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Funding Cuts for Private English Classes

It might be harder for immigrants in New York City to take full-time English-as-a-second-language classes. That’s because the state changed how it funds private ESL programs. Intensive courses like those offered by the Riverside Language Program in Morningside Heights are suffering the most. Jack Murtha reports.


Nineteen students from 14 countries sit in a circle in a Riverside Language Program classroom just before lunchtime on a Tuesday.

AMBI: Up class sound (1:12)

Lindsay Pearson is teaching them what the phrase “boost your confidence” means.

PEARSON: She puts her foot here, and I give her a boost. The word is “boost,” which means “a push up.” Boost. (0:10)

Pearson says many of the students in her upper-intermediate-level class were professionals back home. Others hope to go to college after the free course.

PEARSON: These are people who really want to assimilate. It’s thrilling to work with them. It’s like gold pouring into the country, really. (0:08)

But New York State isn’t pouring as much gold into Riverside as it used to. Last July, the state cut the school’s funding by about $600,000. Phyllis Berman is the school’s director and co-founder.

BERMAN: To go from more than $1 million each year for five years down to $400,000 simply blinded us for a while, to figure out how we could continue to function on that little money. (0:12)

Riverside used to have nine teachers. Now, it has five. And the size of the overall staff is shrinking, too.

BERMAN: We have to live within whatever money we have. (0:03)

Whatever the state spends on adult ESL programs comes from Washington. Since 2002, the federal government has been spending about half-a-billion dollars a year on ESL training for adults. That’s according to John Segota, who works for an ESL trade group called the TEE-sahl International Assocation.

SEGOTA: It’s tended to hover in that range. But, of course, those are just straightforward numbers. If you take into account inflation, it’s actually a steady decrease. (0:08)

Every state gets a piece of that pie and has the flexibility to spend the money how it likes. But Segota says in most states, adult immigrants aren’t the biggest priority.

SEGOTA: Unfortunately, in terms of broader dialogues on education, the attention tends to focus on elementary and secondary education, public education or higher education, and adult education is often overlooked. (0:11)

AMBI: Up class sound 2 (0:31)

The state won’t give more than half-a-million dollars to private English schools in New York City. The only way to get more money is to open branches in four boroughs or serve at least 3,000 people per year. That’s led to cutbacks at Phyllis Berman’s school and at least two other ESL groups.

BERMAN: That is a very sad state of affairs for at least the city of New York. (0:04)

The state Education Department says the federal government is to blame, and that New York is trying to persuade Washington to give it more money. Meanwhile, the money going into Riverside is a third of what it was a year-and-a-half ago. The school dried up its rainy-day fund last year. Berman says it’s not going to close anytime soon. But less cash means fewer teachers, and that means fewer students. Jack Murtha, Columbia Radio News.


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