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

City Council members have called on City Hall to fix a technicality that could cut off funding for 48 of the 67 adult literacy programs currently operating in the city.

Adult literacy advocates rally during a City Hall press conference in 2014.

Adult literacy advocates rally during a City Hall press conference in 2014. William Alatriste/New York City Council

Over 40 New York City Council members are urging the city Department of Youth and Community Development to revise and expand how it plans to allocate funding to nonprofits providing adult literacy classes, warning that “disastrous consequences” loom for many of the organizations and the people they currently serve unless changes are made. 

A group of 41 council members signed on to a letter sent to City Hall and the Department of Youth and Community Development last Friday, warning that 48 of the 67 nonprofit organizations – more than 70% – currently funded by the department to provide adult literacy classes are at risk of losing critical funding.

The issue stems from the department’s latest Request for Proposals, a contract-related process in which an agency outlines what it is looking for from a prospective vendor. The new request for proposals related to adult literacy programs prioritizes inking contracts with nonprofits that are located in only certain parts of the city. Adult literacy programs in other parts of the city could be cut off from funding. 

The city’s adult literacy system, run out of the Department of Youth and Community Development in partnership with community-based organizations, provides free English for Speakers of Other Languages classes, GED programs and other basic education programs that teach reading, writing and math for adults and older youth who have left school. The English classes are particularly important for the nonprofit organizations that serve immigrant populations, since they help attract residents who can then be connected to other services.

The demand for adult literacy programming – which advocates have long said are woefully underfunded – has grown significantly alongside the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants to New York City.

In order to determine which neighborhoods were most in need of adult literacy programs, the Department of Youth and Community Development used American Community Survey data to identify “Neighborhood Tabulation Areas” with the highest poverty rates, lowest educational attainment, and limited English proficiency. But the department used census data from 2020 – well before nearly 180,000 migrants began arriving in the city. Over 65,000 migrants remain in the city’s care. 

A majority of the 67 adult literacy programs currently operating in the city fall outside of the department’s designated Neighborhood Tabulation Areas, leaving them at risk of losing funding.

The Department of Youth and Community Development did not initially respond to a request for comment, but a spokesperson later followed up and said that the department had addressed the concerns of the City Council and advocates by issuing an addendum allowing those organizations to apply to the Neighborhood Tabulation Area closest to their proposed location. The council’s letter acknowledged the addendum but pointed out that impacted organizations would still be prevented from competing in the first stage of the review. 

“The issue is that programs who do not have a physical location within a designated Neighborhood Tabulation Area will not have their proposals considered in the first round of competition,” said Lena Cohen, senior policy analyst of United Neighborhood Houses and New York City Coalition for Adult Literacy staff member. “They will only be considered if there isn’t an eligible provider located within the Neighborhood Tabulation Area.”

Mark Zustovich,  a spokesperson for the Department of Youth and Community Development, said the request for proposals’ formula allocates funding to the “communities with the highest need for critical services.” 

“This RFP also supports our core mission to alleviate the effects of poverty across New York City,” he said in a statement. “The Literacy RFP funding will be allocated based on the number of people living in poverty, the population who speaks English less than ‘very well’, and adults without a high school diploma. DYCD remains focused on equity and providing opportunities for all New Yorkers and communities to flourish.”

City Council Member Julie Won, chair of the chamber’s Contracts Committee, said adult literacy classes offered at the public library were a lifeline for her parents after they immigrated to the city from South Korea, opening the door to employment and other opportunities as they navigated a new country.

“This Request For Proposal would have far-reaching repercussions, preventing migrants and tens of thousands of adults with limited English proficiency from accessing education, jobs, and other opportunities to give their families a better life in our city,” she said in a statement. 

More broadly, the letter also warns that the city’s new request for proposals will serve fewer than 10,000 students annually – a drop from the 11,000 individuals currently served and up to 16,000 individuals served annually a few years ago. Those figures are a far cry from the over 2.2 million adult New Yorkers who have limited English proficiency and or don’t have a high school diploma – individuals whom adult literacy programing is specifically intended to serve. 

The letter urges the department to allow all qualified organizations to compete for contracts in the same stage of competition regardless of whether or not they fall into a designated Neighborhood Tabulation Area. It also calls on the department to extend the deadline for organizations to apply for the funding from March 6 to March 31. The New York City Coalition for Adult Literacy also sent a letter to the department reiterating much of the council’s requests. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Youth and Community Development said it is extending the deadline to March 20 to give as many organizations as possible a chance to apply. Programs will also be able to offer up to 60% of their instruction time remotely to address the needs of asylum-seekers and others, the spokesperson said.

“We must recognize the critical role adult literacy plays in bridging gaps of inequality within our communities. Every New Yorker deserves access to the tools and resources necessary for personal and professional growth,” Council Member Althea Stevens, chair of the council’s Committee on Children and Youth, said in a statement. “By prioritizing adult literacy programs in the DYCD Request for Proposal, we can empower individuals to unlock their full potential and contribute meaningfully to our community. We must take action in revising the Request for Proposal to reflect the pressing needs of our residents, ensuring that we leave no one behind in our pursuit of a more equitable and inclusive for our community members.”