Negative headlines and trendlines for ESL in California

Adverse effects of public education budget cuts

“Only the educated are free.”

-Epictetus (55-135), Stoic Philosopher

The dollar continues to decline in value. The national budget, seldom balanced, has zoomed deep into mega-debt during the Bush II era with two expensive wars, a deepening recession, and record tax cuts for the wealthy. The California state budget runs at least a $14 billion dollar deficit. Cutbacks in public education, therefore, seem inevitable.

In California, the governor has pushed for a 10 percent across the board cut in government programs. Adult education, almost always a step-child to K-12 programs, has been hit exceptionally hard as school boards try to minimize the impact. Of course, many adult education students do not vote so elected officials find cuts easier to make. The growing anti-illegal immigrant sentiment has also helped made ESL programs a natural target for budget cutting. The acute need for far more effective, modern, and well-funded programs to restore some standards to public education gets overlooked – again.


These abstract concerns about cutbacks took a very visible shape at the statewide California Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages convention last week. Total attendance was officially down by more than 25 percent since school districts had few available funds to send administrators, let alone teachers, to the conference. Yet I suspect the real numbers are far, far more dramatic than the reduction from 1600 t0 1200 attendees. Here are some signs of pervasive cutbacks:

  • only a single school district recruited teachers
  • the exhibition hall seemed like a ghost town
  • publishers and vendors were eager to talk about the freezing of public education spending in many districts
  • vendors expressed hope that teachers would buy even more supplies from their personal pockets
  • many workshops collected rather sparse crowds
  • the few job board postings were for summertime Intensive English Programs that attract private, international students
  • the mood, despite many fantastic new educational resources and software programs, seemed very downbeat

Perhaps it’s unfair to juxtapose a very hectic, chaotic international teachers’ convention in New York City with a far smaller state teachers’ convention in Sacramento. Yet this year the two ESL teachers’ conventions occurred on consecutive weekends. The contrast could not be clearer.


Teaching English, on a global level, continues to dramatically improve and expand. The development of new software for English language learners, better teaching techniques that respect students and encourage authentic communication, and the increase in international educational point to a better tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the news from California’s public education system, always troubled, seems to worsen almost daily – especially for immigrant students and ESL teachers. The draconian cutbacks will, again, disproportionately fall on English language programs. Instead of helping immigrants join the national family and learn English, lawmakers will maintain low taxes on the wealthy and eliminate vital educational programs for low-income children and adults. Perhaps improved educational technology and the exceptional efforts of ESL teachers will preserve the under-financed system, but the trends seem to be running in the wrong direction.


Teaching at an elite private university, I could pretend these cutbacks don’t matter to me. Yet that’s a dangerous illusion. The collapse of public education, especially for immigrants, will have both immediate and long-term consequences. The expanding gap between the wealthy who can afford a truly wonderful 21st century education and the expanding number of under-educated, over-stressed poor indicates a worsening future for too many Californians.

As an American, a Californian, and an English teacher, I don’t like the trendlines and headlines for American public education. Do you?

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