Barbara Bush, whose husband is the vice president, toured Prince George's County's adult education facilities at Greenbelt Middle School yesterday in support of education for recent immigrants and wound up in a mini-debate over money and politics.
She was a hit with the students in an English class who came from nine different countries and who tested their new language skills by telling her the differences between their new homes in America and the ones they'd left behind.
Sixty-eight-year-old Wang Ho from Taiwan pointed out, for example, that in his country chopsticks are always held in the right hand and the bowl in the left, and that that means both elbows must rest on the table.
"What if you are left-handed," Bush wanted to know. "My husband is left-handed--he'd definitely have a problem," said the vice president's wife, drawing laughter from the class.
Bush had a kind word and a comment for almost every student in the ESL--English as a Second Language--class; she has been touring such programs around the country. The Prince George's program serves more than 2,000 non-English-speaking adults from 42 countries.
"My interest is that one out of five Americans can't read well enough to cope," said Bush. Referring to the high incidence of social problems among illiterates, she added that she couldn't "afford to live in a world" where illiteracy is prevalent.
The demand for ESL classes has increased sharply in the Washington area in the last few years. Enrollment in Montgomery County more than doubled--to 3,600 adults this year. Washington D.C. is serving 1,600 foreign speaking adults this year, compared with 600 to 800 three years ago.
Education officials attribute the increase to continuing political turmoil in several countries, especially in Central America, and the declining number of unskilled jobs requiring no English skills.
"Unfortunately, the demographics for the programs have increased at a time when federal funding has been cut," said Judith Koloski, who is chief of adult education programs for the state of Maryland.
After county and federal budget cuts, Prince George's funding for Adult Basic Education went from $330,000 in 1982 to $201,000 this year, creating a growing waiting list for classes, James Decker, coordinator of adult basic education said.
Bush responded that President Reagan's budget cuts were designed to give state governments flexibility to program services at the local level, and wanted to know why local funding was cut.
"Well, we are going through a TRIM, ma'am," said Decker, explaining the county's voter-approved TRIM charter amendment that places an absolute cap on property tax revenues.
Bush told Decker not to mention TRIM and Reaganomics "in the same breath."
"Not that you need a lesson in politics," she added.
"No ma'am, what we need is money," Decker replied.