If there’s one thing nearly all Americans agree on, it’s that a command of the English language is necessary for finding a good job and living a productive life in this country.

And it’s not at all uncommon for some people to criticize recent immigrants for a perceived inability (or even a lack of desire) to master the language of their new homeland.

That criticism makes little sense, because most new immigrants realize very quickly that a working knowledge of English is a necessity for navigating the ins and outs of life in the United States. That’s why it seems both sad and senseless for Portland’s adult education program to be falling short of the funding it requires to teach English to immigrants.

But it is, and without a fresh inflow of state and local resources, the situation may get worse instead of better.

Portland adult education currently offers 30 free courses in its English for Speakers of Other Languages program. Last year, 919 students were enrolled, and in the first two trimesters this year, 820 participated.

But the program’s budget has been cut several times, dropping from $1.65 million two years ago to a projected $1.4 million next year, leading to a pending loss of three teaching slots while students face up to a six-month wait for space in a class.

That’s because the city has lost $12 million in state and federal funding in the past few years, while city resources have only been able to restore $7 million.

Mayor Michael Brennan says he’s going to try to find $70,000 to help the 160 people now on the waiting list to find class openings, and correctly points out that it’s unfair to demand English skills from immigrants while denying them the opportunity to acquire them.

Many of the new students are immigrants from Central Africa who speak French or other European languages. Their ranks include professionals who were doctors, lawyers or teachers in their former homelands, and thus could move quickly into productive positions with appropriate language skills.

Helping people out who want to make better lives through their own efforts makes good sense not only in terms of economics, but in maximizing human potential. Letting immigrants’ skills and talents go to waste, to their detriment and to the detriment of society as a whole, makes no sense at all.

And there’s no way — in any language — to say that it does.


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