In 2009, all that stood between Anita Rodriguez and a high school diploma was one standardized test.
A student at the Austin Independent School District, she had the required credits for graduating but could not pass her TAKS math exam. Rodriguez, now 22, earned her GED in August.
The GED will help get her into cosmetology school, but its value in the workforce is still lower than the high school diploma she nearly received. To get it, she repeated much of her earlier coursework.
The Goodwill Industries of Central Texas program that helped Rodriguez get her GED is one of the few options available for adults who want to improve their job opportunities. There is high need for the service in Texas, where one in five people older than 25 lack a high school education, and employment projections indicate that over the next four years, 80 percent of the top 20 growth occupations will require education above the high school level.
With that in mind, Goodwill wants to expand its reach by opening a charter school that focuses on getting high school diplomas for older students, instead of the GEDs that adult education programs traditionally offer. It would also combine the diplomas with additional career skills training including two-year certificates. The charter application will be filed in February.
The program, modeled on schools the charity operates in Indianapolis, would be the first of its kind in Texas, a state whose percentage of adults without a high school education is tied with California and Mississippi to be the highest in the nation. Goodwill hopes to serve about 300 students in its first year.
But first, there are obstacles to overcome. The state only provides funding for charters and school districts to operate dropout recovery programs for students under age 26.
“Why do we give up on somebody when they turn 25?” said Traci Berry, the vice president of development for Goodwill in Central Texas. “We want people to still be educated, we want to prepare them for life, we want to give them the training and the skills, to be able to say here they are, able to contribute.”
Former state Rep. Scott Hochberg, the Houston Democrat who carried the legislation that expanded state funding up to 26 in 2007, said he originally did not include an upper age limit. He said he added one after concerns were raised over whether sex offenders would be able to enroll in high school classes to be near minors.
The age limit could also make sense from a practical perspective, Hochberg said, because the students under 26 are the closest to finishing their degrees.
“The further away in time you are away from when you actually took some high school courses the greater the likelihood you are going to have to do those courses again to even get to the courses you are missing," he said.
But he said there was a “serious lack of facilities” in the state for adults who wanted to improve their educational level — and the programs that did exist were “tremendously oversubscribed.”
There was a “huge” need for services in Central Texas to help adults further their education, said Steve Jackobs, the executive director of Capital Idea, a nonprofit with locations in Austin and Houston that helps get low-income adults the post-secondary skills they need to get jobs.
A secondary education, he said, is “the first step, not the last step these days."
"We aren't seeing that a GED makes much difference any more,” he said, “and I don’t know that high school is making much difference any more.”
There is limited funding for adult education services for the over-25 population. In 2011, primarily with federal money, those programs served about 112,000 of the estimated 3.5 million Texans eligible. The vast majority of that money goes to English-as-a-second-language programs and instruction in basic reading, writing and math. Only 4 percent goes to programs geared toward helping adults who already learn above the basic level to earn high school degrees or their equivalent.
For Berry, that is a missed opportunity to reach those who are the closest to entering the workforce.
Lawmakers, including state Rep. John Davis, the Houston Republican who chairs the House Economic Development Committee, have expressed interest in reforming adult education policies this session.
If Goodwill’s efforts to gain funding for older students are unsuccessful, Berry said, the charter would focus on students 19 to 25, with the hope of finding a way to serve those 26 and older in the next few years, even without money from the state.
“Can we do everything without state money? No,” she said, “Can we serve as many people? No. But that doesn't mean that we aren't going to try to do what we can.”