Against Fees for Adult English as a Second Language and Citizenship Classes

California law currently requires that adult schools offer English as a Second Language (ESL) and Citizenship classes free of charge.  Nonetheless, some California adult schools began charging fees for these classes in 2009, when “categorical flexibility” was put into place by the California Budget Act of 2009, temporarily removing protections for adult education funding and allowing K-12 districts to appropriate adult education money for any other educational purpose.  The message to adult schools, from the state and from school districts, was:  “You’re on your own. Find a way to survive if you can.”  Under the circumstances, it isn’t surprising that districts turned to charging  fees, reasoning that, since much of the law regarding adult education had temporarily been suspended by the legislature, the laws regarding offering certain classes free must have been suspended, too. However, some districts became skittish about the legality of the practice, and some actually stopped charging.  Now a bill pending in the state legislature, AB 189 (Eng), would explicitly legalize the practice until 2015, when categorical flexibility is currently scheduled to sunset. 

Charging fees for adult ESL and Citizenship classes sounds like a reasonable idea when you are sitting in an office looking at a spreadsheet and trying desperately to make it balance.  From the streets where adult education classes are actually taught, in the eye of a hurricane of home foreclosures, a landscape of increasingly boarded-up houses and longer food pantry lines, it looks a little less reasonable, even slightly crazy.  If AB 189 passes in its current form, adult schools will be under even more pressure to charge for ESL and Citizenship classes, since this will be the main remedy for their distress offered by the legislature.  While the bill is still in play, it makes sense to look at some of the reasons not to charge, and to uphold California’s longstanding commitment to making English and Citizenship classes available to as many people as possible, regardless of ability to pay.

1.  Adult Education is an investment in California’s infrastructure:  The draft California strategic plan for adult education, quoting the University of Southern California Demographic Futures Project, points out that 99% of workforce growth in California over the next 25 years will consist of immigrants (39%) and the children of immigrants (60%) “Linking Adults to Opportunity”, page 7.  The plan also points out that as a community’s workforce becomes more educated, the community benefits from increased revenues resulting from the increased earning power of the workforce.   The strategic plan also enumerates a number of other returns on investment California receives from adult education, including  improved public safety, better family and individual health, and improvements to children’s education when parents become more educated.  These are the “ripple effects” of adult education, well known to adult educators, who observe them constantly in their students.  The strategic plan can be viewed  at:  The section detailing return on investment is on pages 12-15.

Limiting access to English classes for immigrants by charging fees would set off negative ripple effects for communities.  Not only would immigrants have less English skills, they would also earn less, be less healthy, and be less able to help their children succeed in school (this last should be particularly concerning, if these children will indeed make up 60% of the growth of California’s workforce over the next 25 years).  Viewed in this light, charging for ESL classes makes up yet another figure in the sorry pattern of “austerity measures” that buy us a future that is both more miserable and more expensive.

Supporters of public education must begin to defend the truth that education is a public good, properly supported by public funding.  Every time educators advocate charging more for public education, they accept a framework that characterizes education as asomehow a drain on the public purse  and/or a commodity that only benefits the student and must be purchased by the student.  This strengthens the arguments of those who wish to weaken public education and ultimately to privatize it. 

2. “Reasonable” fees tend to go up over time:  A look at what is happening to the U.C. system, state colleges and community colleges now should be a sobering warning.  Fees are a slippery slope.  Right now, adult schools want to charge “reasonable fees” of about $25 or $30 per semester.  But once you start charging, the “Why don’t you just charge a little more?”  argument begins to gain traction, becoming the answer to every financial problem.  Currently, AB 189 will authorize charging fees only until 2015, when the “flexibility” period is supposed to sunset.  Originally, flexibility was supposed to sunset in 2013, but districts, now addicted to flexibility, cried out for extensions.  Now will adult schools, addicted to charging fees for ESL classes, cry out for an extension as 2015 approaches (and districts will probably once again be demanding extensions of flexibility)? Do you see where this is going?  Better not to start.

3.  Some fee charging behaviors discourage good language learning behaviors:  It takes five years to learn a language well, and can take considerably longer, especially for adults who have to attend to a variety of other concerns.  Sustained effort is more effective than a “stop and start” approach, and if adult students have to take breaks from their language learning in order to scrape together the money for another class, it will be one more source of interruptions to their learning process.  Adults often have to take breaks from their language classes because of changes to work schedule, family emergencies, and other pressing concerns.  They don’t need one more reason to interrupt their learning.

