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Author: Deborah Kennedy

Reconciliation, Infrastructure, and Adult Education

Reconciliation, Infrastructure, and Adult Education

August has been far busier than usual on the federal level this summer, due to the release of several plans from the White House and related budget development activities in Congress. If you are bewildered by the plethora of plans, budgets, and reconciliations, you are not alone. It’s important to understand what’s happening, though, because the time for advocacy is now.

Build Back Better Plans and Congressional Actions

The Administration’s Build Back Better agenda includes three plans:

In the second week of August, the Senate passed a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill and a $579 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill (the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act). Each is a broad-brush document that does not specify programs or funding levels for individual initiatives but could include aspects of the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. Both are now under consideration in the House of Representatives, which will complete its work on the reconciliation package first, and then take up the infrastructure bill.

As the National Skills Coalition’s Katie Spiker notes,

Next month, members in both the House and Senate will be in daily discussions on which programs to include in the reconciliation package and how much to spend on each one. By as early as September 15th, the House will pass a reconciliation package and send it over to the Senate. The Senate will make changes and – optimistically – Senators want to pass their version of reconciliation by the end of October. At that point both chambers will either conference to iron out differences or the House will pass the Senate version of the bill.

The critical question is, will the final reconciliation package, now known as the Build Back Better Act, include the provisions that adult education and family literacy advocates are hoping for? Time—and advocacy—will tell.

Advocacy Timeline and Contacts: Reconciliation

Activities and funding levels for adult education, family literacy, workforce skills, and related initiatives will be determined during the markup process in the relevant committees on each side of the Capitol: the Senate HELP Committee and the House Education & Labor Committee. Each of these committees has many different priorities to which they must allocate funding, so advocacy is essential to ensure that Members of Congress are aware of the broad base of support for adult education.

The House Education & Labor Committee is expected to mark up its portion of the budget reconciliation bill next Thursday, Sept. 9, so immediate advocacy with Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA-03), Ranking Member Virginia Foxx (R-NC-05), and other members of that committee is crucial.

Key Advocacy Points

Here are five key advocacy points.

Point 1. $100 billion for skills training

What it is: Various organizations in the workforce development arena have been advocating for this amount to be included in COVID-19 recovery funding since early spring, and the White House included it in the description of the American Jobs Plan, which refers to $100 billion for workforce skills development, including “expanded career services and the Title II adult literacy program.”

What to say: Stress that a $100 billion investment in skills training is critical for workers who have been adversely affected by the pandemic. This amount is needed to strengthen training and support that will give workers in-demand skills and the resilience to respond to changes in the workplace.

Useful resources: 10-minute video explanation of the current situation with budget reconciliation; Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery by NSC staff

Point 2. $1 billion for adult education capacity building

What it is: Various adult education organizations, particularly COABE, have been advocating for this amount since the spring as part of COVID-19 relief funding. It would be a one-time infusion of money to support expansion of adult ed capacity, beyond the regular annual appropriation for AEFLA. (Note that the President included $100 million in mandatory funding through the American Jobs Plan, in addition to regular funding for AEFLA, in his budget request.)

What to say: The Survey of Adult Skills shows that 43 million U.S. adults need to develop the basic literacy, numeracy, and digital skills that allow for full participation in community and the workplace. However, current program capacity only serves a tiny fraction of those. This funding will expand program capacity so that more adults are able to pursue and achieve their educational goals.  

Useful resources: COABE’s Educate & Elevate advocacy materials and Take Action options; ProLiteracy’s Advocacy Toolkit

Point 3. Increased Pell grant funding

What it is: The American Families Plan includes $85 billion for the Pell Grant program, increasing the maximum grant by $1,400.

What to say: Pell grants are a major source of financial aid for low-income university students, but they cover only part of the cost. Increasing the grant amount will reduce the debt load that these students must take on, thus increasing retention and completion rates.

Point 4. Public library construction and renovation

What it is: The Build America’s Libraries Act, introduced in the Senate in January and the House in March, would fund upgrades to the nation’s library infrastructure. It acknowledges the essential role that public libraries play in providing adult education and family literacy services and support.

What to say: Including the Build America’s Libraries Act in the reconciliation package would enable libraries to address challenges such as natural disasters, broadband capacity, environmental hazards, and accessibility barriers. It would pave the way for new and improved library facilities in underserved communities across the country.

Useful resources: American Library Association Build America’s Libraries Act webpage and Take Action tool; Roll Call op-ed We can’t build back better without libraries

Point 5. Digital equity

What it is: The Digital Equity Act would provide digital skills training and increase online access for low-income populations. This Act is included in the Senate infrastructure bill, which also includes substantial funding for broadband grants to states and an extension of the Emergency Broadband Benefit.

What to say: Broadband access is essential for full participation in society, including for education, health care, and financial well-being. The Digital Equity Act and infrastructure funding will extend this critical connectivity tool to the underserved communities that need it most.

Useful resources: National Digital Inclusion Alliance information page; Digital Equity Act webpage

Comments on the Revised Naturalization Civics Test

Comments on the Revised Naturalization Civics Test

In mid-November 2020, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a revised version of the civics test that is required for people who were not born in the United States and wish to become citizens. NCL has significant concerns about the revised test, and has submitted a letter expressing those concerns through the response channel provided by USCIS. The text below is excerpted from that letter.

