Gov. Jan Brewer’s plan to eliminate adult education funding would destroy the plans of roughly 200 Gila County residents studying to take the GED.
Education advocates have denounced the cut, saying that ramifications would cost the state federal money, reduce tax revenue and increase prison populations.
“It would be awful,” said Gila County Superintendent of Schools Linda O’Dell.
With the economic slowdown, older adults have more frequently turned to GED classes and testing as a way to improve their skills and become more marketable.
Younger students often take the programs because they get into trouble or get pregnant. Less frequently, homeschooled students not enrolled in a formal program take the GED test upon completing coursework.
The biggest question is: For students trying to turn their lives around, what would they do if not for the GED?
“If we didn’t have these programs or opportunities, then what?” asks Gila County’s Director of Adult Education Leslie Owen. “I can’t answer it.”
Perhaps the statistics are most telling. Seventy-five percent of state prison inmates nationwide are high school dropouts, according to an American Youth Policy forum paper. The publication also says that the federal government would save $10.8 billion annually in welfare programs like food stamps if just 33 percent of dropouts graduated from high school.
Right now, the county offers free adult education classes in Payson, Globe and San Carlos, and testing at six sites countywide. It also offers distance learning so people in remote areas like Pine and Young can take classes to pass the GED.
The program would cost the state about $3.5 million next year, but cutting it means losing out on another $11 million in federal funds.
Per student, the state spends about $500, compared to $6,000 for a traditional K-12 student.
“It’s just a huge bang for the buck,” Owen said.
Advocates say the economic impact of having fewer high school graduates would be enormous.
According to the Arizona Department of Education, the 200 people who earned GEDs in Gila County during the 2008-09 school year equaled a $1.7-million increase in potential taxable income.
People with high school diplomas earn roughly $8,000 more annually than those without diplomas, according to the Arizona Association for Lifelong Learning.
And in 2008, one in five high school graduates in Arizona received GEDs, according to the association.
More students on average drop out of high school in Gila County than the rest of the state, and 19 percent of people between the ages of 18 and retirement countywide have less than a high school diploma, according to ADE.
“I understand that when our state is facing a crisis of this magnitude, something’s got to give,” said O’Dell. “The unintended consequences don’t become evident until people start chewing on various kinds of scenarios.”
Gila County’s drop out rate is 5.1 percent, higher than the state average of 3.6 percent, according to ADE. In the Payson Unified School District, that number is slightly lower — 4.2 percent. The county received $77,000 to run its adult education program last year.
Owen speculates that if the program were closed, community colleges would then begin offering GED classes and testing. But, she said, the fee would probably increase and people would also likely have to travel to Phoenix.
For now, people can take the GED test for $65. Classes are free.
“For every issue or program or agency that’s on the block, there is a group out there that’s dedicated to keeping them off the chopping block,” acknowledged O’Dell.
But, “the adult literacy issue in Arizona is huge. For the state to walk away without having any support for this type of program could have really dramatic implications.”