Thursday, March 20, 2008

State may shift adult education

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A proposed statewide reform may change the way adult education services are provided in Frederick County and across the state.

Adult education programs in Frederick County — including General Equivallency Diploma, Maryland Adult External High School Program, English classes for Speakers of Other Languages and family literacy — have for decades been provided through the county’s public school system. A statewide workforce improvement plan proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) could transfer those programs from the Frederick County Public Schools to the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

The governor’s plan suggests the shift would allow the state to save money and create a more unified workforce system.

According to supporters, the labor department would be more appropriate to serve adults than the traditional, children-centered K-12 education system. The move would also link literacy programs with existing providers of vocational training and ease adults’ access into the workforce, said Thomas E. Perez, secretary at the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

‘‘For a number of people, what they want is not just a GED, but vocational training leading to a job. ... Right now we are not doing a good enough job of connecting the dots,” he said. ‘‘We need to ensure that we have the best possible structure.”

The plan, which is still being developed, is expected to come up to a vote at the Senate Finance Committee by Friday. If it is approved, the Department of Labor would evaluate existing programs across the state and determine the specific needs of each area. A special transition council will be appointed to oversee the shift, which could take place as early as July 1, 2009, Perez said.

‘‘We are going to be expanding the arrays of opportunities,” he said.

The proposal, however, has stirred concerns among educators, the Maryland State Board of Education and agencies providing adult literacy programs. The major fear is the proposal could hurt the educational aspects of adult programs.

Richard Ramsburg, director of the Frederick County adult education program said he is concerned about how the transition could affect the existing adult services in Frederick County.

‘‘The secretary of labor is saying that there will not be changes on the local level,” Ramsburg said, ‘‘but anybody knows that when you have a change like that, there will be changes and disturbances.”

Changes in the program could affect nearly 1,200 adults who take advantage of adult education classes in Frederick County every year, Ramsburg said. The program serves job-seekers and also teaches parenting skills and provides English language instruction to adult speakers of other languages.

Adult education providers across the state share Ramsburg’s concerns. Patricia Bennett, the Adult Education and Literacy Services program manger at the Maryland State Department of Education, said directing adult education toward workforce training may take the focus away from programs and partnerships encouraging family literacy, parenting or life skills.

‘‘There is merit in trying to extend adult education services,” she said, ‘‘but I don’t think it’s helpful to take programs away from people.”