Mr. Kenneth Cuccinelli  
Senior Official Performing the Duties of Director 
United States Department of Homeland Security 
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services 

Dear Mr. Cuccinelli,

I am writing on behalf of the National Coalition for Literacy to convey NCL’s significant concerns about the development process, administration procedures, and preparation requirements for the revised naturalization civics test that was released by USCIS in November 2020. NCL is an alliance of the leading national and regional organizations dedicated to advancing adult education, family literacy, and English language acquisition in the United States. Our comments on the revised civics test are based on insights provided by our member organizations, who have deep expertise in working with refugees, immigrants, and U.S.-born adults in need of educational opportunity. Based on this input, NCL opposes the implementation of the revised test and respectfully asks that USCIS continue using the 2008 version until a full review of the new one has demonstrated that it adheres to USCIS’ stated goal of producing a standardized, fair, and appropriate test that is not more difficult and does not decrease the pass rate. NCL further requests that USCIS plan for revision or elimination of the new test if the results of the review show that it is not equivalent to the 2008 one on these measures.

Preparation Requirements

The 2008 version of the civics test requires applicants to answer up to 10 questions from a list of 100; they must answer six correctly. In the 2020 version, 20 questions are asked from a list of 128 possible questions and answers, and applicants must correctly answer 12. To pass the 2020 version, then, applicants will have more content to learn (128 questions instead of 100), so more preparation time will be required. The increased content burden will also reduce the number of applicants who are able to prepare on their own; applicants will need to take a citizenship class, if they can find one that is available in their community. More applicants will fail the test at the first interview and will need to return for a second try, requiring more time off work and increased effort on their part. In light of these considerations, it seems likely that the 2020 test will impose a greater burden on test takers than the 2008 test.

Administration Procedures

The administration procedures for the 2020 test place a substantial additional burden on USCIS test administrators as well. In the 2008 version, as soon as the applicant answers six of the possible ten questions correctly, the test is ended. In the 2020 version, by contrast, the test must continue until the administrator has asked all 20 questions, regardless of when an applicant has answered 12 correctly. This will double the amount of time required for administering the civics test, and could potentially triple it in some cases—resulting in fewer interviews per day for each USCIS officer and thus increasing the length of time required for each applicant to obtain an appointment and complete the test. The resultant slowing of the testing process will have the overall effect of decreasing the pass rate.

Development Process

USCISS developed the 2008 civics test through an extended process of pilot testing, stakeholder input, item revision, and field testing, all of which took place in a fairly transparent way. The 2020 development process has involved considerably less communication outside of USCIS. As a result, the degree to which stakeholder input, including that of the Technical Advisory Group, was taken into account is not known, and the process and outcomes for field testing and item revision is unclear. Undoubtedly the test development process, particularly piloting and field testing, was impeded by the effects of the pandemic during the spring and summer of 2020; all the more reason to delay implementation of the revised test until a review of the development process assures that it is valid for all test takers, reliable across test administrations, and fair to both applicants and administrators.

Thank you for the opportunity to offer our comments and feedback regarding the revised civics test. Please feel free to contact us if we can provide further information on any of these points or on the overall process of making U.S. citizenship available to those who have so much to contribute to our nation’s strength and success. We look forward to the department’s thoughtful consideration of our recommendations and concerns.


Deborah Kennedy
Executive Director

November Observations

November Observations

November is the month for two observations that are integrally related to adult literacy and adult education.

National Family Literacy Month

Founded in 1994 by the National Center for Families Learning, this observation “offers an opportunity for practitioners to emphasize the important role that families play in the education of their children,” according to the NCFL.

Over the past several decades, researchers across the country have recognized the strong correlation between parents’ and caregivers’ educational attainment and children’s educational outcomes. We know that families thrive when they learn together.

Source: National Center for Families Learning blog post

Visit the NCFL blog for 30 Days of Families Learning Together and other suggested activities for teachers, parents, and community members.

National Native American Heritage Month

Since 1990, November has been designated as the month to celebrate and raise awareness of the heritage of the first Americans and the powerful contributions they have made to the country’s formation and growth. This month-long observation also provides an opportunity to advocate for policy changes that will address the educational and other inequities that Native American and Alaska Native communities face. As the National Congress of American Indians notes,

Nationwide, Native youth face some of the lowest high school graduation rates, and even fewer enroll in and graduate from college. On average, less than 50 percent of Native students graduate from high school each year in the seven states with the highest percentage of American Indian and Alaska Native students.

Observation of Native American Heritage Month is sponsored by the Library of Congress in collaboration with multiple other federal agencies. Visit these sites for information and resources:

Celebrate AEFL Week at the National Book Festival

Celebrate AEFL Week at the National Book Festival

The Library of Congress National Book Festival is taking place this weekend, and participating is a great way to observe Adult Education and Family Literacy Week.

According to the Festival information page, more than 120 authors, poets, and illustrators will be participating on nine virtual stages:

  • Children
  • Teens
  • Family, Food & Field
  • Fiction
  • Genre Fiction
  • History & Biography sponsored by Wells Fargo
  • Poetry & Prose sponsored by National Endowment for the Arts
  • Science
  • Understanding Our World

Author presentation videos for children and teens will be released at 9 AM ET on Friday, September 25, and will be available on demand via the Festival platform, Library website and YouTube. All author presentation videos on other stages will launch at 9 AM ET on the next day, Saturday, September 26. For a complete line-up of authors and their video presentations, please see the complete video on demand list.

From Friday through Sunday, September 25-27, we will feature interactive live Q&A sessions with select authors to complement their presentation videos. We list them in the schedule under “Live Events by Stage” and “Live Events by Day.”

Attendees may also explore the author presentation videos by following three Timely Topic Threads that weave through the festival and offer a more profound appreciation for the subjects – “Democracy in the 21st Century,” “Fearless Women” and “Hearing Black Voices.”

Register to participate, and enjoy!

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