Keynote addresses ABE, immigration reform.

By Rachel Unruh, June 17, 2013

Last week, I had the great pleasure of keynoting the CASAS Summer Institute in San Diego and spending time with adult education experts from 24 states and four countries. The theme of this year’s Institute was transitioning adult basic education (ABE) and adult English as a Second Language (ESL) students to postsecondary programs and careers. I had the chance to learn from people who are truly innovating and leading the way in this area. In my keynote, I talked about how important it is for innovators to educate their federal policymakers about the work they’re doing so that policy supports and replicates the best practices in the field.

I also talked about how fortunate we are that the current Administration has put forward an education vision for the nation that acknowledges a diversity of pathways and credentials. In his first joint address to Congress in 2009 the President called on every American to commit to at least one year of higher education or career training, be it “community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.” This education vision is more tuned to U.S. jobs (the largest portion of which are middle-skill) than education visions that focus only on four-year degree attainment.

Unfortunately, there are an estimated 88 to 93 million Americans who can’t answer the President’s call to action because they don’t have a high school credential or they don’t have the basic math, reading, or English language skills to enroll in postsecondary training. Unfortunately, federal funding for adult education has been in steady decline for the last ten years (24 percent decrease when adjusted for inflation) which means the number of people served has dropped by over 1 million people since 2000. The proposed $114 million cut to adult education in the House appropriations bill would decrease the number served by an additional 110,000, making it even harder for 93 million Americans to answer the President’s call to action and get on an educational pathway to higher paying jobs.

CIR: Basis for annual admission of lawful permanent residents

I also spoke to the audience about the significant impact that Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) will have on the adult education field as 11 million individuals embark on a 13-year path to citizenship. Under CIR, immigration policy is shifting from a family-based system toward an employment-based system. According to the New York Times, the annual share of family-based admission of lawful permanent residents would shift from 75 to 50 percent under the Senate bill, making the legislation a truly significant piece of labor and employment legislation.

Under the Senate bill, individuals on a pathway to citizenship must be continuously employed or enrolled in full-time education and training to renew Registered Provisional Status (RPI) at the six-year mark and Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) at the ten-year mark. Also at the ten-year mark, individuals must demonstrate the level of English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history/civics that is required for citizenship or be pursuing a course of study that is designed to lead to such proficiency/knowledge. Senator Rubio introduced an amendment this month  that would eliminate enrollment in a course of study as sufficient; individuals would have to be able to demonstrate proficiency to obtain LPR status at the ten-year mark.

These English language requirements will dramatically increase demand for services in the adult education community. In addition, if this legislation is to achieve the positive economic impact it seeks, it will be a necessity to ensure that individuals on a pathway to citizenship with low basic skills, as well as the 93 million current U.S. residents with low basic skills, have opportunities to engage in adult education programs that lead to occupational training or postsecondary education. This will ensure that employers have the skilled workers they need to grow and innovate and that more individuals have opportunities to attain family supporting jobs. This all points to one inevitable conclusion: Comprehensive  immigration reform must include a comprehensive skills strategy. Unfortunately, the current Senate bill authorizes very few resources to support such a strategy.

Without question, the adult education field faces significant pressures as the demand for their essential services increases amidst declining federal support. I was inspired by the energy and willingness of the Institute participants to step up and address the learning needs of one more set of students: members of Congress who need to be educated about the vital role of adult education in connecting their constituents to employment, postsecondary education and training.

During a workshop on advocacy strategies that I held during the Institute, one attendee stood up and committed to collecting 10,000 success stories of individuals in her state who had benefited from adult education and sharing those stories with her state’s congressional delegation. I challenge others in the adult education field to make a similar commitment to tell the success stories of individuals they have helped on the pathway to employment and the businesses they have partnered with in preparing a more skilled workforce.