LOS ANGELES — When the Adult School in Fontana, California, opens its enrollment office each day, there’s always a long line, and not enough classes to accommodate everyone who wants to sign up.
Until recently, California law set aside funds specifically for adult education. But to help schools meet funding shortages during the recent recession, state legislators let them use that money for other programs. That’s meant a 90 percent cut for Fontana’s adult school
And no room for Maria Flores in an advanced beginner English course. “They put me in the basic course. And that’s ‘Hello, Good Morning, How are you?’ I already know that. I need to practice, but often, there’s no room.”
Principal Cindy Gleason said many students have to settle for English classes that don’t match their abilities. And, with funds so short, she’s not sure how long her school can maintain even this level of service.
“Sometimes it can be discouraging not to know whether additional cuts are still coming and how we’ll be able to offer the services that our students and community need,” Gleason said.
With immigration reform a top policy priority this year, President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of senators who are drafting legislation agree on one thing: millions of undocumented immigrants will have to start learning English before they can begin the legalization process.
But that’s more than 10 times as many students as there are classroom spaces, and recession-battered school districts are still cutting or eliminating English classes.
The crowding is especially bad in California, home to one of every four non-English-speaking immigrants in the United States. In Los Angeles, the adult education program has been cut by 75 percent.
At one time, the district offered English at hundreds of neighborhood sites, with classes held during the day and in the evening to accommodate immigrants’ work schedules. This year, those leases are not being renewed and teaching hours will be reduced.
Margie McHugh of the Migration Policy Institute predicts a tsunami of unmet demand for English training all across the country.
"A provision driving people trying to learn English and prove that they've learned English will touch off demand that is pretty certainly not going to be able to be met," McHugh said. "All across the country there are very severe capacity issues with systems being able to meet the existing demand. Overall in the U.S., we've lost about 25 percent of the capacity of the system. All told, nationally, there are only about 725,000 seats.”
In California, adult education administrator Andres Ameigeiras hopes to fill the gap with regional educational centers, like one which offers automotive repair and other vocational classes by day and English by night.
“We’re moving to move as many people for the dollar as we can," he said. "The biggest bang for the buck as the old saying goes.”
California Governor Jerry Brown wants to take responsibility for adult education away from school districts, whose main focus is children, and turn it over to community colleges.
But English language teachers caution that might not work for students who need basic one-on-one instruction.
At the nonprofit Centro Latino for Literacy near downtown Los Angeles, English instruction for some students starts with teaching them to read and write in Spanish.
Centro president Mari Riddle said there are some 216,000 functionally illiterate Spanish-speaking immigrants in Los Angeles alone. She doubts many would succeed at a community college.
“We’ve had students that come in and say, ‘I have walked past LA Trade Tech for years." Riddle said. "I would never venture in to that campus. It’s too overwhelming. It’s too daunting.'”
Adult schools across the country are experimenting with computerized English instruction, hoping that the software will help substitute for the one-on-one attention beginning students need.
Margie McHugh of the Migration Policy Institute is skeptical. As immigration reform moves forward, she expects increasing calls for federal financial support to help make up the teacher shortage.