The Remarkable Rubén Hinojosa

U.S. Representative Rubén Hinojosa recently announced that he will retire from Congress at the end of 2016. NCAL responded by inviting him to speak about his commitment to Adult Education and Workforce Skills development. He does so in the Q&A exchange presented below. Rep. Hinojosa was one of two Adult Education champions (Sen. Jack Reed was the other) to receive a leadership award in March 2014 from the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy, NCAL’s predecessor organization. That award was given for Outstanding Leadership In Advancing Adult Education in America.  [Gail Spangenberg, President, NCAL]

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Spangenberg:  Rep. Hinojosa, you have been one of Adult Education’s most enduring champions. Not only do you provide leadership as co-chair of the House Caucus on Adult Literacy, but you were instrumental in developing the Adult Education & Economic Growth Act and for seeing to it that important concepts and provisions from AEEGA were subsequently built into WIOA.  What makes Adult Education and Workforce Skills development so important to you?

Hinojosa:  I am concerned that 80–90 million U.S. adults today—about half of the adult workforce—do not have the basic education and communication skills required to get, or advance in, jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage, according to the National Commission on Adult Literacy. Small businesses also need the proper workforce training for their employees in order to continue contributing to the local economy.

In the 15th Congressional district of Texas, there are still about 38% of adults without a high school diploma. In addition, and per the U.S. Census, 84% of adults in Hidalgo County (the largest county in TX-15) speak a language other than English or do not speak English “very well,” while the literacy rate in South Texas is about 58%. That’s why we must ensure that youth and adults have access to adult education. It is so important to our country and to South Texas.

Throughout my entire professional career in both the private and public sectors, I have remained dedicated to educational excellence and workforce training. Ultimately, in order to have a trained workforce, you must have a literate workforce. For this reason, I made a commitment, well before I came to Congress in 1997, to address reading and writing literacy, from cradle to career.

For nearly two decades, I have fought vigorously to increase federal investments in education, healthcare, and infrastructure. As the ranking member of the Subcommittee for Higher Education and co-chair of the House Caucus Adult Literacy Caucus, I sponsored the Adult Education and Economic Growth Act (AEEGA) and worked with Ranking Member George Miller and other congressional colleagues to shepherd the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) into law in 2014. In my congressional district, I have also worked with the South Texas Literacy Coalition since 2007 to promote reading and writing literacy in schools served by Region I Education Service Center.

Without basic literacy skills, a high school diploma, and English Language literacy and civics, it is extremely difficult for adult learners and immigrants to access good, family-sustaining jobs and fully participate at home, at work, at school, and in our nation’s democracy. I think if we are going to make South Texas a better place for everyone, we must invest in adult education and workforce training programs.

Spangenberg:  Because yours is one of the most understanding voices in Adult Education, your continuing involvement after you leave Congress later this year is important.  Can you speculate on the nature of your current and continuing commitment to Adult Education?

Hinojosa:  Since joining Congress in 1997 and becoming the Ranking Member on the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, I co-chaired the House Adult Literacy Caucus, and introduced legislation, including WIOA and AEEGA, focused on furthering adult literacy initiatives in the United States, including South Texas.

In 2011, I co-founded the Adult Literacy Caucus with Congressman Phil Roe (TN-1). This caucus aims to bring attention to the 93 million adults in the United States who do not have the literacy skills needed to reach their potential.  Thirty-six million adult individuals have such low levels of literacy that it significantly impedes their ability to fully function at home, at work and in their communities. My focus is to ensure that people have a high school diploma and career pathways that lead to postsecondary education, jobs, careers, and increased English language literacy skills.

In South Texas, we are fortunate to have the South Texas Literacy Coalition, Deep South Texas Financial Literacy Alliance, and other key organizations that serve as community education hubs so South Texas has access to the resources to improve their literacy capacity. The South Texas Literacy Coalition was created in 2007 through the efforts of several South Texas university leaders. This organization enables life-long learning, and it has helped to increase the levels of literacy in our region. Teaming up with GEAR UP in 2013, the Deep South Texas Financial Literacy Alliance was formed to increase the financial literacy awareness of families in Deep South Texas by the year 2017. The alliance is a partnership between institutions of higher education, banks, school districts, and business and community entities in an effort to improve the economic well-being of communities in Deep South Texas.

I am proud of these efforts and what we in Congress have done to create a more educated and literate community in South Texas. My plan is to continue working with these organizations, as well as local and Hispanic Serving Institutions, universities, and colleges, in order to expand educational and outreach efforts for Hispanics, African Americans, and Asian American communities, with the overall goal of increasing the adult literacy levels in Texas and the South Texas/U.S.-Mexico border region.

Spangenberg:  As you know, the findings of OECD’s recent PIAAC assessment show the U.S. to rank poorly among industrialized nations in all of the basic skills.  Especially alarming is the rate of low skills for our young people, and we have the highest rate of “inequality” among all OECD members surveyed.  Given the PIAAC results and the provisions of WIOA, what are your hopes for Adult Education in the coming years?  What advice do you have for policymakers and planners, for local service providers in your home state of Texas and other states around the country, and/or for the Obama Administration and Congress?

Hinojosa:  Yes, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States is the only nation in which younger adults are less educated than the previous generation. Unless we invest now to educate and train our workforce, the U.S. risks its economic viability and its ability to compete in a global economy where knowledge is the key to success.

In my congressional district, the infrastructure modernization, workforce training, health care, and increased focus on education has made a remarkable difference in reducing double-digit unemployment rates to a single digit. Enrollments and graduation rates at our community colleges and universities continue to rise, and new businesses have created jobs across South Texas.

We have made tremendous progress in part due to partnering with community leaders, Region I Education Service Centers, superintendents, faculty and teachers, institutions of higher education, and the South Texas Literacy Coalition to help promote and change how we view literacy. We must continue to work together and strive to help better prepare adult learners for success in school, the workplace and in the community.

In South Texas, adult education and family literacy programs play an important role in educating our adult learners. Most importantly, they prepare our least educated residents with the literacy skills needed to access good jobs and reach their full potential. But we must work together to serve greater numbers of adult learners.

In Texas, while our graduation rates have improved, we still have 3.8 million adults who do not have a high school diploma. What is more, it is estimated that 59% of all new jobs in Texas will require postsecondary training. Currently, 34% of Texans aged 25-34 have an associate degree or higher. To improve on these numbers, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board created the “Texas 60×30 Plan.” The goal of this plan is to strive for 60% of the 25-34 year old Texas population to hold a certificate or college degree by 2030. This is one step in the right direction for the betterment of the community.

Again I would like to underscore that without basic literacy skills and a high school diploma, it is extremely difficult for adult learners to fully participate at home, at work, at school, and in our nation’s democracy.

Although significant improvements have been made in education, states and policy makers can invest more in adult education programs.  Investments in education, including adult education, can help to spur economic growth and improve lives. I invite my colleagues in Congress and other business leaders to join in these efforts and develop their own plans to improve and expand access to adult education and beyond.


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