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Whither the American Dream?

Bob Bickerton, Chair
National Council of State Directors of Adult Education
7 February 2005

 

My grandparents, and perhaps your grandparents or great grandparents came to this country to build a better life for themselves and for their families.  Along the way, they also built a vibrant and very successful nation.  We have come to think of these success stories as the “American Dream,” perhaps the most important legacy we leave to our children, our grandchildren, and perhaps, to the rest of the world.

We have reached a crossroads in America.  We must now decide whether we will live only in the moment, in a society where “survival of the fittest becomes our only creed,” or if we will keep the American Dream alive and within the reach of all Americans.

Many of our grandparents arrived unable to speak much in English and even more never completed a high school education.  They lived and worked as the 19th century turned to the 20th, a time of tumultuous change, but also a time when a strong back and a willingness to work hard brought a better quality of life to millions of families.  But now we are living in a world that has “moved on.” Today, our world demands an increasingly strong foundation in English, reading, writing, mathematics, and technology.  Our society and especially our economy will not wait years for people to develop these skills.  Without them, the American Dream is out of reach for millions of families – a vision replaced by a hallucination – a cruel taunt. 

Today, 3 million Americans are enrolled in classes that teach them English, prepare them for a high school diploma, post-secondary education and good jobs at good wages.  Tens of millions more under-educated and limited English proficient adults need to benefit from these classes and, in fact, hundreds of thousands are already languishing on waiting lists in order to do so.  These are neighbors, former classmates, members of our own families, and recent immigrants who desperately want to work and make a better life for their families.  Every week they carve precious hours out of already demanding schedules, working hard to gain the skills needed to pursue the American Dream.  They need a hand up, not a hand out, but the budget proposed by the administration will pull this hand away for at least two thirds of them and probably more.

This is a misguided policy and the members of the administration who sold it to the President are serving neither him nor our nation well.  Who will fill the jobs that will fuel our future competitiveness and economic health?  Who will replace the role of parents as our children’s first and most continuous teachers?  Who will complete the education of our youth who are not able to meet high school graduation standards before the end of their teen years?  Who will read prescription labels, road signs, warning notices, and newspaper articles about issues of great import to us all to millions of adults who can barely read?  Who will teach English to millions of immigrants? 

This is an unfair policy and fair-minded elected officials, Republican and Democrat alike, should not support it.  One argument is that programs are losing funding because they don’t do a good job.  Adult basic education programs are delivering on the academic and life success of these adults and have both the reliable data and millions of success stories to back this up.  Unfortunately, the federal program that was used to evaluate the performance of these programs ignores this record of success.  They disregard the performance data and assign “zero” performance wherever the federal government itself hasn’t entered acceptable numeric targets! 

A second argument is that these programs are running up the deficit.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, programs for the poor, under-educated and limited English proficient have not exacerbated the deficit.  Quite the contrary, 45% of the deficit derives from tax legislation, 37% from defense and homeland security, 12 percent from “non-low income” programs, and only 6% from “low income” programs. 

Our nation needs a better solution than the one presented on Monday by the administration.  We need a solution that upholds our commitment to the American Dream.  In my state of Massachusetts, support for adult basic education has benefited from bipartisan support from the Legislature and the Governor’s Office.  In fact, our Democratic Legislature is about to debate a proposal from our Republican Governor to increase adult basic education funding by another $8 million.  There may come a time when the need for federal adult education is not as great as it is today.  This is not that time and the proposed cut does not serve us well. 
 

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