Adult School English as a Second Language and Citizenship Classes Must Be Offered Free Again – Let’s Keep It That Way!

Under California law, adult school English as a Second Language (ESL) and Citizenship classes must once again be offered free of charge. AB 189, a 2011 emergency measure allowing adult schools to charge for these classes until July 2015, expired this year, and was not renewed or extended.  AB 189 legitimized a haphazard pattern of charging for ESL and Citizenship classes that sprang up in the wake of California’s 2008 budget crisis and the resulting “categorical flexibility” that removed protections on state adult school funds.  While some districts chose not to charge for adult school ESL and Citizenship classes, others worked out their own systems for charging with no overall coordination at the state level or, often, consultation with neighboring districts. The result was a patchwork system of charges  that varied greatly from region to region as to whether students paid,  how much they  paid if there were fees,  and whether they paid by the year, by semester or by class.  This system has now been dismantled, at least for the present, and adult schools are again mandated to offer ESL and Citizenship classes free of charge.

The battle over whether to charge fees for adult school ESL and Citizenship classes is far from over.  During the 2015-2016 school year, while adult schools are adjusting to once again offering these classes free of charge, the California Department of Education  (CDE) and the Community College Chancellor’s Office  will be developing recommendations regarding  a statewide fee policy for adult education.  In current California policyspeak, “adult education” refers to both adult schools and community colleges, so community college noncredit programs should take note: the CDE and Chancellor’s Office may recommend fees for noncredit community college ESL classes as well.

If fees for both adult school and noncredit community college ESL and Citizenship classes go into effect permanently, California stands to lose an infrastructure of free ESL instruction that has been in existence, in one form or another, since the late 19th Century.  In a state with a large immigrant population, and a great reliance on immigrant labor, destroying this infrastructure would be a risky gamble, to say the least.

However, the CDE and the Chancellor’s Office could also recommend that adult school and community college noncredit ESL and Citizenship classes continue to be offered free of charge.  There are indications that there may be support at the state level for keeping these classes free.  The fact that AB 189, which would originally have permanently legalized fees for ESL and Citizenship, could not pass without a sunset date is one such indication.  The fact that AB 189 was not extended is another.

At a March 11, 2015 joint hearing before the California Assembly Education, Assembly Higher Education, and Senate Education committees, representatives of the CDE and Community College Chancellor’s office made a final report on the AB86 consortia.  One of their findings was that the financial burden on adult students needs to be reduced, and they reported that they had initially recommended that there be no fees for classes offered through the consortia, which include ESL and Citizenship classes.  While this recommendation was resisted by adult schools , who said they could not survive without the fees, the fact that the CDE and  Community College Chancellors’ Office  made this joint recommendation is yet another indication that there may be support at the state level for keeping ESL and Citizenship classes free.

Undoubtedly, the loss of the ability to charge has been a blow to at least some districts that had come to rely on student fees for ESL classes.  The state has finally restored protected funding for adult schools, but just barely.  The Adult Education Block Grant (AEBG) funds adult schools in the amount their districts were funding them at the very nadir or their decline, in 2012-2013.  The block grant funding doesn’t come anywhere near giving California’s devastated adult schools the money they need to rebuild.  And, of course, it does not take into account funds they were getting from other sources in order to survive, such as student fees.

However, charging fees for ESL and Citizenship classes was never more than an inadequate band aid over the gaping wound of woefully inadequate funding for adult schools. It may have allowed adult schools to do a little more than they might otherwise have been able to do; it certainly didn’t save them if their districts decided to take all their state funds. Now that charges for ESL and Citizenship classes are again illegal, the best course of action is to advocate for adequate funding for adult schools, rather than putting a lot of energy into trying to get the fees restored.

The CDE/Community College Chancellor’s Office recommendation that fees be abolished was consistent with the mandate of the AB86 Consortia, which is to remove barriers to education for California’s adults.  Because financial considerations can definitely be a barrier, arguing for the reinstatement of fees that have been abolished will be an uphill battle at best.

AB 189 was discriminatory.  It allowed fees for ESL and Citizenship classes, but did not authorize fees for adult school Basic Skills and High School Diploma programs.  Almost certainly the marginalized status of immigrants played a role in the decision to charge for classes that serve them while providing that other kinds of classes must still be offered free.

It is easy to see why school districts, and some policymakers, would favor charging ESL students for their classes.  There are a lot of them.  ESL programs are usually by far the largest program in any adult school; in tough times, administrators must look at all the ESL students and think, “If only we could make them pay!”  So, during the economic crisis, the state passed a temporary law that allowed California’s financially ravaged  adult schools to balance their budgets on the backs of ESL students who were also suffering grievously from the financial collapse.  Immigrants, partly because they did not speak English well and did not have adequate access to information about how things work in the US, were prime targets of scams associated with the financial crisis.  Many lost jobs and homes at the same time they were having to come up with money for ESL classes.

