Against Fees for Adult School ESL and Citizenship Classes: An Open Letter to California Council for Adult Education

To: California Council for Adult Education (CCAE)

Dear CCAE,

As I renew my membership in CCAE, I wish to register my opposition to legislation that will lock in fees for adult school ESL and Citizenship classes.  As an ESL instructor in an adult school that has managed to survive without charging fees for these classes, I am very concerned that legislation allowing districts to  permanently charge for ESL and Citizenship  classes would greatly damage our program and shut many of our students out of an education.

As recently as 2010, California law required that ESL and Citizenship classes be offered free. In 2011, as an emergency response to the budget crisis of 2008 and the  resulting severe defunding of adult schools, the state passed legislation, which CCAE supported, that temporarily allowed adult schools to charge for ESL and Citizenship classes. While the legislation as originally written would have allowed districts to charge permanently, it was amended to sunset on July 1st of this year.  As I recall, CCAE even supported the version of the bill that would have allowed charging permanently, though the bill did not pass in that form.

Ever since that legislation passed in 2011, I have been anxiously watching to see what would happen when it expired.  Here is a link to what I wrote about the legislation when it passed:  https://saveouradultschool.wordpress.com/2011/10/15/ab-189-has-become-law/

I stand by what I said at the time. Charging fees for adult school ESL and Citizenship classes is a blow to the principle of public education in California and shuts many of the most vulnerable immigrants out of access to basic literacy services.  Under the new legislation governing California adult schools, AB104/SB77, we have a mandate to eliminate barriers to adult education for our students. Charging fees for ESL and Citizenship classes erects a barrier rather than taking one down.  We need to find ways to eliminate fees, not make them permanent.

Our adult school actually tried to charge fees briefly, but it was simply unworkable with our model.  We are located in a financially distressed urban area, where many of our ESL students are low income and have limited access to transportation.  We accommodate them by offering classes at sites throughout the community, so that our students can walk to school and attend classes in their own neighborhoods.  We offer classes at 15 off-campus sites; many of our classes take place at elementary schools in the district. Most of the schools where we offer classes are Title I schools, which means more than 50% of the families are eligible for a free or reduced price lunch.  At many of the schools where we have classes, the percentage of families eligible for free or reduce price lunch is more like 80 or 90 per cent.

In addition to effectively providing access to English classes for our students, our model increases parent involvement in the schools and helps to implement the Full Service Community Schools model to which the two largest cities within our district, as well as the district itself, are committed.  But our experiment with charging fees was a disaster.  Having the teacher collect fees at the site would have been unsafe, so students were required to go to the main campus to register.  Many had no way to get to the main campus, and so were unable to enroll.  Desperate teachers piled students into their cars and drove them to the main campus, even though this is against school rules and incurred possible liability for the school.   Worse yet, our students were stigmatized because they had not been paying before.  Those who managed to make it to the main office were often treated badly by the office staff, who considered them freeloaders.  The chaos and poisonous atmosphere of that time are painful to recall.

Things got so bad that we stopped charging after six months.  And we survived.  We didn’t have to close our doors or even eliminate classes.  In six months, we collected about $20,000 in fees – probably not even enough to cover the cost of the extra clerical help needed to process them.

This is why I say that legislation that would permanently allow charges for ESL and Citizenship classes would damage our program.  Charging fees may work at adult schools where all classes take place at the same site.  Adult schools that have accommodated their students by providing classes at diversified sites are punished when they are expected to institute fees.  Adult schools in more well-to-do areas have an advantage when it comes to charging fees; they have more access to students who have the ability to pay.  Adult schools in low income areas lose students when they charge fees, even modest ones. Their students are shut out of educational opportunities, and the adult school loses federal WIOA funding due to lower enrollment, resulting in fewer payment points for the school.

The ability to charge fees quickly becomes a mandate to charge fees.  At our mid-term WASC review this year, the WASC representative asked us pointedly whether we charge fees for ESL classes and how we afford to offer classes without charging.  The subtext of this interchange was that it might go hard with us at our next WASC review if we still were not charging, even though we have been successfully offering ESL and Citizenship classes without charging for years.

The expectation that we charge fees for ESL and Citizenship classes could change the face of our program dramatically.  We would probably end up closing all classes that take place off campus, reducing the number of ESL classes we offer from 35 to 4.

I know there is an argument that charging for ESL classes causes students to value their classes more highly and take them more seriously.  My experience simply does not bear this out.  When we were charging for classes, we had two grant-funded classes for which we still did not charge.  Attendance and persistence for those two classes were excellent.  I also find that our immigrant students are highly responsible and hard working.  They hold down two or three jobs, raise families, often support families in the home country as well, and somehow find time to go to school.  The argument that we have to make them more responsible by charging them money, while undoubtedly well-meaning, strikes me as condescending.

Worse yet, if we adopt the idea that our adult school students, who tend to be in their late 20s to 40s, need to be taught responsibility like a bunch of 15-year-olds, this construction may blind us to the realities of their lives.  We may be prevented from creating solutions that would really allow struggling students to stay in school if we rely on charging money to solve everything.  Effective interventions like connecting students in difficult family situations to services, or making it easy for students to transfer to classes that fit their schedule when their work schedules suddenly change, may elude us if we think our students are feckless and assume that when they stop coming to school it is because they just don’t care because we didn’t charge them enough.

I hope adult schools that believe their student outcomes are better since they started charging fees will take a hard look at whether the improvement comes from excluding students who are harder to serve because they are struggling more.  The student with a highly erratic work schedule who gets in an education when she can, the student with a health issue that is draining his finances and sometimes prevents him from coming to school, the student with overwhelming family responsibilities who makes it to class whenever she can—these students are discouraged from trying to get an education by fees. Their absence may make the school’s data look good, but it does not improve the literacy rate in California.

I understand that the state government has basically made a hash of adult schools over the last eight years, and that we are all surviving the best we can.  We are struggling with a haphazard overhaul of adult education that has many grey areas, some contradictory mandates, and some badly thought out procedures such as a funding schedule that makes it very difficult to plan for the future.  For those adult schools that really need to charge fees a bit longer in order to survive, I would support a gradual phase-out of fees accompanied by vigorous advocacy to the state for adequate funding for adult school ESL and Citizenship programs.  But I cannot support legislation that would lock in fees permanently.

Under the Regional Consortia and the new laws governing adult education, we have a mandate to remove barriers to education for adults.  One barrier came down on July 1st of this year.  How can we, in good conscience, put it up again?

Sincerely,

Kristen Pursley

CC:

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson

Senator Kevin de León, Senate President Pro Tempore

Assembly Member Toni G. Atkins, Speaker of the Assembly

Senator Carol Liu, Chair, Senate Education Committee

Assembly Member Patrick O’Donell, Chair, State Assembly Committee on Education

Assembly Member José Medina, Chair, Assembly Higher Education Committee

Assembly Member Luis Alejo, Chair, Latino Legislative Caucus

Assembly Member Das Williams, Chair, Asian and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus

Senator Loni Hancock

Assembly Member Tony Thurmond

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2 Responses

  1. Well-said/written, Kristen. Thank you!

    Pat

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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