Tapping a dulled pencil on his desk, Brandon Parker racked his brain for just the right words. Writing for an adult education class on a sunny morning in Calvert County, the 17-year-old said there were plenty of places he would rather be -- in bed, still asleep for one.

But for Parker and hundreds of others in Southern Maryland, adult education is a second and sometimes last chance for getting a high school diploma -- and a better life.

Across Maryland, demand for adult literacy and English classes is far outstripping the number of classroom slots available. Nearly 900,000 people need the classes, state officials estimate, but Maryland has allotted money for only about 5 percent of them.

A state task force on the issue is proposing that Maryland spend $26.5 million over four or five years to beef up its adult education programs, which are among the most poorly funded in the country.

The push for increased state funding has been prompted partly by possible cuts in federal spending for adult education. A 74 percent reduction in federal funds has been proposed, said Katharine M. Oliver, assistant state superintendent of schools, who oversees the Division of Career Technology and Adult Learning.

Oliver said that if Congress approves the cuts, services would be eliminated for nearly 18,000 Maryland students -- half the number enrolled in adult literacy and English classes.

Unlike many other states, Maryland relies heavily on federal funding, which makes up 80 percent of its adult education budget. There have been gradual increases in state funding for adult education since 2001, but those amounts have been small.

The task force is recommending that Maryland invest more and that officials reexamine programs and publish an annual state performance report to document performance and accountability.

Oliver compared the proposed initiative to the so-called Thornton plan, which legislators approved in 2002 to pump an extra $1.3 billion annually to schools. She said increasing adult education funding is crucial to the success of students in all grades.

"A child's success in school is predicated on the parents' literacy level," Oliver said. "As we look to improve our graduation rates, to close our achievement gaps, we need to have the parents in a position so they can support their children's educational pursuits."

Some business leaders say such classes are essential for the state's economic growth. And just as important, students enrolled in the classes point out, the classes are essential for their economic growth as part of the state's less educated population.

"A diploma means a better job. A better job means better benefits, more money," said Parker, who is taking an adult education class in Huntingtown in hopes of passing the GED.

After dropping out of high school in 10th grade, the best employment Parker could find was his current full-time job, 4 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. as a stock clerk for a direct-mail company.

"I can't be doing that forever," he said. "You do what you got to do to change your life. This is what I got to do."

In more rural parts of the state such as Southern and Western Maryland, students have turned to such classes as jobs in traditional industries have dried up. Many of the newly unemployed do not have high school diplomas, often required for access to other jobs.

"We have a lot of tobacco farmers, a lot of former watermen," said Melinda Brown, adult education coordinator for St. Mary's County. One of the men in her classes drove a dairy truck for 20 years and suddenly lost his job. One woman quit high school in the 1980s to start a family, and when she started looking for work 20-some years later, no one would hire her without a diploma.

"It's satisfying to see the results," said Marjorie Zimmerman, coordinator for adult education in Calvert County. "It's so hard for many of them to come back to school. This changes their attitude about themselves, about the world."

In suburban counties such as Montgomery, English as a Second Language classes are booming in response to the growing immigrant population.

At Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring, 400 adults are enrolled in adult education classes, and more than 100 others are ready to take the place of anybody who drops out. The majority are from Central American countries; some are from Haiti, Morocco, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Cameroon.

Student Janet Rubio of Hyattsville, who emigrated from Mexico last year, said she is tired after an eight-hour shift making burgers at a fast-food restaurant but goes to class anyway, motivated by the prospect of a better job.

Her 8-year-old son, Jose, already speaks better English than she does. Rubio, 29, said she wants to understand Jose's teachers at Beacon Heights Elementary School in Riverdale and help him with his homework. "I want to help my family," she said.

Despite the demand for such classes, Maryland spends just $77 per student on adult education; the national average is $428 per student, according to 2003 statistics provided by the Maryland State Department of Education. That compares with $115 per student in Virginia and $496 in the District.

"Maryland is one of the poorest funded programs on the East Coast," Zimmerman said. "If we have federal cuts in addition to the low amount of state funding, we would have to cut the number of staff, the number of classes, of students."

The state task force, commissioned by State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick to study adult education, is planning to release a report later in the fall that recommends at least $5 million be spent in the first year of its $26.5 million plan. Currently, $3.3 million is budgeted for adult education in Maryland.

Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery) said she is planning to reintroduce a bill that would give tax credits to companies that provide adult literacy or English classes to their employees.

Last year, the House of Delegates passed the bill without opposition, but it died in the state Senate. Senators wanted additional information on the formula used to determine the tax credits and were worried about a tight budget, Hixson said.

Hixson and other lawmakers who supported adult literacy bills said that with a projected budget surplus this year, they are hopeful that the funding for English classes can be increased with the support of legislators and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

"The governor keeps bragging that there's a surplus; we have to decide whether education in Maryland is a priority," said Del. Victor Ramirez (D-Prince George's).

"Maintaining our competitiveness with a strong workforce ought to be a bipartisan issue," said Tom Perez, Montgomery County Council president and the only elected official on the 11-member state task force studying the issue. "There's no county that is untouched by this issue."

Perez (D-Silver Spring) said the report shows that immigrants want to learn English but that the classes have long waiting lists. Last year, Ehrlich made headlines when he said during a radio show that multiculturalism is "bunk" and that immigrants should make every effort to learn English.

"If he cares so much about people learning English, I'm confident that he will join us in supporting this," Perez said. "You can't on the one hand criticize people for not learning the king's English and then on the other hand refuse to fund programs."

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said that the governor supports adult education, citing bills signed last year that would add classes for up to 4,000 students.

"The governor inherited a sub-par record on adult literacy programs and is making solid effort to improve it," said Fawell, who declined to discuss Ehrlich's comments about multiculturalism.

Meanwhile, those who teach adult education are watching the debate carefully even as they barrel on with this year's lesson plans.

"We're just kind of holding our breath," said Brown, the St. Mary's coordinator. "Hopefully the state will step up and give us a little more.

Teacher Edie McGreevy, right, goes over an essay with Brandon Parker, who is taking an adult education class in Huntingtown in hopes of passing the GED. A bulletin board in the hallway outside the adult education classes in Huntingtown sports pictures of graduates from the program, including Tiffany Wise, who received a degree through an External Diploma Program. Juliana Santos, 22, is an au pair staying in Calvert County who attends the adult education program in Huntingtown.