A Conversation with Ira Yankwitt, Literacy Assistance Center

This week Gregory J Morris sat down with Ira Yankwitt, Literacy Assistance Center to discuss adult literacy programming and the new RFP from the Department of Youth and Community Development.

Gregory J Morris, NYCETC: As you know, Ira, so many of our providers focused on job readiness and training are either directly providing access to basic ed, high school equivalency, and English language classes and programs or partner with institutions that do. Because of that, we wanted to elevate the conversation taking place and the advocacy efforts being made about adult literacy programs because there are some substantive proposed changes, correct? 

Ira Yankwitt, Literacy Assistance Center: Yes. Currently, in New York City there are over 2.2 million adults who have limited English proficiency, do not have a high school diploma, or both. Combined city and state funding for adult literacy enables just 2-3% of those adults to access adult basic education, ESOL, or high school equivalency classes in any given year.

The Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) funds 67 community-based organizations to provide adult literacy classes. The primary source of that funding for those community-based organizations is through a Request for Proposals (RFP) that was last issued in 2013 and has been funding DYCD’s contracted programs since July of 2014. These contracts have been extended over the years.  The RFP is now being reissued.  

According to testimony on Friday, February 23rd, from DYCD, in Fiscal Year 2023, DYCD contracted programs served over 16,000 students. That is less than 1% of the 2.2 million adults in need and is a subset of the approximately 3% that are being served through the combined city and state funding. This new RFP cuts funding from $16.8 million in FY24 to $11.8 million dollars. It will fund classes for just over 9,100 students a year.

The other issue with funding for adult literacy is the level of investment per student. Under the previous RFP, programs have been funded at $950 per student per year. Based on the parameters of the new RFP, we calculated that it would cost at least $2,700 per student just to meet the expectations and requirements and provide the students with the supports, resources and services that they need and deserve. The rate that they had in the concept paper per student was $1,300, and, despite our feedback, that is the rate they have included in the RFP.

Morris: Can you give me a sense of what quality programming costs? 

Yankwitt: We, the Literacy Assistance Center, put out a report in 2017 that identified the components of a high-quality community-based literacy program and what it cost. We came out with a cost in 2017 of $3,700 per student for 200 hours of instruction and associated support services. $3,700 in 2017 is about $4,600 today. The $11.8 million that is set aside for the 9,100 students in the current RFP – and the per student rate – is not going to cover the costs of running the programs that DYCD is calling for, much less the kind of comprehensive program that our report called for.

Morris: And what is the current complexity related to providers? It’s my understanding that some providers aren’t able to apply because of a change in catchment area. 

Yankwitt: When the RFP came out, what the administration said is, ‘We want to focus whatever limited funding we have on the highest poverty, lowest educational attainment, most limited English proficient neighborhoods and residents in the city.’ We unequivocally support that goal and aim. The problem is the way they are trying to implement that. The RFP identified 41 Neighborhood Tabulation Areas (NTAs). The RFP originally indicated that only providers that are located within the NTAs are eligible to receive this funding. 18 of the 41 NTAs did not have an identifiable provider. And 70% of the 67 currently funded community-based organizations would not have been eligible to apply.

[DYCD has provided an addendum to the RFP that allows providers who are outside of the NTAs to apply for funding. But those applicants will only be considered if there isn’t an eligible provider located within the NTA.]

We think anyone who can make the case that they will be able to serve the residents of the high poverty, low educational attainment, limited English proficient neighborhoods that DYCD is focusing on should be able to apply and make their case. We know there are providers just outside of those NTAs that are serving members of those communities. We know students who want to continue in the classes that they’re going to because they’ve developed a relationship, it’s near where they work, it’s near where they have family and childcare. 

Morris: And what’s the bottom line impact on existing service locations? 

Yankwitt: Right now, there are 19 council districts that will not have DYCD-funded programs. 12 council districts will potentially lose the DYCD-funded provider that they currently have.

But here’s the other issue: The NTA-based model uses data from 2017 to 2021 to make funding decisions that may take us to 2030, given DYCD’s history of extending contracts beyond their stated term. Given the nature of ever-shifting demographics in New York City, the high poverty neighborhood of 2021 may be gentrified by the time the programs are funded. What is being put into place absent an existing system might make sense. But that’s not the situation.

