The Senate Education Committee approved legislation Wednesday that would provide an additional $50 million to financially troubled education programs that many immigrants are required to take to avoid deportation under the U.S. amnesty program.
The committee vote was 8 to 0, but the financial aid bill cleared its first legislative hurdle only after a stormy debate over whether the state could afford a commitment to bring functionally illiterate immigrants up to fifth-grade literacy levels.
Without the legislation, state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig claims that as many as 350,000 foreign-born Californians could be dropped from basic reading and writing classes, knowing little more than what another educator described as “basic survival English.”
At issue is legislation by Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) that would continue a program begun by Honig that allows immigrants to continue classroom study in English and civics well beyond the 40 hours required by the federal government.
Federal law requires most immigrants affected by the amnesty program to complete a minimum of 40 hours of classroom study in English and civics before they can qualify to become citizens. Those who do not complete the study could be deported.
Honig’s program basically allows immigrants to continue their schooling until they attain a fifth-grade level of proficiency in reading and writing, the minimum amount necessary to qualify for state job training programs.
Demand for the program has been so great that if it continues to operate at the present rate, the money needed to finance it will run out next month. Honig said it will take another $50 million, on top of $121 million already budgeted by Gov. George Deukmejian, to complete the current fiscal year. Without the money, Honig said the state may be forced to abruptly halt classes.
“People want to take this training. They are willing to come up to these levels (fifth grade). They are succeeding in these programs. Let’s not stop it,” Honig pleaded with members of the committee. “With (40 hours) of instruction, there is no way they are going to qualify for job training. We can do something about it if we just get the green light.”
Domingo A. Rodriguez, supervisor of amnesty programs for the Los Angeles Unified School District, told the committee that the district has enrolled about 121,000 immigrants in its basic classes in English as a second language. He said the immigrants take an average of 175 hours to complete the course.
“We are getting individuals that have no skills at all in English. At least 20% of our students have no literacy skills in their primary language,” he said.
The Deukmejian Administration, however, is trying to hold the program close to the 40-hour minimum level. Administration officials fear that Honig’s program is too ambitious and ultimately could siphon money away from basic health and welfare programs for the same immigrant population. They also fear that Congress will support cuts in the program recently proposed by President Bush.
Mark S. Helmar, assistant secretary of the state Health and Welfare Agency, told the committee that the Administration acknowledges the need for extra classroom study for immigrants. But he said the extra schooling should be made available only if there is money left over after the estimated 600,000 to 700,000 people who qualify for the amnesty program complete their basic course.
Helmar said the danger of Honig’s program is that it will keep some students in classes well beyond the 40-hour minimum, while denying access to other immigrants now on waiting lists. He noted that many parts of the state have long waiting lists, while students who complete the basic 40-hour course are allowed to re-enroll.
Immigrants who qualify for the program--those living in the United States as of Jan. 1, 1982, or employed as farm workers here for at least nine months--must be able to demonstrate minimum proficiency in English and civics by Nov. 1, 1990, or face possible deportation.
Helmar angrily denied that the Administration wants to see “anyone get kicked out of classes.”
But Honig said that is exactly what would happen if the Legislature and governor do not provide the extra $50 million. The money, all federal dollars, would come from funds expected to be available to finance the program during the next fiscal year.
At one point, Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim) called Honig’s program a failure and said it will only qualify the participants for welfare.
Torres, the bill’s author, angrily responded that the measure’s intent was just the opposite. Torres said extra schooling would “put them on the first foothold to get a better job.”