A Brief History of Adult Education in California

Photo credit: Los Angeles Unified School District Archives, final approval in process


Adult education has been provided in California since the middle of the 19th century. However, it took until the beginning of the 20th century for adult education to find a place under the umbrella of free public education. Sometimes referred to as “night school” in California, adult education has served immigrants, citizenship candidates, returning veterans, displaced workers, and adults seeking a second chance through GED preparation and Career Technical Education. 

The Beginning

California adult education can trace its beginnings to the 1850s in a San Francisco church, when programs were offered to provide newly arrived immigrants English, basic education and later, job skills. Adult programs were leveraged through the great surges of immigration, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression, two world wars, the Korean and Viet Nam wars, economic downturns and another recent immigration surge. Adult Education has been a gateway to citizenship, equity, and “second-chance” workforce reentry. 

K-12 and Community College Separation

When adult education became a part of the free public education family, it was offered through K-14 districts, which included community colleges.  However, with the development of Governor Pat Brown’s Master Plan for Higher Education in the 1950-60s, community colleges became their own unique level within California’s higher education, along with the State University and University of California systems. With this new division, local education entities needed to decide whether adult education would be a part of the local K-12 system or the community college system.  This resulted in 70 percent of adult education remaining in K-12 districts and 30 percent in community colleges. Palo Verde Community College (CC), along with San Francisco CC, Santa Barbara CC, San Diego CC, Pasadena CC, and Glendale CC are examples of the adult education community college model. (It should be noted that as lines of demarcation have faded, some adult schools house community college courses, and many community colleges offer adult education courses)

Aviation shop, 1941
Aviation shop, 1941
Students leaving Cambria adult school, 1964
Students leaving Cambria adult school, 1964
Multi-purpose room, 1962
Multi-purpose room, 1962

A Major Recession and Major Cuts

It appeared almost to be the beginning of the end for adult education as we knew it. As a result of the Great Recession (2007 to 2010), there was a substantial drop in state revenues.  School districts and community colleges were forced to make mid-year cuts to balance their annual budgets.  In 2009 districts were provided with budgetary authority to use categorical program revenues that had previously been restricted.  This permissive action was described as “categorical program budget flexibility.”  Adult education was a categorical program, and subsequently, about 50 percent of local adult education funding statewide was repurposed and redirected by K-12 districts to meet local demands.  In some districts, adult education programs were totally eliminated.

A Renaissance of California’s Adult Education Program

Following this decimation of adult education, in 2012, Governor Jerry Brown and the state legislature enacted legislation (AB 86) calling for school districts to provide adult education programs at their 2011/12 funding levels. For a planning period of three years, local districts and community colleges studied the proposed concept of having adult education offered within a local consortium concept requiring the participation of K-12 districts, community colleges, and later, county offices of education. By 2015, each of these 70 consortia had developed an action plan that morphed into funding to begin operating as regional units.

Thus, in 2015, the provisions governing the present California Adult Education Program (CAEP), then known as the Adult Education Block Grant (AEBG), were enacted in AB 104, a state budget companion bill. Then Governor Brown and the legislature presented a revamped adult education program as a component of the state’s effort to address income inequities and workforce development. As outlined in AB 104, this funding was to provide adults with opportunities to gain basic education and job skills leading to employment and better wages. Adults were defined as 18 years of age or older, and approved programs included literacy, citizenship, basic and secondary skills, career technical education, apprenticeships, and programs for adults with disabilities.

Aircraft training department, 1942.
Aircraft training department, 1942.
Cooking class, 1940
Cooking class, 1940
Student registration, 1962
Student registration, 1962

Joint State Management and Oversight

Locally, consortium governing boards oversee programs and funding, and these boards include representation from participant K-12 and community college districts.  Consortium board members are appointed by the governing boards of participant districts.  Thus, because CAEP mandates the local participation of K-12 and community college districts, management and oversight mirror the state model and is jointly shared by the Chancellor of the Community Colleges and the State Superintendent of K-12 education.

Funding for Adult Education (CAEP)

In 2015/16, $500 million was dedicated in the state budget to support the AB 104 provisions. Now in its sixth year of operation, to date California has committed over $3 billion dollars to programs meant to expand and improve programs for adults. Another goal of the CAEP was to use the consortium concept to maximize outcomes by leveraging local resources such as Local Control Funding Formulas (LCFF), the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the Employment Development Department (EDD), libraries, apprenticeships and other related workforce providers.

Science class experiment, 1962
Science class experiment, 1962
Dental assistant class, 1940
Dental assistant class, 1940
Shop activities, refrigeration, 1941
Shop activities, refrigeration, 1941

Upcoming Years and CAEP

Although highly likely that the state’s commitment to Adult Education will continue, changes to CAEP could be forthcoming based on revenues, expenditures  and outcomes.

The makeup of today’s state legislature has changed and there are many other substantial providers who will compete to provide citizenship training and ESL. And there are other providers that connect workforce training with the economy and income inequity issues. Further, as with other programs, at some point the governor or legislature may call for an analysis based on comparing CAEP funding to program outcomes – cost/benefit. Depending on the results of any such study, CAEP changes could be forthcoming in funding, program offerings, or local and state administration and oversight.

Adult education advocates and others also could propose to change the existing policy and fiscal provisions governing the program.  These changes could include the basis for funding, allowable instructional programs, student eligibility, accountability, data reporting, and student fees. As with other program changes, legislative proposals would require support data that justifies the need for legislative changes.

Although redundant and repetitive (language has appeared in prior budgets), it should be noted that 2020/21 budget language focuses specifically on employment, salary gains, and post-secondary education and training. In all likelihood, this particular focus would be the basis for determining  CAEP’s effectiveness.

The net take on upcoming years is that Adult Educators must pay attention – to funding, legislation, competition, and most important – outcomes.