English Speakers Desired: America’s ESL Challenge

By Khalil Abdullah, New America Media
Friday August 10, 2007

WASHINGTON—Had President Bush been able to enact an immigration bill that legalized undocumented immigrants this year, the result would have produced “a one-time shock to the ESL (English-as-a-second-language) training system” in the United States, according to Michael Fix. 

Fix co-authored “Adult English Language Instruction in the United States: Determining Need and Investing Wisely,” a report issued by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). The report estimates that an additional $200 million annually, for six years, would have to be spent in the United States to attain English proficiency for the country’s 5.8 million adult lawful permanent residents (LPRs). The combined state and federal government spending on English-as-a-second-language (ESL) programs is already more than $1 billion annually. 

Yet, assuming the passage of immigration reform at some date, it will most certainly include the condition that undocumented workers learn English to qualify for citizenship. Using assumptions about the current undocumented immigrant population, the report estimates “that approximately 6.4 million unauthorized immigrants in the country will require English language instruction in order to gain the necessary skills to pass the naturalization exam and obtain LPR status or to fully participate in the country’s civic life.” 

It is the 6.4 million cohort, when added to the 5.8 million LPRs, which gives pause for serious concern about the capacity and effectiveness of an ESL system that already has glaring structural flaws. “In the event of a legalization program for today’s unauthorized population, we project an increase of $2.9 billion a year in new costs for six years .… we assume that none of the $1 billion in current funding would serve the legalizing population,” the report said.  

In addition, the report noted that 1.8 million immigrants enter the United States annually, many with limited English skills, and few educational options are available once they arrive. They add to the already 23 million Americans who reported themselves as having limited English proficiency in 2005.  

The timing of the report’s release speaks to the possibility of elevating the public discourse about ESL funding needs before comprehensive immigration reform is back before Congress, and as changes are made to other federal programs that could impact immigration issues. Demetrios Papademetriou, MPI’s co-founder and president, moderated a July 30 panel discussion about the report’s findings and recommendations.  

Papademetriou framed the necessity for the United States to more fully fund ESL initiatives as an economic imperative in order to remain globally competitive. “There is no real growth in the native [U.S.] labor force in the next five to 10 years,” he said, adding that, in combination with other factors -- including the impending retirement of the baby-boom generation -- the projected negative outcomes without an English-literate populace should force revision of laissez-faire attitudes toward ESL programs. 

Papademetriou explained that the notion of viewing ESL funding as a benevolent or charitable act misses “the consuming economic self-interest” that should be driving funding scenarios at the federal, state, and local level. 

As a simplistic example, a more literate workforce fills higher paying jobs and thus produces economic benefits that ripple through the economy. Panelists cited data that show English-literate immigrants are lower users of social services as just one of the compelling self-interest fiscal rationales for states to become pro-active about better ESL funding and instruction. Non-English speakers, by contrast, stay on welfare longer, for example. 

Currently, ESL is partially funded by various federal programs, including ones that allow states to match dollars. But states match at varying levels; demography is changing as well. While the report showed California facing the largest numerical ESL training challenge, the recent, rapid influx of undocumented workers to the southeastern United States will force that region to make hard choices about ESL funding priorities.  

Margie McHugh, a co-author of the report, noted that the $30 billion revenue captured by Social Security from undocumented immigrants is a possible source of financing for ESL programs. McHugh said the $30 billion estimate is derived from census-based data calculations between 1994 and 2004. As those funds won’t be returned to individual undocumented claimants, they could be the revenue source to fund competitive, innovative, ESL grant awards to the states if there was political consensus. 

One of the systemic difficulties facing ESL, McHugh pointed out, is the “need to professionalize a system where most teachers are part time.” The cost of that goal is captured in the MPI report’s estimate of the additional $200 million needed for ESL to minimally meet projected demand to service the LPR community.  

The report called for implementing a comprehensive system of quality control measures of state ESL programs. “Currently, conventional practices such as random visits, audits, and scheduled program reviews by state monitors are not required,” the report said. 

One of the report’s central recommendations was to “require an annual report to Congress” on the status of ESL implementation. Congress would then be better able to assess the intersection of immigration issues, data, policy, and programs to plan for America’s future needs. Though America has half of the world’s cities with immigrant populations of over one million each, it is lagging behind other countries in addressing ESL needs, according to the report. 

The need for an annual Congressional report, or at the least, a biennial one, derives in part from Fix’s observation that there is “no national language policy” in the United States. Furthermore, during the contentious immigration debate, Fix said, “immigration integration took a backseat during those deliberations” to politics. 

In addition to Papademetriou, Fix, and McHugh, the panel was rounded out by Brigitte Marshall, Israel David Mendoza, and Heide Spruck Wrigley. As panelists, each brought incisive observations about the complexities of ESL funding realties, comments about differences in state approaches to ESL funding, and some brutal truth as well. 

“Level 6,” the highest rung of ESL instruction, “is not enough to succeed in college level coursework,” according to Mendoza, the Director of the Adult Basic Education Office at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. In his critique of the inadequacy of current ESL funding, he called for increased access to the Internet for ESL programs with a compatible e-learning curriculum, something unlikely to occur, in his opinion, until the “big players,” like the Gates Foundation and other philanthropies, are brought into ESL funding streams. 

Marshall, who is the director of the Oakland Adult Education Program in California, had several cautionary observations about reforming ESL, noting, “what gets measured gets done.” She spoke to the need to move beyond simply looking at numerical aggregate ESL needs in order to design programs that take into the account the full range of support services often needed by ESL learners. 

During the presentation, data was cited that immigrants, while compromising 15 percent of the American work force, account for 45 percent of the low-wage workers. Unsurprisingly then, said Wrigley, president of LiteracyWork International, there are practical ESL innovations being implemented by corporations. She said McDonald’s, for instance, is beginning to provide Spanish language instruction for its English-speaking personnel as well as the more traditional ESL training for Spanish-literate ones.  

Ultimately, said Wrigley, often what is underestimated is the desire that many immigrants have to learn English, an accomplishment that the panelists agreed is a powerful determinant of success in the United States. “If I learn English, I can help other people just like me,” is a phrase Wrigley said she hears often. She said this desire extends past the requirement to simply master the civics test of the immigration exam, or the practical use of getting a job, but is rooted strongly in the ideal of civic participation in a better America. 

The report can be found at www.migrationpolicy.org.