English Proficiency Classes Shrink as Demand Climbs

Every year, New York State attracts more and more immigrants from around the world seeking new jobs, new opportunities, new lives. Many of them, not surprisingly, arrive not knowing how to speak English well, inhibiting their search for work and their ability to assimilate.

But as the demand for English-language courses has soared, the supply has dropped, according to a report issued Thursday by the Center for an Urban Future, a research institute based in Lower Manhattan.

Between 2005 and 2009, the number of adults in New York State who spoke English “less than very well” grew by 6 percent, to about 1.7 million from about 1.6 million, the report said, citing Census Bureau figures. But during the same period, the reach of specialized state-financed language classes decreased: In 2009, only 4 percent of New York’s adults with low English proficiency were enrolled in English for Speakers of Other Language classes, down from 5 percent in 2005, the report said.

This widening gap between demand and supply could have far-reaching economic consequences for New York, the report said. The shortage “threatens the state’s ability to tap the skills of immigrant entrepreneurs and workers to strengthen local economies,” said the report, which is titled “Bad English.”

The lack of programs offering English classes is becoming a problem across the state as a growing number of communities experience a sharp increase in their immigrant populations, including jumps in Albany, Dutchess, Erie, Onondaga and Rockland Counties, the report said.

But the most severe drop in the capacity of the state-financed programs was in the New York metropolitan area. The number of adults in the city lacking English proficiency rose by 3 percent between 2005 and 2009, to about 1.3 million from about 1.2 million, while enrollment in English-language classes dropped 6 percent, the report said.

In Westchester County, the English-deficient population rose 3 percent from 2005 to 2009 as enrollment in English classes fell 15 percent, the report said. Meanwhile, the number of adults lacking English proficiency on Long Island rose by 12 percent while enrollment in English classes plunged 25 percent.

The authors of the report said a decline in state financing was “the most significant cause” of the drop in enrollment. Adjusting for inflation, they said, state allocations for English for Speakers of Other Languages programs have dropped every year since 1995, when the state capped financing for the largest adult literacy program, Employment Preparation Education, at $96 million.

But the researchers at the Center for an Urban Future also found some encouraging developments. Even though a smaller percentage of adults lacking English proficiency are receiving state-financed language education, innovations in the state’s Education Department have resulted in greater achievement among those adults who are enrolled.

The rate at which English-language students climb at least one literacy level increased to 55 percent in 2010, up from 38 percent in 2005, the report said.

“Nevertheless, the growing unmet demand for ESOL instruction is a cause for great concern,” the report said. “Increasing English instruction capacity would almost certainly yield benefits for the state economy.”

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