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So Many of Those Who Don't Speak the Language Can Find No English Class to Go To

August 28, 1988|CARMEN A. ESTRADA | Carmen A. Estrada is an attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty in Los Angeles

California is predominantly an English-speaking state. However, Los Angeles County has the largest number of non-English speaking residents in the state, with 31.4% of its residents speaking a language other than English at home. For many, the only hope of learning English is to enroll in an English class offered by a local public school. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Unified School District is unable to offer much hope to thousands of persons seeking English language instruction.

The school district, with federal financial assistance, offers English classes to all amnesty applicants. But not all persons seeking to learn English are amnesty applicants. The thousands of non-English speaking persons who are ineligible for amnesty-sponsored English classes and cannot afford to enroll in private courses can only be put on a waiting list for future school district openings.

The school district is currently reviewing its proposed 1988-89 budget, which is scheduled for final adoption Monday. The proposed budget for the district, which is the largest in the state, totals an estimated $3.5 billion. The board has been meeting to consider changes in the budget. While the board deliberates on whether to spend the public's money on sprinklers for school lawns or to subsidize adult classes in home economics or parenting, thousands of adult students seeking English classes are unable to enroll because no classes are available.

Last September, the school district's adult ESL waiting list consisted of more than 40,000 names. Today, the available classes are still filled to capacity.

These ESL classes are paid for primarily with state funds, which are increasingly scarce because of a statewide cap that limits local school districts' adult program monies to a 2% increase each school year. The Los Angeles district spends 60% of its state adult-education funds for ESL classes. Realistically, the need for adult classes outstrips the available state monies.

The state adult-education funding cap limits the district's overall adult-education resources but does not bar the school district and its board from taking other action that will guarantee the availability of ESL classes. For example, the board can shift some of its limited state adult-education funds so that more than 57% of the funds are used for ESL classes. The state cap on adult funds does not limit a school board's discretion on how to spend its adult-education funds or which classes to prioritize. Of course, shifting adult monies to offer more ESL classes will result in fewer adult classes offered in other subjects. But the importance of teaching Los Angeles residents English is a significant priority that overshadows offering classes in other areas. Moreover, any shift of funds will be temporary, only until the waiting list for ESL classes diminishes. The school board can also allocate more of its local funds, including lottery monies, toward establishing ESL classes. At most, it will take less than 1% of its $3.5 billion budget to pay for enough classes to eliminate the current waiting list.

People unable to speak English face enormous social and personal obstacles. For them, learning English is not a luxury--it is a basic necessity that will enable them to participate in society, obtain employment or apply for citizenship. These poor, non-English speaking adults live in an underclass of people who are unable to read, write or speak in basic English that even an eighth-grade child can master.

It is the duty of a local public school to teach English to eligible students, whether they are children or adults, to ensure that they are proficient in the language and can participate in society at large. Sincethe turn of the century, California public schools have offered classes to non-English speaking adults. Each generation of non-English speakers has mastered the English language, usually with the assistance of our public school system, and have gone on to contribute to the area's rich diversity.

The dramatic increase in the number of persons seeking ESL classes and being turned away is a recent phenomenon. In a rare concurrence of public opinion, we find that groups as diverse as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and U.S. English agree that access to English language instruction is a high public priority.

More can be done to eliminate the waiting list for ESL classes so that all non-English speaking persons have a seat in an English class. Those who are on the waiting list are the least able to organize and confront the board to change its policy, unlike parents outraged at school busing or transfer policies. As long as adults who want to learn English are waiting in line, all of us are waiting for the school district to understand the proper priorities for its funds.

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