CATEGORY: Legislature



By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – A $6 million adult training and literacy program based at the University of Mississippi would be turned over to the state’s community and junior colleges under a bill sponsored by Sen. Grey Ferris, D-Vicksburg.

The Ole Miss program, called Project LEAP (Learn, Earn, and Prosper) has come under attack because of claims that it is inefficient in educating and training adult women on Aid to Families with Dependent Children for the work force. Project LEAP was created in February 1993 to provide training services for the Department of Human Services on a contractual basis.

Ed Meek, who oversees Project LEAP, said it costs more than the other programs because many clients are learning disabled. Meek said the program is considered one of the best in the nation.

But Ferris disagreed.

“We have squandered millions in a program that is not working,” said Ferris, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Ferris’ committee held hearings on Project LEAP Thursday morning. He said his committee will vote next week on the bill to turn the program over to the community colleges that have one-stop career centers in each district.

Critical reports

Much of the hearing Thursday focused on a PEER report that was critical of Project LEAP and the Department of Human Services for the handling of the federally mandated adult training program. PEER is made up of legislators who have a staff to research and investigate various government functions and agencies.

According to PEER, the Department of Human Services awarded the contract to LEAP in September 1992 to meet a quickly approaching federal mandate to have a literacy program in place. But in violation of that mandate, LEAP duplicates other programs instead of being incorporated into existing programs, PEER said.

The PEER report also said LEAP cost $1,766 per participant compared to $222 for the Adult Basic Education program run by the community colleges. The average cost of receiving a GED, which is the equivalent of a high school diploma, is $40,000 per person in LEAP, compared to $1,600 for the community college program, according to a yet-to-be released federal audit, a PEER spokesman said.

LEAP officials said not all of their clients are capable of receiving a GED, so teaching goals have to be much more modest.

One hundred thirty women who did receive GEDs through the LEAP program were audited by the federal Office of the Inspector General, Ferris said. Of those, only 20 percent are now self-sufficient. Based on those statistics, it cost LEAP $200,000 in federal and state funds to get each GED recipient off welfare, Ferris said.

Under Ferris’ plan, the community colleges would receive the federal and state money going to Project LEAP. Last year Project LEAP’s budget was $5 million in federal funds and $1.5 million from Ole Miss and the state.

Human Services opposition

Don Taylor, executive director of the Department of Human Services, wants to keep that money right where it is now. If the program were turned over to the community colleges, Taylor said Human Services still would be responsible to the federal government if the program were not run correctly. But Human Services would not have any control over the community colleges.

“What control do they have over Ole Miss now?” Ferris asked.

Taylor also said he would prefer to phase out training and education programs such as Project LEAP and concentrate on Work First, which is a jobs program. Under Work First, the Department of Human Services attempts to provide jobs for welfare recipient who are eligible. They are paid through a combination of state and private sources.

“All money ought to go to Work First,” Taylor said. “First thing we ought to do is find these people a job.” He said employers are saying if they get dependable people they will train them.

But Sen. Neely Carlton, D- Greenville, said she is concerned that in some rural counties there are no jobs to be found.

Work First is being tried in six counties, and there is talk of expanding it statewide. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to expand the program to 18 counties during the next budget year, which begins July 1.

If the community colleges took over the training program, there would be no focus on jobs placement, Taylor said.

Olon Ray, director of the Community and Junior College Board, said the schools’ current one-stop career centers serve many functions, but their primary goal is job placement. He said the community colleges work closely with the Mississippi Employment Security Commission.

“We are more than happy to assume responsibility for the program because it makes sense,” Ray said. “We are in the adult basic education business. That is what we do.”

Click video to hear audio