LEAP MIGHT BE ON ITS LAST LEGS
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The Mississippi Department of Human Services will be pulling out all stops to prevent its primary basic adult education program from being transferred to the state’s 15 community and junior colleges.
The Department of Human Services currently contracts with a program at the University of Mississippi called Project LEAP (Learn, Earn, and Prosper) to handle most of its federally mandated adult basic education.
The LEAP classes set up throughout the state use satellite feeds to provide basic education to women receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children payments. The LEAP program has been praised and honored nationwide for its innovative approach, its supporters say.
But its doubters, including federal and state watchdog agencies, have been critical of the program for its high cost and for not moving women from welfare to self-sufficiency. A federal report cites what it calls improper trips and expenditures. A report from the Office of the Inspector General suggests repayment of $747,031 in federal funds and further review of an additional $1.1 million for possible repayment.
Bill to shut down LEAP
Prompted by federal and state reports, state Sen. Grey Ferris, D-Vicksburg, has introduced a bill to shut down Project LEAP. The bill would transfer the about $6 million annually spent on Project LEAP to the state’s community and junior college system.
“The population in deepest need of jobs-skills training to reach a level of self-sufficiency is not receiving those services,” Ferris said.
Apparently, the full Senate agrees with Ferris. The Senate voted last week to move funds for adult basic education for AFDC recipients to the community and junior colleges. Only Sens. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, and Bill Canon, R-Columbus, voted against the move.
Now the measure moves to the state House of Representatives, where opposition from the Department of Human Services is expected to be more vocal.
“This is a huge deal to us,” said Larry Temple, deputy director of the Department of Human Services. He added the immediate impact of shutting down LEAP would be the loss of $3 million to $6 million for the Department of Human Services with the potential loss of more than $20 million.
Don Taylor, executive director of the state Department of Human Services, explained that Ole Miss sells the LEAP program to other agencies. The income from these ventures is used to acquire more matching funds from the federal government. Matching funds are money the state puts up to receive a larger share of revenue from the federal government. Most welfare programs work on a matching-fund formula.
Taylor and Temple said they will be trying to explain the value of Project LEAP to the House of Representatives. In the House, the bill has been referred to both the Education and Appropriations committees. It must pass those committees to reach a full House vote.
The House will be told about a program that has received from the state and federal government about $20.2 million since October 1992.
“We have squandered millions on a program that is not working,” Ferris said.
But the creator of LEAP, Ed Meek, director of public relations and marketing at Ole Miss, said the program is innovative and working.
Using satellite dishes, LEAP classes are set up in areas of easy access to clients. To go along with the satellite instruction, teachers and aides, who are employed by Ole Miss, are located at each site.
Meek said the satellites, which cost about $240 each, can be placed in the back of a car and taken anywhere in the state to set up a classroom.
“We can have a class in a shotgun shack way back in the sticks,” Meek said. “We have clients who have never seen a shopping mall.”
Currently, Project LEAP has about 50 sites throughout the state. The one in Lee County is located in the Belden Head Start Center.
The people who attend the Project LEAP classes are some of the 50,000 women in the state on AFDC payments. The average LEAP participant is age 31 and reads on a 4.8 grade level.
“This is an extraordinarily difficult population you are talking about training,” Taylor said. In teaching this population, LEAP’s job, as spelled out in its contract with Human Services, is to raise the students’ education level to grade 8.9, Meek said.
He said working to get the participants their GED, which is the equivalent of a high school diploma, is not a contractual obligation, but is something LEAP tries to do anyway.
Criticized for lack of success
The program has been criticized by both state and federal agencies because of LEAP participants’ lack of success in obtaining their GEDs. And it has been criticized for its high cost.
The state PEER Committee, which consists of legislators with an investigative staff, said the LEAP program cost $1,766 per participant compared to $222 for the community college program.
Human Services said the population being taught by LEAP is much harder to instruct. DHS officials said comparing the two programs is not fair. But Ferris said the community colleges have had success in teaching the same type of clients as those taught by LEAP.
Ferris also pointed to what he thinks is one of the keys to the reports. Both the federal report and the state report criticize LEAP for stressing adult basic education and not job-skills training.
LEAP’s adult basic education instruction apparently is not moving many women off the welfare rolls, according to the federal report. The report surveyed 130 women who had received their GEDs and found that 85 still were receiving AFDC payments 319 days later.
Ferris said job-skills training is what the community colleges do best. And Olon Ray, director of the Community and Junior College Board, said the schools work closely with the Mississippi Employment Security Commission in placing students in the work force.
Ray also said the schools do not do all of their training on campus. He said they use churches, schools and other buildings in the communities they are trying to serve.
Temple says criticism unfair
But Temple said the Office of the Inspector General report is unfair in criticizing LEAP for its literacy training as opposed to jobs training. He said the federal government mandates adult basic education. Despite this, Meek said project LEAP is developing a curriculum that will stress more job-skills training to go along with the adult basic education.
“This is the program in America that everybody is talking about,” Meek said. “I am not embarrassed by it.”
Indeed, it appears Meek and others like talking about the program and have done so throughout the world. The Office of Inspector General report questioned trips to such locations as Las Vegas, Chicago, Portland, Maine, Vienna, Austria and many other places.
But Meek said every trip was for staff development or to try to sell the program to other agencies. He said state officials have received permission from the federal Health and Human Services to travel to sell the program.
These trips have resulted in about $1.5 million in additional income for the Department of Human Services to use as match money, Taylor said.
Besides the trips, the federal report also questioned the use of LEAP computers totaling $19,366 by non-LEAP employees at the university. It also questioned $110,419 in expenditures at the University of Mississippi bookstore.
But Meek said the expenses were legitimate LEAP needs and that all computers are being used by LEAP personnel.
Overall, the federal report cited the lack of a method for the state Department of Human Services to measure how effective LEAP is.
But state officials say it is effective.
“The ironic thing is that this program (LEAP) might end up being used all over the country except here where it was developed,” Temple said.