Cause for legislative shame


If Arkansas ever is to advance, we know gaining more college degree holders has to be part of the plan. Before we can get there, gaining high school diplomas and GEDs is essential.

On these points, Arkansas is in danger of going backward.

Act 1063, enacted into law during this year’s legislative session, authorizes the state Board of Career Education to approve fees for administering the GED. Up until now, Arkansas has been one of two states that offer the test for free.

The GED test allows people who, for whatever reason, don’t have a high school diploma, to demonstrate their command of high school work and earn a certificate that is the equivalent of a diploma. Sometimes these people are high school-aged students who weren’t successful in regular schools. Sometimes they are young people in detention or treatment centers. Sometimes they are adults who left high school to work and never made their way back. There are as many stories as there are GED test-takers.

Until now the state has demonstrated its belief that helping these people get ahead is a good investment by footing the bill for the current $20 per test fee.

However, the company that provides the test, GED Testing Services, is getting ready to offer a new version of the test in January to reflect the Common Core standards schools are adopting, according to an Arkansas News Bureau report on May 26.

The test now will be administered by computer only, and the testing service will charge the state $30 for each of the test’s four parts — that’s $120. That cost, or some of it, likely will be passed on to students, according to the report.

Educators are urging students who are planning to take the test or who have started the process and have passed some parts of it to get their testing finished now.

That’s good advice given that the test is about to change materially and it’s about to get expensive.

Between 8,000 and 10,000 people take the test each year and between 6,000 and 8,000 of them pass it, according to the ANB report.

Lawmakers managed to get an amendment added to a budget bill to appropriate $1.87 million to pay for the tests, but it was not funded.

That decision is “a typical example of not investing in things that make a difference,” said one Arkansas superintendent, who also noted that adult education has seen no funding increase since the early 1990s.

The $120 may not seem like a lot of money, but it will be the difference between taking the test and not taking it for some people with low skill levels and low-wage jobs who are trying to get ahead.

Bill Walker, the director of the Career Education Department, told the Arkansas News Bureau that charging people for the test will have “a chilling effect.”

It looks like that could be an understatement in Pine Bluff.

In 2012, there were 188 people who took the GED test at the Adult Education department at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Of those, 124 passed. Out of the 188, 107 self-reported that they had no income whatsoever. Out of that same 188, 74 were in a detention center, presumably working toward getting out and improving their lots in life. Of those who had an income, 42 said they made less than $7,500 a year.

So almost all of the people who took the test here were without means. What is the likelihood that those folks will be able to come up with $120 to take the GED? Slim to none comes to mind.

The upside to society when someone gets a GED, however, is significant.

The U.S. Department of Labor states that GED graduates make $7,658 more per year than non-high school graduates. If that’s true for this year’s grads, those 124 who got their GEDs will add close to a million dollars to the tax base. We could also add in what these GED graduates might drain away from society had they not gotten those degrees.

One proposal would be for the Department of Career Education to pick up the costs for the tests for adults older than 18 and the Department of Education to pick up the tab for 17- and 18-year-olds.

Walker does not know what recommendation he will make to the career education board. Some alternatives to passing the the cost on to students are seeking private donations for scholarships, identifying a different test and asking for a new appropriation in the 2014 legislative fiscal session.

Sen. Eddie Cheatham, D-Crossett, told the Arkansas News Bureau he wished the Legislature had funded the tests, but the issue “didn’t generate enough interest.”

Janice Hanlon, GED administrator for the state, said the Legislature appropriated the money for her office but the appropriation was not funded during the revenue stabilization process. She said it was like getting a check but not having any money in the bank to cover it.

That’s just shocking.

How can it be that a poor state desperately seeking to improve its reputation, its national standing in education and its standard of living could not assemble a Legislature that cared enough to ensure that this previously simple and cost-effective way to improve a person’s economic situation remained available?

They just weren’t interested? That is a cause for shame.