A worthy investment

Adult literacy: There's a payoff in the state properly funding high school equivalency programs.

March 18, 2002

LENA COSNER, she was a wild one. As a ninth-grader, the one-time honors student played hooky, drank, ran with boys and finally quit school. She was 14.

Today, at age 38, the mother of two is an optician who is studying to be a nurse. Ms. Cosner expects that she'll nearly double her $13-an-hour salary with a college degree. She says she's "living proof" that the state's investment in high school equivalency programs pays off.

But unfortunately, Maryland's support of adult literacy programs hasn't kept pace with the need. This state, which ranks among the highest in the nation in median household income and education level, reports an adult illiteracy rate that rivals those of Arkansas and West Virginia, advocates say.

Right now, the $1.2 million in state funds for adult literacy serves about 37,000 people - only 4 percent of adults who don't have a high school diploma. In Montgomery County, with its large influx of immigrants, it can take a year to get into a class, and Baltimore and some Eastern Shore counties also have pressing needs.

For the past decade, state support of adult literacy programs has bobbed like a yo-yo, from $1.7 million in 1990 to $475,532 in 1997 to $1.2 million this year.

Two bills are pending in Annapolis, in the House and the Senate, that would establish a state funding formula for adult education and literacy programs.

Under those proposals, state spending would double to $2.4 million in July 2003, and a new funding formula would kick in the following year.

The benefits of a literate citizenry are compelling: more people with jobs, a better-educated work force, fewer people on welfare, parents who are involved in their children's education.

As one literacy advocate put it: "The state is paying one way or the other. You can track the counties with the highest percentage of people who have low literacy skills against the percent living in poverty, those who receive welfare, against the unemployed."

It all adds up, doesn't it? But timing is everything, and the money for an increase is going to be hard to find this year. The governor couldn't balance his $22 billion budget without tapping into the state's reserves, and state lawmakers are trimming what they can from the spending plan.

All of us benefit from Lena Cosner's earning her high school equivalency diploma through the South Baltimore Learning Center.

She is a taxpayer who is increasing her earning power. She's joining a health care profession that is in desperate need of new recruits. She exudes self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment.

"I'm well on my way to living my dream," she wrote to state legislators in support of the bills.

Maryland, invest now.

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