $31.6 million is provided by the Ministry of Education to boards of education based on 2011/12 non-graduate adult enrolment, which totals an estimated 7,139 FTE, a decline of 62 from the previous year. There is also an additional estimated $15 million allocated through the Education Guarantee," reads the emailed statement.

The Ministry of Education points out they aren't the only party responsible for funding public adult education, either. The Ministry of Advanced Education provides money to students through the Adult Basic Education Assistance Program, which covers the costs of books, supplies and, in some cases, tuition and transportation for students in adult basic education, adult special education and English as a second language courses.

The Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation runs English Language Services for Adults (ELSA) courses, which are free, and the reason why the Ministry of Education says adult education centres aren't funded for ESL students.

Cuts across the board

Although 18 public post-secondary institutes in B.C. also offer adult education, the Vancouver School Board (VSB) operates six adult education centres in Vancouver, which the VSB estimates is one of the largest board-run adult programs in the province.

Like most school boards in the province, the VSB has to tighten its belt each year around budget time. Required by law to provide a balanced budget, the district cut $8.4 million in the 2011/12 school year and is projected to cut as much as $14 million for 2012/13, though that number could drop.

Last year's budget saw cuts to self-paced summer programs, which led to cuts in faculty and staff time. Minimum class sizes have been rising, too, with the number of students required to run a course climbing from 12 students a few years ago to 19. Wiley-Shaw says some classes have as many as 32 students, while others are forced to cancel because they don't meet minimums, limiting the curriculum options for students.

This year the district was considering closing the Main Street Adult Education Centre and splitting the program between John Oliver Secondary and Britannia Secondary to save the $618,200 they pay to lease the Main Street building.

The VSB scrapped that idea after teachers and students at all three schools protested, but VSB Chair Patti Bacchus says adult education in Vancouver must be reformed to save money.

"We're looking at ways we can really renew the program so it's a strong program, but can perhaps find ways we can (make) greater efficient use of staff time (and) programming so that we're sitting within the funding envelope," says Bacchus, adding the VSB currently supplements the program with district operating funds.

Ministry funding regulations add an extra burden, she says, because funding is only given after extensive paperwork is submitted and the student has completed 10 per cent of the course.

But despite the strain on the district's budget, Bacchus, whose school-aged daughter is one of a few youth in the district completing high school through an adult education centre, calls the program one of the district's "best-kept secrets."

"It's fantastic: it's (for) people who have decided that they're at a point in their lives where they're ready or able to complete school," she says. "It's a very accessible, flexible, affordable way to become high school graduates.

"I don't think it's really getting the recognition or funding that it deserves for the contribution it makes to the economy when we get people graduated and empowered, and many of them go on to post-secondary."

In purely economic terms, Canadians with a high school diploma have less of a chance of becoming unemployed and living below the poverty line, and they earn thousands more per year and have higher retirement savings than those who didn't graduate -- and it's even more so for those with a post-secondary education. There's also the sense of self-fulfilment and accomplishment that comes with finishing high school.

Those without high school degrees are also more likely to be living without the information necessary for participating in a democratic society: how government works, their rights as citizens and residents, and the hows and whys of voting. With further restructuring of adult education, the reality sets in that adult students will be forced to take longer to finish their degrees and better their situations in B.C.

[Tags: Education.]  [Tyee]

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