Offering fee-based services for those who can afford it, in order to generate income to support free ESL/literacy services for those who can’t, makes a lot of sense—especially contracts with other organizations and businesses for custom-designed services. This isn’t a new idea, but it’s probably something more organizations that provide community-based literacy instruction ought to be looking at. I just can’t see a scenario in the near future in which government funding (federal, state, or local) for adult literacy or ESL is likely to substantially increase, and growth in foundation and charitable giving in general is likely to continue to be pretty flat. At the same time, immigration reform appears to have at least a reasonable chance of passage in the near future, and if it does, that will likely open up even more opportunities for fee-based English language instruction and translation services.
The Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy just released new, national, state-, and county-level data on the number, share, and linguistic diversity of Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals in the United States.
According to MPI, 25.2 million individuals over the age of 5 in the United States (9% of the total population) have limited proficiency in English, compared with 14 million (6% of the total population) in 1990. Needles to say, this is good supporting data for those trying to make the case that more ESOL resources are needed for children, youth, and adults in the U.S.
All indications are that the immigration reform legislation currently being drafted in the Senate is going to provide undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S. with the opportunity to apply for lawful permanent residency—but with a much more arduous set of requirements than are required by normal green card applicants. Adult education groups are particularly interested in the English language requirement (which I discussed here).
Having now had a chance to think about this for a few weeks, my thoughts on this requirement come down to two basic principles:
- A requirement to learn English in order to qualify for lawful permanent resident status shouldn’t penalize or place an unrealistic burden on those with significant learning challenges.
- Any requirement to learn English in order to qualify for lawful permanent resident status should address the increased demand for English instruction that would emerge as a result, in a way that leverages the success of adult education programs that already provide these services.
The first has to do with basic fairness and ensuring equal opportunity. A requirement to learn English in order to qualify for lawful permanent resident status shouldn’t penalize or place an unrealistic burden on those who have special learning challenges, such as:
- Those with limited education or literacy skills in their native language.
- Those who are caregivers of children and therefore may have more limited opportunities to attend English classes. Lack of childcare services is already a significant barrier that prevents many people from attending adult education classes—particularly women.
- Those who are elderly or disabled. For citizenship, those who are over a certain age and/or who have a disability may be granted an exemption from completing the English and civics tests. Similar kinds of considerations should be made for undocumented immigrants applying for the permanent resident status who are elderly/disabled.
It seems to me that consideration should be given to scrapping English proficiency altogether as a requirement and using satisfactory completion of some form of legitimate English language instruction over a certain period of time as sufficient to qualify. This would eliminate the problem of having to figure out what level of proficiency is going to count as sufficient, and it would largely (although not entirely) address the problem that the elderly/disabled may struggle to gain proficiency easily or quickly. One would still have to know English at certain level of proficiency to become a citizen (other than those who would be granted exceptions anyway).
The second basic principle is that any requirement to learn English in order to qualify for lawful permanent resident status should address the increased demand for low-cost English instruction that’s going to explode as a result, and in a way that leverages the success of adult education programs that already provide these services for free or at a limited cost. (I’m thinking here primarily of the adult English language and literacy programs funded at least in part by federal/state dollars—but also the privately funded nonprofits that are also key adult education providers in many communities.)
- While the current capacity of these programs may not be sufficient to meet new demand, it will be cheaper to leverage the existing capacity than to create new entities to provide this instruction.
- Moreover, this existing adult education system already has a track record of success in providing individuals with the English skills needed to successfully enter employment, improve their employment prospects, enroll in job training or in postsecondary education. The adult education system also has a track record in many states of providing adults with the opportunity to co-enroll in English language instruction while obtaining technical skills.
- Similarly, it doesn’t make sense for the English language requirement to establish its own measure(s) for English proficiency that does not align with those measures already in use by the adult education system in local communities.
Finally, while it’s probably not realistic to expect a big increase in federal expenditures for these programs to be included in this bill, we ought to at least strengthen what we have. Let’s encourage professional and private sector investment in expanded adult English language instruction. One way to do this would be to provide tax credits for businesses that partner with adult education programs to provide English instruction for their employees (or residents of the community)—a variation of an idea was included in the Menendez/Leahy immigration reform bill in 2010.
In addition, I can’t think of a good reason why this legislation shouldn’t include the authorization of the EL/Civics grant program under Title II of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). (WIA is the primary vehicle for federal investment in adult education in the U.S.) EL/Civics isn’t actually authorized by WIA but is a set-aside that has to be approved by Congressional appropriators every year. The lack of authorization leaves the program more vulnerable to elimination than other programs under WIA, at a time when we can least afford for that to happen.
Earlier this week I suggested a few broad adult education issues that might potentially be addressed in the bipartisan immigration reform bill the Senate hopes to release sometime in March.
But I hadn’t had a chance (until today) to look at what specific adult education provisions might have been proposed in prior immigration reform legislation. Most notably, I had not reviewed the not-so-old Democratic bill introduced by Senators Menendez (D-NJ) and Leahy (D-VT) late in 2010, which included a number of specific provisions designed to strengthen adult education in the context of immigrant integration. “The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2010” (SB 3932) not only included an expansion of federal investments in English literacy and civics education, but included other programs and policies designed to encourage English literacy instructional opportunities—such as tax credits for English literacy teachers and for businesses that provided English language instruction for their employees.
Sen. Menendez is one of the eight lead Senators hammering out the bipartisan bill we expect to see in a few weeks. I haven’t spoken to anyone about any conversations with Sen. Menendez on what might be in this new bill, and I don’t know if any of the adult education pieces in SB 3932 have come up during his discussions with his Republican colleagues. I don’t even have a solid sense of what my colleagues in the adult education field in general think about these provisions, although they look pretty good to me.
But since we know that Sen. Menendez is part of the team developing the new legislation, and that Sen. Leahy will have an influential role in the process as the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, it seems to me that it’s instructive to review what they were thinking back in 2010.