Florida Chamber: Boost ‘neglected’ adult education programs to draw high-wage jobs

By John Haughey
The Center Square
June 1, 2021

If it wants high-wage employers to invest in local economies, the state needs to boost its “neglected” adult education program, Florida Department of Education Chancellor Henry Mack said Wednesday.

Speaking at the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Prosperity & Economic Opportunity Solution Summit, Mack said only one-in-nine Floridians without a high school diploma – about 200,000 adults – are enrolled in adult education classes statewide this year.

“I have to repeat the numbers: 1.8 million without a high school diploma. Around 4 million adults that are barely literate or cannot do basic arithmetic,” Mack said. “These are preconditions for postsecondary education; postsecondary education is itself a precondition for economic mobility and the well-being of Florida’s economy.”

Mack said about a quarter of 15 million Floridians between 16 and 74-years-old are functioning at or below the lowest basic literacy levels and 34% cannot do basic arithmetic.

“We’re getting worse at it. Historically, we have not done well with adult education in Florida. We rank in the bottom 10 among states in adult education,” he said.

Mack praised Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran for boosting career and technical education (CTE) programs, short-term certificates that lead directly to jobs.

DeSantis and Corcoran in March announced the creation of a “Get There Florida” CTE initiative that offers 17 “rapid credentialing” career pathways coordinated through 28 Florida College System institutions and 48 technical colleges. “From classroom to career in 20 weeks – it’s that simple,” the program says.

The Fiscal Year 2022 budget, which begins July 1, earmarks $75 million for the CTE initiative; $50 million to cover workforce college credit or career dual enrollment programs and $25 million for enrollment in workforce education programs at a state colleges or technical center.

“The ‘Get There Faster’ innovative workforce initiatives will accelerate Florida’s efforts to be the best state in the nation for workforce development by 2030,” DeSantis said in introducing the program.

The FY22 budget also allocates $46 million for Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act grants, mostly to school districts and colleges that offer adult education programs.

Mack said that same effort is needed to boost visibility of adult education programs that provide remedial English and math curriculum for high school equivalency diplomas or GEDs.

“If there was anything else that would be perceived as more neglected, it would be adult education,” he said, noting nonprofits – “Boys and Girls Clubs, Urban Leagues, YMCAs, United Ways” – should be enlisted to help raise awareness.

“These moneys can be sub-granted out or awarded to these other nonprofits or entities, or even their local economic development boards or local Chambers,” Mack said. “I need, as a chancellor, to ask you to help the local school districts and the local colleges understand who to contact and how to get everyone around the table to apply for this grant.”

Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Dane Eagle said Monday’s announcement that Floridians will no longer receive the $300 weekly federal pandemic unemployment assistance beginning June 26 will help employers find workers.

Those who participate in CTE, Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act grants and adult education programs will thrive in the economy to come, he said.

“That competition is slow right now, but it’s about to become very competitive in the workforce,” Eagle said. “We want to make sure that people coming through the door, through their own way, have been able to find the training they need to be able to service that business. And that that business can look to someone and have confidence that they’re going to help serve them in their community.”