State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig warned Tuesday that unless Gov. George Deukmejian authorizes the early expenditure of $50 million in federal funds, the state will have to sharply curtail its already badly underfunded basic education programs for immigrants.
Contrary to the Deukmejian Administration’s contention that the money is not available, Honig argued that it would take only a simple legislative act to free up the money and continue the financially strained programs without cutbacks.
“The money is there. It’s ridiculous not to use it,” Honig told reporters at a Capitol news conference. Honig was hoping to put new pressure on the Legislature to pass a bill that would keep the programs going. He warned that failure to act could “put several hundred thousand students on the street.”
At issue is a five-year state education program financed by the federal government to provide a minimum of 40 hours of classroom study in English and civics for immigrants granted amnesty under the U.S. Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
Under the law, most immigrants granted amnesty must be able to demonstrate basic competence in English and civics by 1990 or face deportation.
As part of the amnesty bill, Congress committed to spend $4 billion nationally on an array of health, welfare and education programs for the new arrivals. However, President Bush has proposed taking back $600 million of that, $348 million of which was to have come to California.
Honig contends that until Congress takes action, the money needed to keep the education programs operating through the current fiscal year is available and can be spent.
In addition to the threat of losing the federal money, state officials drastically underestimated the number of people who would apply for the program. Demand for classes was so great that some areas now have waiting lists of up to six months.
Honig and other state officials say the immigrants are arriving in California with such poor reading and writing skills that they need far more than 40 hours of basic instruction to acquire even minimal English literacy. The majority of the immigrants are Spanish-speaking, but many others have their roots in the Soviet Union, Iran and other nations. The classes are taught by public schools and community colleges and a number of nonprofit agencies.
Honig said the huge response to the special classes “was not anticipated by anyone, including the Administration, in preparing the state budget.”
Bob La Liberte, a financial manager for the Department of Education, called the funding shortfall “an immediate problem.” He predicted that “at the rate we are spending we will exhaust our funds within a short time, possibly by early April.”
The Deukmejian Administration argues, however, that the federal government provided funding only for the basic 40-hour course and anything beyond that puts a strain on numerous other health and welfare programs designed to help the immigrants.
Diane Cummins, a Department of Finance official who monitors the immigration programs, said the immigrants “are heavy users of health and welfare programs.” For that reason, she said, the Administration has to worry about financing all the various programs, not just those teaching literacy skills.
The federal government also provides the money being used to support basic health and welfare programs for immigrants. Of the $4 billion appropriated by Congress for immigration programs, California’s share was slightly more than $1.8 billion, which was to be split this way: $1.4 billion to health and welfare programs, $354 million to education and the remaining $76 million for public health programs such as family planning.
Originally it was presumed that about 900,000 immigrants in California would apply for services under the federal program. But the latest figures indicate that at least 1.3 million people will be served, and all programs are being badly strained, Cummins said.
Cummins said Administration officials are concerned that Honig may be aggravating the financial pinch by expanding the program to provide more than 40 hours of classes and to provide courses to special agricultural workers who are not covered by the federal legislation.
Honig used the press conference to step up pressure on the Legislature to pass a bill by Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) that would appropriate an additional $50 million in the current budget year for the education programs. The money would come from the $180 million being budgeted by Deukmejian for the education programs in the new fiscal year that will begin July 1.
Enactment of the bill, of course, would leave the state with a $50-million hole in next year’s budget, but Honig said he is willing to fight that battle when it comes.
The Deukmejian Administration so far has not taken a position on the Torres bill, which is scheduled to be voted on today by the Senate Education Committee.