Students realize that language learning increases with exposure to the language, and they take as many classes as they can.  Some students go to classes morning, afternoon and evening when their schedule permits.  If schools begin to rely on student fees to support their services, they will naturally want to charge for every class, thus discouraging the most motivated students from taking the multiple classes that will provide them with the best chance of success.

4.  Charging fees discourages offering classes at a variety of sites, which is the best way to serve the immigrant community.  Charging fees is relatively easy for adult schools that only provide classes at one centralized site.  It is much harder for adult schools that open classes in churches, community based organizations and K-12 schools throughout the service area.  Yet these scattered classes are often the best way to serve low-income immigrants, who frequently have limited access to transportation.  When adult ESL classes are dispersed over a wide area, the question of how to collect the fees is much more complex.  Students often can’t travel to the central office to pay, yet collecting money at the class site puts an undue burden on the teacher and can even raise safety issues, as it may not be safe to collect and store money at the site.

Some Questions about Common Arguments for Charging Fees:

1. Does charging fees save some adult school programs?  Apparently, some programs claim this is the case.  However, if the experience of West Contra Costa Adult Education, where I work, is typical, it is hard to see how this can be true.  We are not currently charging  fees, due to a decision made by our district last year.  But we did charge fees for about half of last year, not just for ESL and Citizenship, but also for all other programs that had previously been offered free.  We charged   around $30  per year, about the going rate in our area.  The difference in revenues from the previous year when we didn’t charge fees for these classes was about $10,000.  If we hadn’t stopped charging midyear, we would have made about $20,000 extra.  That would just about have paid for the extra clerical work of charging the fees. 

2.  Does charging fees increase student persistence?  This argument sounds a bit strange to anyone who has ever taught in a community college, where students pay for their classes but are famously AWOL at least some of the time.  However, some adult schools make this argument, though evidence tends to be very anecdotal.  Sometimes when you scratch the surface you find that attendance is somewhat up in the more advanced classes where students tend to have more resources, and has dropped off abysmally in the lower level classes where students tend to have fewer  resources .

West Contra Costa had an interesting experience with this back when we were charging fees, because, purely by chance, we had a control group.  We had two classes where teachers were paid out of a grant, and we did not charge for those classes.  All of our classes were full last year and many had waitlists, but none were fuller or had longer waitlists than the free classes.  The free classes closed up in September with waitlists and stayed waitlisted for the rest of the year.  That would not happen if the majority of the students in the class were not coming consistently for the entire year: classic persistence. 

Persistence for adult education students is a complex matter, affected by changing work schedules, family responsibilities, personal health, and a variety of other factors.  Hopefully, adult schools hoping to increase student persistence will examine this issue in all its facets and problem solve accordingly, rather than just charging fees and expecting that to solve the problem.

3.  Students are willing to pay.  Yes, when you ask them, students will say they are willing to pay.  Of course they are.  They are desperate for English classes, and probably would, indeed, sacrifice quite a bit to pay for a class.  However, whether or not they really can pay, and can sustain payments over time to the point where the language instruction will actually begin to do them some good, is a separate issue.

4. Students say they can pay.  Students in West Contra Costa typically say, when asked, that they can pay.  Yet the vast majority of K-12 schools in West Contra Costa are Title I schools, which means parents can’t afford to buy their children lunch. Many of the adult ESL classes are in these schools, yet students in these classes report that they can pay, too.  Again, they probably would do their best to pay.  However, even those who know they can’t pay might be reluctant to say so publicly. 

5.  What about waivers?  Fee waivers would mitigate some of the worst effects of charging fees, such as shutting low income students out altogether.  They don’t address  some of the structural issues, like the  potential pressure on adult schools to charge for every class  and centralize  teaching spaces the better to collect fees.  Fee waivers also create yet more paperwork associated with fees, and can stigmatize students who need waivers. 

Would I rather see adult schools close their doors or reduce classes than charge fees?  No, of course not, but why are these the only options in a state with the eighth largest economy in the world?  Recently even President Obama has been saying that there is nothing courageous about balancing  budgets on the backs of those who are poor and have no power.  At some point, we have to draw the line.  Insisting on maintaining California’s historic commitment to keeping English and Citizenship classes open to all seems like a good place to start.


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