District officials, citing federal budget cuts, have stopped funding literacy and basic adult education programs for the city's neediest residents.
The programs, offered for the past three years by 16 community-based organizations under contract with the D.C. Department of Human Services, educated the city's poorest residents: those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or who meet poverty guidelines. They were financed by $3.5 million a year in federal "bonus" funds.
But Human Services officials and Mayor Anthony A. Williams's office said this week that Congress eliminated the funds from the District's current budget year, which began Oct. 1, forcing the city to halt funding for the literacy programs.
"We have no funds available to continue the program for this fiscal year," said Human Services spokeswoman Debra Daniels. "But we and the mayor are totally committed to literacy programs, and we are looking right now to try to identify alternative funding sources. We are strongly committed . . . to get these programs up and running again. I just can't say when."
An estimated 37 percent of the District's adult residents read at or below a third-grade level -- a literacy rate that is among the worst in the nation. District officials have called the literacy rate one of the city's most vexing problems. And Williams (D) is expected to address the issue in his inaugural speech today when he is sworn in for a second term.
More than 1,500 District adults were enrolled in literacy and General Equivalency Degree classes in fiscal 2002, which ended Sept. 30, officials said. Fifty-eight of the enrollees received GEDs, while another 530 improved their reading comprehension, according to Daniels.
On Dec. 13, the 16 community groups that were contracted to offer the literacy and GED classes were informed by Human Services Director Carolyn W. Colvin that their grants were suspended "until further notice."
Among the community groups that lost their contracts to teach literacy were the National Organization of Concerned Black Men, Spanish Education Development Center, Metropolitan Delta Adult Literacy Council, Greater Washington Urban League, Latin American Youth Center and Friendship House Association.
Mayoral spokesman Tony Bullock said Williams will ask businesses and foundations to help the city continue its efforts to improve the literacy rate by matching dollar-for-dollar any District funds that can be found to restart the programs.
"There has to be reprogramming of some city funds, and we're asking the private sector -- in this case foundations and businesses who are based in or have a vital interest in the District -- because they, too, benefit in an adult literate population," Bullock said.
"They are injured, in a sense, by having a literacy level that is as low as we see here in the District," he said.
Until 1998, the city's adult education programs were overseen by D.C. public schools.
Now, the bulk of the classes are funded through the D.C. State Education Agency, which operates under the auspices of the University of the District of Columbia. The agency uses $3.4 million in D.C. and federal funds to contract with 21 community groups for literacy, GED, English-as-a-Second-Language and basic computer courses.
More than 3,000 adults were enrolled in classes this past fiscal year, said K. Brisbane, director of adult education in the District. She said the programs are full, with waiting lists, and can't handle additional adults who were enrolled in the Human Services-funded classes.
"The people they were serving have little or no chance of succeeding in the working world now," Brisbane said. "There's no question that it was important that there were other [groups] getting dollars to provide services. Now these people aren't going to get work, and if they go to work, they're not going to be able to stay."
The head of one of the community groups that lost its contract agreed.
"People need this in order to be competitive in the job market," said Lori Kaplan, executive director of the Latin American Youth Center. Her organization received about $200,000 a year to offer literacy, GED and English-as-a-Second-Language classes for young adults and parents up to the age of 24.
"I'm very, very upset about losing this contract, and I'm very upset about the state of adult education and literacy here," she said.
Thomas Blanton, the executive director of the Metropolitan Delta Adult Literacy Council, which received $100,000 a year from Human Services, said his organization is trying to find other funding to continue the classes. But he said he will have to scrap plans to add two Saturday literacy classes.
"We had a three- to five-year initiative, and we are being abruptly stopped," said Blanton, whose group also receives funding from the city's education agency. "We thought we had a cooperative relationship going."
The needy clients that the Human Services-funded classes served, he said, "are people who are being pressured to go to work, and they need adult literary services. So what kind of jobs are these people going to be pushed into? Not something that will be at a level of self-sufficiency."