In the four months since Florida began charging tuition for adult education programs, enrollment has dropped dramatically, prompting concern from some lawmakers that the Legislature may have gone too far.
Since requiring not only tuition, but also documentation to determine residency, enrollment in adult education classes offered at colleges has dropped 45 percent and enrollment offered through some school districts has dropped 38 percent, according to preliminary data by the state Department of Education.
Last legislative session, lawmakers took a close look at charging for adult education programs, which generally are offered for free through school districts and colleges, as they grappled with a large budget shortfall.
Typically, students who do not have a high school diploma take the courses to study for their GED, learn English, or take basic adult education classes. A new law was passed that required in-state students to pay $45 for half a year or $30 per term in block tuition for the courses. Non-residents pay three times that amount.
Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, said the intent was to make sure adult ed students "had some skin in the game," and clamp down on the low completion rates for the free courses. "(Adult students) need that education, but they should also see the value of it and that it is worth something," Lynn said.
One unintended consequence has been the impact tuition has had on inmates in Florida's jails, prisons and juvenile justice facilities. Because of new requirements that require documentation to prove residency, and the tuition, some inmates cannot register for or pay for the classes, lawmakers said.
"There are many people incarcerated who cannot afford this minimal amount we are asking them to pay," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. "We have an obligation to see how we can perhaps fix it."
Lynn said she had received calls from adult education teachers who reported their classes were cut at jails and they were out of job, blaming the new law for their plight because students could not register or pay for classes.
But when pressed for details, Tara Goodman, the head of the division of career and adult education with the Department of Education, said it was too soon to tell how many inmates were impacted by the new law.
Last year, about 333,000 Floridians were enrolled in adult education courses, with about 10 percent of those coming from prisons, jails or juvenile justice facilities, Goodman said.
Florida has the second-highest number of adult education students in the country and it spent $256 million last year educating these students. The new fees are not designed to fully fund the cost of these courses.