Diane Bunch beams when she talks about the progress she's made toward earning a General Equivalency Diploma. Currently three years into an adult-literacy program offered by the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, the 56-year-old North Side resident says it has already helped change her life.
Taking classes "helps me help my grandkids with their homework," says Bunch, who meets with a tutor at GPLC's Downtown location four days a week. "And it gives me a sense of pride, knowing I can go back to school and better myself."
Officials from local literacy programs say stories like Bunch's prove the importance of their work. But when it comes to winning the state's financial support, they say, it's becoming more painful to do the math.
Gov. Tom Corbett's 2011-12 budget, which takes an axe to education, calls for a more than 16 percent reduction in state funding for Adult and Family Literacy programs. The cuts to the literacy programs would total nearly $2.5 million -- part of an effort to plug a $4 billion hole in the state budget.
Corbett's proposal is just the latest in a string of decreases in literacy education in recent years. If the 16 percent funding cut stands, funding for literacy programs will have been slashed by 47 percent since 2008-09.
"A 16 percent cut is tough," says Alexander Dow, a manager at GPLC's Downtown office. "They keep chipping away every year."
"It worries me," adds Shequaila Griffin, 22, of North Versailles, who's been taking classes at GPLC since January. "There are others out there that really need a program like this."
GPLC, which is mostly funded by the state and federal governments, offers a variety of programs, including GED preparation and courses designed for students learning English as a second language. It also offers a program intended to help employees improve their job skills.
Dow says the demand for literacy services has never been higher. But GPLC's funding, he laments, has never been lower.
Three years ago, before the state began to cut funding, Dow says GPLC's Downtown location served about 800 students. Today, it serves just 500 -- a result of previous funding cuts.
Dow can't yet predict exactly what impact Corbett's proposed 16 percent reduction in Adult and Family Literacy funding will have on GPLC's services. Even so, "There's almost a direct correlation between funding [cuts] and the number of students we have to turn away."
"Cuts in family literacy would be very detrimental," says Margaret McKeown, a clinical professor in the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education who specializes in literacy.
McKeown notes that adult-literacy programs don't just help adults. "Parent education is a huge predictor of how well kids are going to do in school," she says. "It can have a big effect" on student achievement.
Corbett administration officials could not be reached for comment by press time.
Carlow University, which offers literacy programs, is also bracing for change. Given the past funding cuts, Provost Margaret McLaughlin says she was actually anticipating more than a 16 percent reduction this year. Still, things are bad enough. "The pattern of decline, plus an additional 16 percent cut, reduces the number of students served, as well as the scope of services that we are able to deliver," she says.
Carlow currently runs a state-funded Adult Basic and Literacy Education program, which helps students improve reading, writing and math skills. (The school also offers a federally funded program to help students prepare for the GED exam.)
But thanks to declining state funding, McLaughlin says, Carlow must close its Downtown ABLE location, one of two operated by the school, at the end of this fiscal year. "We can't afford the rent," she says.
Moreover, Carlow will narrow its ABLE curriculum, cutting back on literacy efforts while focusing resources on math skills. (McLaughlin says Carlow has more internal resources to dedicate toward math literacy than it does for reading and writing.)
"Every time they cut the money down, you become incapable of serving the [community's] needs," says McLaughlin. "It's very hurtful."
The Community College of Allegheny County expects to be feeling the pain, too.
David Hoovler, CCAC's executive assistant to the president, says cuts will hurt its own ABLE program. But with budget negotiations still taking place in Harrisburg, it's too early to tell exactly how the program will change.
The Goodwill Literacy Initiative is similarly uncertain how the state budget reduction is going to affect its literacy programs, which include GED preparation, basic adult-literacy classes and ESL classes. "At this point," says David Tobiczyk, Goodwill's vice president of marketing and development, "it's too early to know how it's going to affect us."
For students like Bunch, the threat of further cuts in literacy funding is daunting. The GED she's been striving for over the past three years is almost within reach, but she says losing access to the program would be a devastating setback.
"I don't think I'm too far away [from my goal]," she says. "That would affect me a lot."