A new federal law has adult education programs in Maine and across the country retooling to stress career readiness. But thousands of adults in our state could be left behind because they lack basic reading skills, and Maine won’t be able to build its workforce without additional federal funds for adult literacy education.

Almost everybody can read and write simple sentences. But about 7 percent of Maine adults – over 70,000 people – can’t read well enough to grasp information presented in short, simple paragraphs, according to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the most recent comprehensive survey.

And because they can’t do things like fill out an application for a new job or earn the post-high school credentials needed to advance in the workplace, people without basic literacy skills remain stuck in low-skilled employment, no matter how hardworking or committed they may be.

Maine’s adult education programs – frequently partnering with Literacy Volunteers groups – do the heavy lifting when it comes to helping adults develop these basic skills. But under the federal Workplace Innovation and Opportunity Act – passed two years ago and implemented July 1 – adult education is now going in a different direction. In order to qualify for crucial federal funds, adult education providers are being called on to work with businesses and workforce development groups to create specific training programs.

This emphasis on job training certainly has a place in a state like Maine, especially in areas that have persistently high poverty and unemployment rates. Indeed, this approach has resulted in new programs that provide high-paying jobs in fields like forestry, Peter Caron, adult education director for the Fort Kent school district, told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network last week.

But adult education advocates worry that the new law is focusing on funding job advancement and post-secondary education programs at the expense of services to people who aren’t equipped to meet these goals.

That doesn’t bode well for the future, considering the straitened circumstances that most adult education programs in the U.S. are already dealing with. Over two-thirds of all adult education programs have months-long waiting lists and annual budgets of $150,000 or less, according to Pro Literacy, a partner of the Maine Adult Education Association and the nation’s largest organization of adult education programs.

By supporting people who want to better themselves, adult literacy education programs help build a stronger economy and a stronger community – and we should all press Washington to fully invest in these critical services.