Now, ESL students have helped adult schools weather their crisis. Adult schools have dedicated funding again, inadequate though it may be. California is experiencing a strong economic recovery.  We are no longer dealing with an emergency, and are instead in a position to make sound educational policy.  In this calmer situation, hopefully, educational leaders and policymakers will start looking at California’s large population of adult English learners as a group of students with unique educational needs and challenges, rather than simply as so many cash cows.  In considering whether to charge fees for ESL classes, policymakers should consider the following:

  1. It takes between 5 and 7 years to learn a second language well. Learning a new language is a long haul, and takes persistence over time. ESL students are busy adults, and their learning is often interrupted by changing work schedules, family responsibilities, and health issues. Charging for classes would add yet another interruption for low income students, who would have to stop coming to school whenever they were strapped for funds.  In the course of 5 to 7 years, such a situation is likely to come up at least once, if not multiple times, for students of modest means.
  2. Twelve to fifteen hours of class time a week is optimal for language learning. This means the students who learn the fastest are those who take more than one ESL class at a time. Students sense this, and students who have the time will sometimes enroll in morning, afternoon and evening classes in order to accelerate their learning. Charging by the class would put this effective learning strategy beyond the reach of many.
  3. ESL students need classes in their communities. ESL students often lack access to transportation; many walk or bike to class. Mothers of school age children fit in their learning around their children’s school schedule, and need classes near schools their children attend so they can pick their kids up after class.  Classes embedded in communities where immigrants live and work, in local K-12 school classrooms, churches, or community based organizations, are an excellent way to overcome the transportation barrier and serve these students.  But charging fees puts pressure on adult schools to centralize their services.  There are financial accountability and safety concerns with teachers collecting money in class, so students need to go to a central site to pay.  Those who cannot make it to the central site are locked out of classes.
  4. ESL students have plenty of skin in the game. One argument for charging fees is that you want students to have “skin in the game”, in other words, they won’t try hard in classes they haven’t paid for. But no one has more skin in the game than an immigrant trying to survive in a country where she doesn’t speak the language. She is surrounded every day by spoken and written language she doesn’t understand. She’s afraid to answer the phone because she might not be able to understand the caller.  And when her child asks her for help with homework she can’t read, her heart is in the game, too.  An extra $15, $30 or even $50 isn’t going to make much of a difference in terms of her commitment.
  5. Publicly funded ESL classes are a good investment. Educated workers earn more and bring more money into the community. Educated parents become involved in their children’s schools and help their children succeed academically. ESL classes connect families to services and information; students become involved in their communities and even have better health outcomes because they learn about nutrition , learn safety measures and  find out where to get medical attention.  ESL instruction does not benefit the student alone; it benefits the entire community in which the student lives.  Public money invested in ESL classes pays off handsomely in the form of stronger families, improved community health, and a more skilled workforce.
  6. ESL instruction for adults is properly part of public education. Without being able to read the minds of the authors of AB 189, it isn’t possible to know exactly why the bill authorizes charges for adult ESL classes, but not for Adult Basic Education (the equivalent of an elementary school education) or High School Diploma classes. One possible explanation is that Adult Basic Education and High School Diploma programs complete the mission of the K-12 schools by providing free instruction for adults equivalent to what children receive in the public schools.  This is a very sensible policy decision, but it is important to realize that ESL students are also receiving a basic education.  ESL students are often promoted into Adult Basic Education programs when they reach the top level of ESL.

Free classes for immigrant adults, including English classes, grew up right alongside public education for children in California, and are not separate from it.  The first free evening program for adults, established in San Francisco in 1871, predates free public high school by several decades.  Implementing fees for adult ESL classes would constitute a radical break from a tradition that goes back to California’s first few decades as a state.  California has been through financial ups and downs before, many times since 1871, without having to break with this tradition.  Even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, free ESL classes were maintained.  In the midst of a strong economic recovery, and with a mandate to bring down barriers for adult learners, what excuse do we have to start charging now?

Whatever your thoughts about fees for adult ESL classes, for or against, lawmakers and policymakers need to hear from you.  Here is a list of public officials who should be contacted about this issue:

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson

California Department of Education

1430 N Street

Sacramento, CA  95814-5901

California Community College Chancellor’s Office

Karen Gilmer, Assistant to Chancellor Brice Harris

kgilmer@ccco.edu

(916) 322-4005

Senator Kevin de León

Senate President Pro Tempore

State Capitol, Room 205

Sacramento, CA  95814

Assembly Member Toni G. Atkins

Speaker of the Assembly

State Capitol

P.O. Box 94549-0078

Senator Carol Liu

Chair, Senate Education Committee

State Capitol, Room 5097

Sacramento, CA   95814

Assembly Member Patrick O’Donnell

Chair, Assembly Committee on Education

State Capitol, Room 4166

P.O. Box 942849

Sacramento, CA  94249-0070

Assembly Member José Medina

Chair, Assembly Higher Education Committee

State Capitol

P.O. Box 942849

Sacramento, CA  94249-0061

Assembly Member Luis Alejo

Chair, Latino Legislative Caucus

State Capitol

P.O. Box 942849

Sacramento, CA  94249-0030

Assembly Member Das Williams

Chair, Asian and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus

State Capitol

P.O. Box 942849

Sacramento, CA  94249-0037

And your local representatives.  For Richmond, San Pablo, El Cerrito, Berkeley, and part of Oakland these are:

Senator Loni Hancock

1515 Clay Street, Suite 2202

Oakland, CA  94612

Assembly Member Tony Thurmond

1515 Clay Stret, Suite 2201

Oakland, CA 94612

www.asmdc.org/thurmond

You can find your local representative here: http://findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov/

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