The ABCs of Austerity: Adult Literacy Classes Face Budget Axe

Issue 235

Lydia McMullen-Laird Apr 26, 2018

Julio Forbes sneaks into the intermediate ESL class almost half an hour late, red folder in hand and ready to learn. He joins the class of students from Colombia, Russia and Korea. Forbes is a 35-year-old a doctor from the Dominican Republic who’s come to the United States looking for a better life. But he’s unemployed at the moment — and he won’t have much luck in the job market until he improves his English.

Forbes is not alone. He’s one of the 2.2 million people in New York City who lack English proficiency or a high school diploma. The $90 million dollars required to run adult literacy  programs, which comes from a combination of city, state and federal funding, serves 61,000 people, a mere 3 percent of those in need.

An additional $12 million dollars was added last year for adult literacy programs, but advocates are worried some of their programs may be in jeopardy after the release of Mayor de Blasio’s preliminary budget for the 2019 fiscal year failed to include the additional funding. The New York City Coalition for Adult Literacy has been organizing rallies to demand the restoration of the funding.

The Coalition is not just advocating for additional 2019 funding, but for multi-year funding that would allow programs to thrive  in the long term. According to a statement on the Coalition’s recommendations for the 2019 fiscal year, “One-year funding makes it difficult to operate programs… funding instability means programs cannot hire full-time staff with benefits and lose their best teachers as they search for more stable employment.”

Forbes struggles through the exercise on past participles. “Have you ever eaten frog’s legs?” he asked his classmate Carlos Mendez, a 40-year-old porter who is hoping to improve his English so he can get a promotion at work. “No I haven’t” answers Mendez. Their class meets three times a week in the evenings at the International Center of the Catholic Charities Community Services in downtown Manhattan.

But if the funding isn’t reinstated, people like Forbes and Mendez could lose access to classes. “That would be painful, that would be horrible for the people who come to this country and they don’t speak English,” said Mendez when asked how he would feel if his class were cut. “It’s going to cut all our opportunities to improve our lives. Taking public transportation, attending parent-teacher conferences ­— everything is harder if we don’t speak English. It’s something that is going to affect our lives.”

The cuts follow on the heels of a state budget deal hammered out at the end of March by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and top legislative leaders that forced the city to allocate an additional $418 million toward subway repairs that previously had been New York State’s responsibility. But the $12 million dollars of additional city funding for adult literacy “is a small amount in the overall budget that goes a long way,” says Elaine Roberts, director of programs at the International Center. Some adult literacy programs also receive state and federal funding, but many of the classes at the International Center, including the ESL class Forbes and Mendez are taking, are completely funded by the city, said Roberts.

The final city budget won’t be approved until June. In the meantime, advocates say they will keep fighting.

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Photo: Julio Forbes (center) and Carlos Mendez (right) take a break after their intermediate ESL class. Credit: Lydia McMullen-Laird.

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