For Adult Literacy Programs, Stop-Gap Budget Is Not an Open Book

By Meredith Francis

Before a crowd outside the Thompson Center, Deyro Banguero speaks English fluently through a megaphone, advocating for more state funding for adult education. He’s been in the United States for five years after moving here from Colombia. In his citizenship classes at Erie House, he’s learning United States history, civics and reading and writing skills that will help him pass the naturalization exam.

“I’m very thankful to these organizations because they have helped not only me, but a lot of people,” Banguero said.

Since the Illinois state budget impasse this year, fewer people like him are getting the resources they need, Banguero said. In his citizenship class, there are only seven or eight other people.

“Our teacher told us there used to be more in the classes. Classes used to be like 15, 20, 25,” Banguero said. “There’s not enough teachers. There’s not enough tutors to help us.”

Banguero was one of dozens at a recent rally outside the Thompson Center calling on Springfield to pass a permanent budget. Though the Illinois General Assembly passed a stop-gap budget in June that will pay for state services through December, advocates and students say continued uncertainty is hard on adult education programs.

Nearly a million adults in Chicago have low literacy skills, many of whom benefit from adult education programs like trade schools, community colleges, GED programs, English-as-a-second-language classes and more. Because those programs receive state and federal funding, many were subject to cuts and layoffs when Illinois operated for most of fiscal year 2016 without a budget.

Though Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a temporary budget in June, Colleen McGaughey, development director at Literacy Works, said it’s still not clear which organizations have money to proceed with programs.

“Even though the state was still paying 90 percent of its bills, and there were all these court orders and injunctions for the state to pay up on contracts they weren’t making good on, adult literacy fell through the cracks,” McGaughey said. “A lot of the problem is just being in flux for this long puts a lot of stress and unknowns on a program,”

Adult literacy programs are still missing $32 million dollars, according to a Literacy Works survey. That means 20 percent fewer adult learners were served this year. And beyond numbers, jobs are at stake.

“Adult literacy professionals are losing their jobs and that is going to leave a legacy for years to come,” McGaughey said. “They don’t just come back when the money comes back.”

Mary Jude Ramirez was one of the teachers laid off. After losing a previous job as an adult educator, she’s now an instructor at the Heartland Alliance.

“The work that we do and the work that our students do is essential to the health of our state and the health of our communities,” Ramirez said.

At a Sept. 30 rally outside the Thompson Center, students and advocates call for more money for English-as-a-second-language classes and other adult education programs.

She said a lot of her students, who are immigrants and refugees, already have the odds stacked against them.

“There’s a lot of shame and fear about interacting in society without the language,” Ramirez said.

Dena Giacometti, director of adult education at Centro Romero, said at the very beginning of this year’s budget battle, the immigrant and refugee support organization had to lay off 17 part-time teachers and three full-time staff members. It also had to close their child-care program and lost three classrooms in an adjacent storefront space.

“Many students had to stop attending school because they didn’t have dependable childcare,” Giacometti said. “Teachers were leaving — not only the organization but the field.”

Programs on the South and West Sides of Chicago have been particularly impacted by a decrease in something called the Adult Volunteer Literacy Grant, which helps organizations pay for literacy programs.

“While we have not yet seen the list of grantees from the Secretary of State’s office, we are anticipating at least a 50 percent decrease in their grants to the community,” said Jazmine Salas with the Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition.

Deyro Banguero worries that means fewer people like him will be able to get the support they need.

“When there’s more money,” Banguero said, “they can reach more people.”

Photo at top: Adult education teachers and students rallied outside the Thompson Center on Sept. 30. They say the continued uncertainty with the Illinois budget is hurting adult education programs. (Meredith Francis/MEDILL)