AUSTIN, Texas – Legislation passed this session to reinvigorate Adult Basic Education in Texas might well have been named in honor of the late Mike Allen, says one of its biggest supporters.

Allen was president and CEO of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation for many years and co-founded the Texas Border Coalition. He died in 2010.

“When I think of our Adult Basic Education bill I think of the years of struggle we had persuading state leaders and state agencies to get behind our campaign. And I think of Mike Allen, who started the Texas Border Coalition and how this was one of the very first issues we got behind. It has been eight long years but we have finally made it,” said Wanda Garza, interim vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at South Texas College in McAllen and a former chair of the TBC’s workforce committee.

Garza and others in the TBC are rejoicing at the news that Gov. Rick Perry has signed into law Senate Bill 307, authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. The legislation carries out a key recommendation made by the Sunset Commission during the interim that ABE be moved from the Texas Education Agency to the Texas Workforce Commission. The legislation requires TWC to provide adequate staffing, including the hiring of a director, to “develop, administer, and support a comprehensive statewide adult education program and coordinate related federal and state programs for the education and training of adults.”

Wanda Garza, interim VP for student affairs and enrollment management at South Texas College, speaks about adult basic education at an event in Austin.
Wanda Garza, interim VP for student affairs and enrollment management at South Texas College, speaks about adult basic education at an event in Austin.

Garza was full of praise for Huffman and the sponsor of SB 307 in the Texas House, Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City. “Rep. Guillen passionately presented this on the House floor. He has been our voice on this issue at the Capitol. I cannot tell you how proud I am of him,” Garza said.

Another person who deserves praise, Garza said, is TEA Commissioner Michael Williams, for accepting that his agency was not suited to delivering a world class ABE program. “Commissioner Williams acknowledged it was not a good match. I am proud of him and TWC Chair Andres Alcantar. This is all about the people who do not have a GED and do not have a job and TEA was never able to tackle that,” Garza said.

Others who deserve praise, Garza said, include Blas Castañeda, chair of the TBC’s workforce committee, former Laredo Mayor and TBC Chair Betty Flores, South Texas College, McAllen Economic Development Corporation, and the McAllen Chamber of Commerce for making ABE one of its top legislative priorities.

“Texas’ failure to set Adult Basic Education (ABE) as a state priority is having a profound impact on our future economic growth. Texas has 3.5 million undereducated adults. TEA disperses almost $70 million in federal and state funds for ABE programs, which serves just three percent of the eligible population,” the McAllen Chamber said, in support of moving ABE from TEA to TWC.

The McAllen Chamber cited a report from The McGraw Hill Research Foundation on adult education in Texas. The report said if the 3.5 million undereducated adults in Texas possessed a diploma or GED, their annual net fiscal contribution to national, state, and local governments would increase by $13.5 billion. If they attended college, the annual net fiscal contribution would increase by $10.6 billion.

The report also stated that TWC reported 70,058 (12.4 percent) of the total 562,204 who are unemployed “job seekers” in Texas and are actively seeking employment (non claimants/claimants) do not have a high school diploma or GED. The Lower Rio Grande Valley Workforce Board area is experiencing over 30 percent of 19,088 (6,245) claimants who do not have a high school diploma or GED, the report stated.

“TEA reported in 2010 that only four percent (7,726) of the 101,299 individuals enrolled in the TEA-ABE program obtained a GED and 280 (0.27%) entered post-secondary education. The TWC is reporting 80 percent of the top 20 high growth occupations require post-secondary education. The funding allocation has created an inequitable distribution of funds which has affected approximately 85 percent of the counties in Texas. The net loss in program funds to Hidalgo is over $1 million annually.”

Garza told the Guardian that moving ABE away from TEA was “not always popular because we were fighting the equity issue.” However, she said she could not be more pleased with how things have turned out. “The State of Texas is no longer in denial. One in five adults does not have a high school diploma and we have to do something about this. Gov. Perry deserves praise for getting behind our campaign,” Garza said.

“Our fight from the very beginning was that formula for apportioning funds was not equitable. We said the formula needs to be needs-based, that it has to be based on the number of individuals in a county that do not have a high school diploma.”

Castañeda was chief external affairs/special projects officer for Laredo Community College for many years. The Guardian interviewed him in April when the Huffman/Guillen legislation was making its way through the legislature.

“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,” Castañeda told the Guardian. He said TBC supports moving ABE 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 recommended a transition advisory committee be set up to oversee the move from TEA to TWC. This recommendation made it into law. Castañeda 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 región.