|AUSTIN, April 15 - The Texas Border Coalition believes that with more investment in the border region’s human capital, its cities can become more attractive to high tech and high-skilled industries that can provide better paying jobs.
That is why the group, which represents cities and counties along the Texas-Mexico border region, is strongly supporting legislation to move Adult Basic Education from the Texas Education Agency to the Texas Workforce Commission.
“The Adult Basic Education program is absolutely crucial to decreasing unemployment, increasing literacy, and putting Texas and especially our border region on a path to continued economic success in the 21st Century,” Blas Castañeda, chairman of the TBC’s workforce development committee, told the Guardian.
During the interim the Texas Sunset Commission recommended moving ABE from TEA to TWC. TEA and TWC have signed off on the move and legislation to make it happen is being carried in the House by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, and in the Senate by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. Guillen’s bill is House Bill 362, while Huffman’s bill is Senate Bill 307.
The Texas Border Coalition has been pushing for ABE to be moved out of TEA for many years. In previous legislative sessions, TBC supported moving it to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Castañeda said TBC now supports the move to TWC provided current funding for the program stays intact and resources are allocated to the areas of greatest need.
“Through the 28 local workforce boards all around the state, TWC has excellent connections to employers and the skills and training they need in the workforce. TWC understands that in today's competitive world, the most important goal of ABE is to prepare workers to join the workforce and take care of their families as rapidly as possible,” Castañeda wrote in a letter sent last November to state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the chairman the Texas Sunset Commission, and its vice chairman, state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.
In his letter to the Sunset Commission, Castañeda pointed out how important ABE is for the communities represented by TBC. “Many border cities and communities suffer from a high percentage of citizens, aged 25 years and older, who lack a high school diploma,” Castañeda wrote. “In El Paso, for example, 30 percent of the workforce lacks a high school diploma or GED. In Laredo that number climbs to 45 percent; and 48 percent in Brownsville.” Statewide the figure is 24 percent.
“Please remember that these workers are an untapped gold mine of productivity for the border, and they need ABE education so that they can access job skill training and begin contributing to their local economies,” Castañeda wrote. “With investment in our human resource, we can make our border cities attractive to high tech and high-skilled industries that can provide a better quality of living to residents. Thank you for remembering how important the ABE program is to so many people, especially along the border.”
Castañeda also pointed out that in Laredo the ABE program has a long waiting list of students who want to learn new job skills in order to take advantage of oil and gas development in the Eagle Ford Shale play. Castañeda also noted that the Sunset Commission is recommending a transition advisory committee be set up to oversee the move from TEA to TWC. He said the advisory committee should:
* Advocate for continued and increased support for ABE programs along the Texas border;
* Involve local workforce boards and community colleges in the ABE transition process to harness their expertise in the local government landscape; and
* Reform the ABE funding allocations so that funds are directed to the areas of greatest need, such as the border region.
Rep. Guillen said moving ABE from TEA to TWC is long overdue.
“Adult Basic Education is something we have worked hard to reform for the past several sessions. We believe it needs a lot of reform to get it to where it should be. The program does not receive enough money or attention,” Guillen told the Guardian.
“There are several million people that have the need yet we are only serving over 100,000 and as few as 7,000 get a GED from the program every year. That tells you everything you need to know about the efficiency of the program.”
Guillen said that from his research there is a lot of need for ABE in Texas’ inner cities and on its border with Mexico. He said he wants to make sure that under any reform, ABE is competitive, that it provides quality services to adults utilizing the program to improve their education and that tax dollars are used wisely.
Asked why he wants ABE moved to TWC, Guillen said: “Getting Texans the skills they need to get a job and a particular job is what the Workforce Commission does. We believe Adult Basic Education is more in line with the functions of the Texas Workforce Commission than that of the TEA. TEA has their hands full with K thru 12. We believe ABE has been like a forgotten stepchild with TEA. We have got a lot of middlemen in the program right now. We need to end that. We need to use our tax dollars wisely and we need to reform this program and make it better and that’s what we believe this bill will do.”
Asked if, at long last, ABE will finally be moved out of the hands of TEA, Guillen said: “With TEA and TWC approving the move, we have the wind at our back. But, it is just like else, the legislature is built not to get much passed. So, it is going to be difficult. The obstacles we face are large and many and so we cannot let our guard down. I am confident it is going to get done but we cannot let our guard down.”
Editor’s Note: Sen. Huffman could not be reached at press time. If her office sends a statement on her Adult Basic Education legislation we will add it to this story.