Morris: The current implementation of the PEG program – even with recent pauses and restorations – have caused concern, even panic, from social service providers.  How are you thinking about the impact of recent reductions- and the absence of investment over time in adult literacy? 

Yankwitt: I think that the administration has been very conservative in its projections for revenue… What they have said is that NTA-based funding is about equity and racial justice. And I believe that they believe that this is true. The irony is that they are cutting the number of students from 16,000 plus to 9,100. The Mayors FY25 Preliminary Budget includes $21.7M for DYCD Adult Literacy, approximately 10 million dollars more than what’s included in the RFP. If that $10 million dollars was included and baselined in this RFP, you could do some combination of things: You could raise that per student funding rate which would encourage and enable more small grassroots community-based organizations to apply. You could increase the number of NTAs that you’re going to serve. You could fund borough-wide and citywide programs in addition to NTA-based programs. If the 10 million dollars was baselined, it would increase the level of investment per student and the number served.

It is surprisingly difficult to get clear numbers and consistent numbers between OMB, DYCD and the budget documents that we have. Sometimes the three of them have been out of sync with each other… 

Morris: The focus of your work on adult literacy as a core value of our society and its connectivity to social justice is both a powerful and fundamental expression of what access to opportunity is- this is particularly important as we think about new New Yorkers.  Do you find our city leadership to be aware and invested in the same or similar ways? 

Yankwitt: With the new configuration of the council with a majority of women, a majority Women of Color, a majority progressive Women of Color, there are so many more council members who not just understand but have a relationship to this issue. We have seen more champions within the council than we have ever seen historically. I think within the administration, there are certainly those in DYCD who we’ve worked with for many years who are truly committed to the issue, to the students. I think that we are not getting our advocacy efforts to the ear of those close to the mayor.

In FY22, we were successful in getting a pilot funded by the City Council that put $2.5 million into 19 programs to increase the investment per student and increase their range of supports, services, resources for those students. Our goal at the time was to prove that greater investment would lead to greater and wider outcomes and to have that reflected in the RFP. That pilot is now in its third year, and we’ve put out two reports. The outcomes are remarkable. Unfortunately, while the next iteration of DYCD contracts will expect this wider range of outcomes and collect data on them, the RFP won’t significantly increase the funding rate! Something that I’ve heard from other advocates is that the administration sometimes has not asked the questions that they’ve needed to ask, which may in some cases result in decisions that make them their own worst enemy or are counterproductive.

The administration gave us the chance to respond to the concept paper. Our adult literacy advocacy coalition put out our response. Since the RFP came out, we have responded with subsequent letters to the administration as well. This is what we want: Pause, sit down with us, let’s just talk it through. We can come up with a structure that will meet the very goals that you have. There’s just no interest in doing that.

Morris:  Where do we go from here? The deadline for the RFP is approaching? Next week begins a series of Council budget hearings. 

Yankwitt: Given the NTA-based funding model and the low $1,300 per student rate, some long-time, high impact, high quality programs/organizations may decide not to apply. If you’re in one of the NTAs and you think you can make it work, you’re going to get a little bit more than the $950 per student you’re currently getting. If you’re outside all of the NTAs, one question you will ask is whether you have competition within the NTA you might apply for. If you do, it may not feel worth applying. And, if you’re in between, say, three NTAs, how do you figure out which – or how many – of these to apply for? I think a lot of organizations are going to say, look, for the limited amount, we can’t even do the research to figure this out. We’re not going to move forward. I also think there’s a possibility that the administration is going to have a real mess on their hands. I think there’s a real danger that DYCD won’t have enough providers in place come July 1. The deadline for the proposals right now is March 20. We have until March 19 for the City to say, “You know what, we’re pulling back, we’re holding off, we’re gonna rethink this.”

Suggested Readings

More than 70% of adult literacy programs are at risk of losing city funding

Strengthening Adult Literacy Education: Updated Results from the NYC Pilot Project Fiscal Year 2023.

Editor’s note: This was originally included in NYCETC’s Workforce Weekly newsletter on February 28, 2024. Subscribe here.