History of the
Adult Education Act


With the passage of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (PL 105-220), the Adult Education Act, as administrators of adult basic education have known it for the past 30 years, has passed into posterity. We thought it appropriate, therefore, to provide a brief legislative history of this landmark piece of legislation that is no more. This document traces the Federal involvement in adult basic education by noting references to legislation and provisions of law and regulations. This synopsis was prepared for the Consortium by Dr.Gary Eyre.


A History of the Adult Education Act

The Federal government has been involved in adult education for well over 200 years. The nature and extent of Federal attention to the needs of adult learners has varied over this period, but, from its earliest days, the government provided funds to establish, encourage, and expand programs to assist adults in overcoming educational deficiencies which would hinder productive and responsible participation in the life and growth of the nation.

At the state level, evening schools for adults, part-time education, citizenship/Americanization classes for the foreign-born and the Chautauqua experience were fore runners of the State/Federal adult education movement. State histories give evidence of organized adult education as early as the 18th century.

However, it was not until the early 1960’s, in the Kennedy administration that poverty and adult literacy became a concern. Building on Kennedy’s efforts, President Lyndon Johnson and a sympathetic Congress launched a series of programs to end poverty and increase the role of the Federal government toward the improvement of education. With the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act (August 20, 1964), Title II B of Public Law 88-452 created the first Adult Basic Education program as a state grant. The 1964 Federal legislation established a state and Federal partnership to focus on the most basic of educational skills for adults who had not completed secondary education. Funding for states that first year was $18.6 million. In 1965, 37,991 adults enrolled nationally in what was known as ABE (Adult Basic Education). At times, Federal efforts have been disjointed; sometimes they overlapped with other similar programs. But, throughout the past thirty four years, there have been continuous programs focussed on increasing an adult literacy skills through the Adult Education Act.

A legislative history follows, including amendments and new priorities for carrying out the Adult Education Act.

Federal Legislation: 1964 - 1998

1964, 1966, 1968, 1970, 1972, 1974, 1978, 1981, 1986, 1988, 1991, 1998


P.L. 88-452; Title II, Part B; Adult Basic Education. Signed by President Johnson, August 20, 1964.

Initial Federal program of adult education for persons 18 years of age and older who had not completed their secondary education and whose inability to read, write and compute was a substantial impairment of their ability to obtain or retain employment.


State education for public elementary or secondary schools was primarily responsible for the administration of the program
Local public elementary, secondary or adult schools operated local instructional classes
Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was authorized by Congress to make grants to states
State plans were required to be approved by OEO
State financial allotments were made on the basis of the relative number of persons 18 years old and older who had completed no more than five grades of school. No state received less than $50,000. The Federal share was set at 90 percent
There were no Federal funds allocated for teacher training

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P.L. 89-750; Title III of the amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This Title to ESEA was introduced by Congressman Carl D. Perkins on March 1, 1966. The Bill was signed by President Johnson on November 3, 1966.


Transferred authority from the Director of OEO to the U.S. Commissioner of Education (Department of Health, Education and Welfare)
Not less than 10 percent nor more than 20 percent reserved for special projects and teacher training (Sections 309 b and c)
National Advisory Council on Adult Education established

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P.L. 90-247; Title IV of the Amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The House Bill (H.R. 7819) was introduced by Congressman John Brademas on April 3, 1967. The legislation was signed by President Johnson on January 2, 1968.


$100,000 was provided as the base for the state allotment
Private non-profit agencies added as eligible local grant recipients

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P.L. 91-230; Title III of the Amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Amendments introduced by Congressman Carl Perkins and signed by President Nixon on April 13, 1970.


Revised statement of purpose to include adults who had attained age 16 and had not graduated from high school
State allotment base raised to $150,000
Special emphasis given to adult basic education
Presidentially appointed National Advisory Council on Adult Education established
5 percent administrative cost authorized

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P.L. 92-318; Title IV, Part C of the 1972 Amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Senator Claiborne Pell introduced the amendments to ESEA and the legislation was signed by President Nixon in June.


Improvement of educational opportunities for adult Indians

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P.L. 93-380; Title VI, Part A of the 1974 Amendments to ESEA. President Ford signed H.R. 69 in August. Congressman Perkins of Kentucky had introduced the amendment in January.


Community school program was added
State allotment revised
State plan expanded to include institutionalized adults
Cap on adult secondary education at 20 percent
Provided for bilingual adult education
15 percent for special projects and teacher training
Special projects for the elderly
State advisory councils could be established and maintained
National Advisory Council on Adult Education to include limited English-speaking members

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P.L. 95-561; Title XIII, Part A of the Education Amendments of 1978. H.R. 15, introduced by Carl Perkins was signed by President Carter on November 1, 1978.


Expanded statement of purpose
Program could be offered by public or private non-profit entities
State plan requirement broadened to include a variety of agency resources
The Secretary of Education empowered to conduct a variety of research activities
Special sections on teacher training, Indochina Refugees, Immigrants and Cuban and Haitians were added

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P.L. 97-35: Amendments to the Adult Education Act (AEA) , signed by President Reagan, August 13, 1981.


The first discretionary program to support English as a Second Language (ESL) programs

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P.L. 99-500 Long Term Continuing Resolution, signed October 18, 1986 continued provisions of the Adult Education Act (P.L. 89-750). On December 22, 1987 a permanent continuing resolution (P.L. 100-202) was passed.

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P.L. 100-297 (Hawkins/Stafford Elementary/Secondary School Improvement Amendments of 1988); signed April 28, 1988 by President Ronald Reagan.


Created workforce literacy grants
Created English literacy grant program
Strengthened evaluation requirements

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P.L. 102-73 (The National Literacy Act of 1991; signed by President George Bush on July 25, 1991. Final rules and regulations were not approved until June 5, 1992 (34CFR Parts 425, 426 and 431). The National Literacy Act was incorporated in the Adult Education Act.


Increased authorization for literacy programs
Established a National Institute for Literacy
Authorized state literacy resource centers
Created national workforce demonstration projects
Established literacy programs for incarcerated individuals
Created "indicators" of program quality
Required "Gateway Grants" to public housing authorities

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Adult Education Act is repealed and replaced by the Workforce Investment Act (PL105-220) . See Legislation Archive for an analysis of this bill.

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