Federal WIOA Plan Requirements Ignore Opportunities to Support Equitable Access for Immigrant/LEP Adults
As states move to implement the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which provides the national framework for workforce training and adult education services, the Obama administration recently missed a prime opportunity to ensure that immigrants and refugees receive equitable access to the law’s services.
The Departments of Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, and Housing and Urban Development jointly issued guidance on February 22 regarding the required elements for state plans, the documents that essentially serve as the contract between states and the federal government for WIOA implementation. The final guidance unfortunately fails to require key elements that would help ensure that immigrants and refugees who are learning English or are seeking basic education or workforce training services are equitably served by WIOA programs.
Important elements ignored include:
Data on Adult Learner Needs. WIOA provides the legal framework for workforce as well as adult education services. Yet the guidance sends a signal that faithful and equitable implementation of the law’s adult education title is of little concern to federal authorities, requiring only that the state plans include data on characteristics of the workforce—not on adult learner needs. This failure means that state plan data will not capture the needs of many individuals to whom the law explicitly targets adult education services. Lack of pertinent data—on, for example, Limited English Proficient (LEP) and/or low-educated parents of young children, or legal immigrants who have not yet become citizens—will make it easier for key learner subpopulations to be overlooked in state planning efforts, and harder for federal officials to hold states accountable for equitably meeting their needs. Data requirements for workforce characteristics are also too superficial, ignoring for example the need to account for those with both a language learning and basic education need.
Data on Priority of Service Populations. Many had hoped that given the dismal record of workforce training programs in serving LEP individuals, implementation of WIOA’s automatic priority of service for those with basic skill needs (including English proficiency) who are seeking adult career and training services could herald a new era of access to these critically important services for LEP immigrants and refugees. To ensure meaningful and disciplined implementation of this key provision, MPI’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy recommended that states be required to provide data in their state plans on the number of individuals fitting one or more of the service-priority categories. These data would in turn be expected to support alignment of the planning and design of adult training services, actual front-line implementation of the priority, and monitoring and appraisal of system performance in abiding by the law’s priority provision. Hard as it is to imagine a justification for failing to harness objective data that could ensure disciplined implementation of this provision, federal authorities again adopted a weak stance, requiring states to simply describe how they will implement and monitor the priority of service and include an assurance that they have implemented a policy to ensure this priority is provided.
Access for LEP Individuals to the Workforce System. WIOA’s authors made plain that they sought to move local systems towards adoption of integrated education and training service models that are aligned with in-demand occupations and sectors. With LEP individuals comprising almost half (45 percent) of those served by adult education programs nationally, and with the priority of service provision clearly including LEP adults, one would logically expect that the guidance’s treatment of “access” for LEP individuals would be more clearly construed as including access to actual training services, not merely information about services they cannot use until they have high levels of English proficiency. Unfortunately, the guidance again sidesteps a critically important issue, requiring only that states describe how they will “ensure that each one-stop center is able to meet the needs of English language learners, such as through established procedures, staff training, resources and other materials.” In other words, the requirements signal that language access is primarily a matter of providing “resources and materials” about services in a language that clients can understand, as opposed to providing equitable access to the system’s prized training services, a key point of concern for immigrant and refugee community leaders for many years.
While the “business as usual” message sent by federal agency leaders through their state plan requirements is extremely disappointing and likely harmful to the interests of immigrant and refugee communities in many parts of the country, states and localities can always hold themselves to higher standards in their planning efforts. Governors and other state and local officials seeking to base their system plans on relevant data and ensure equitable access to WIOA’s services can take some obvious—and easy—steps to more smartly and fairly implement the law.
- Require that calculations of adult learner needs inform state and local planning and service designs for WIOA’s Title I (workforce) and Title II (adult education) services. These data should include adults who:
a) have less than a high school degree or equivalent;
b) have very low levels of education and/or basic skills (e.g. no years of education, less than six years, less than eight years);
c) are LEP;
d) are low-educated and/or LEP parents of young children;
e) are foreign-born individuals who have not attained U.S. citizenship; and
f) are foreign-born, college-educated (or higher) individuals who obtained their education abroad.
- Require that the law’s priority of service for adult training services be implemented in a disciplined manner. Provisions should include ensuring that the number of eligible individuals who meet the law’s priority categories is calculated and published each year; a transparent process is used to compile state guidance for local programs—including, for example, whether and how individuals meeting more than one category will be prioritized for service; establishing measures to ensure that data on priority populations drive state and local system designs; establishing expectations for maximal system performance in implementing the service priority (i.e. 95-100 percent in states and localities where the number of individuals who fall into a priority category easily exceeds the number of program slots available); along with appropriately rigorous monitoring and accountability provisions to capture and continuously improve system performance in implementing the service-priority provision.
- Require equitable access for LEP individuals to Title I training services and establish a state-level technical assistance office to support local Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs) and other system stakeholders in meeting the requirement. Many states and WIBs have operated on the assumption that it is not their responsibility to serve LEP individuals in Title I training programs (and in many cases low-educated individuals, low-educated and LEP, etc.). WIOA definitively upends this expectation with its priority of service and other provisions emphasizing that training resources are to be devoted to harder-to-serve populations. Governors—particularly those in states with large LEP and/or low-educated populations—should require that LEP individuals be effectively and equitably served by Title I programs. Research shows that effective services are those that integrate education (including English language learning) and training, while equitable access would presumably be defined as proportional representation of eligible LEP individuals (cross-tabulated with their levels of educational attainment) among those served by training programs. Acknowledging that most state and local service systems previously were able to avoid serving LEP individuals in training programs, governors should anticipate that many WIBs and other system stakeholders may need assistance as they begin to meet their responsibilities in this regard. Establishing a state technical assistance office for this purpose would allow the state to support capacity building as well as state oversight of progress in this critically important area. Mayors or county executives can do the same if their governors do not act.
- Ensure that WIOA client- and program-level data are sufficient to support the state’s access and equity goals. Assuming a state is committed to ensuring access and equity for immigrants, refugees, and others who may be LEP, low-educated, or face other barriers described in the law, it must be prepared to negotiate effectively with federal authorities regarding its ability to meet the narrow performance measures that now govern WIOA services. Most importantly, in order to avoid financial penalties, states must be prepared to set and defend realistic performance expectations for those it intends to serve. For example, a state may seek to provide parent-focused adult education services for low-literate and/or LEP mothers of young children; many or most of these mothers would not reasonably be expected to meet the employment, wage, postsecondary attainment, or employer satisfaction outcomes that account for more than 80 percent of the performance measures.
Whether drawing on past national, state, or local program data, or developing new evidence and data regarding expected performance levels, states must act to collect and leverage relevant client- and program-level data that will allow them to vigorously defend their performance outcomes with federal authorities—particularly for populations whose gains cannot be adequately reflected in the current performance measures.
Though the role of immigrants in helping to grow local businesses and economies across the United States is well understood, their needs and strengths are in danger of being overlooked in WIOA planning processes. Realizing the law's promise to expand workforce skills instead demands full inclusion of foreign-born populations in system planning and service delivery efforts. With WIOA services an essential foundation for the successful linguistic, economic, and civic integration of immigrants and refugees, the law’s implementation must result in equitable access and effective services for them.