Maria Arana is a kindly, smiling grandmother, who moved to the United States from her native Colombia a dozen years ago. But it wasn't until...

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Maria Arana is a kindly, smiling grandmother, who moved to the United States from her native Colombia a dozen years ago. But it wasn’t until she joined Sensitech Inc. in Redmond seven years ago that she hit her stride. The company, in collaboration with Lake Washington Technical College, offers on-site English classes to its employees, many of whom start with little English.

“When I came I spoke almost no English,” said Arana, who advanced from the assembly line to a technician job at the company, which manufacturers temperature-monitoring equipment for food products and pharmaceuticals. “When I passed my citizenship test, I passed in English. When I took my driver’s license test,” she pauses, smiles. “English.”

This ESL class is among several threatened by breathtaking federal cuts in adult basic education. The only hope is for supporters such as U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who serves on a key appropriations subcommittee, to make sure adult basic education is not zeroed out, but rather gets a piece of the much smaller pie.

In Washington, adult basic education has been notoriously underfunded, although things were looking up. Even in a desperate budget year, the state Legislature stepped up, boosting state funding by $4 million.

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But Congress last month cut the education budget by about $5 billion, including about $369 million in adult basic education. That translates in this state to a 74-percent slice — cutting federal participation by $5.7 million to just over $2 million.

At South Seattle Community College, President Jill Wakefield estimates the college will have to cut 37 classes, affecting about 600, or 20 percent, of its students enrolled in adult basic ed. The effects are farther-reaching, she says. Many students move into academic programs.

A key mission of every community college, adult basic education also includes basic skills, such as math and reading, and GED classes for people who didn’t get high-school diplomas. They often are a pathway off welfare into the working world, to assimilation for non-English speakers, and back to work for people who need to change jobs because they are injured or when their aging bodies can’t handle their labor-intensive work.

South Seattle partners with Port Jobs, a nonprofit employment and training organization that helps low-income people access jobs in the Port of Seattle-related economy. After 9/11, airport screeners were required to be U.S. citizens, work for the government and meet higher employment standards. Together, the college and Port Jobs created a curriculum that helped 50 percent of Sea-Tac Airport screeners who took the government test keep their jobs, said Port Jobs executive director Susan Crane. That’s impressive, considering the nationwide rate at similar-sized airports was closer to 10 percent.

This summer, the partners are starting Airport University to provide classes to airport employees on-site. But the federal budget cuts put the program in doubt.

Add in another wrinkle. I wonder what happens in 2008, when for the first time, high-school seniors who have completed course work will be denied a diploma if they haven’t passed the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. While the Legislature has provided more chances for students to pass the test, I suspect more Washington high-school students than ever won’t get their diploma initially. Those diploma-less students will need the opportunity that GED classes can give them eventually to get their diploma and move on from there.

Thursday, I crashed Sensitech’s 90-minute class (there are two a week) and found people from Vietnam, Laos, China and Venezuela practicing their English. Sensitech pays them for half the class; the employees do the rest on their own time. They talked about how learning English makes them better workers and helps them negotiate everything from making doctor’s appointments to understanding the company’s 401(k) program. They boasted about a former colleague who’s taking the American dream to a different level and is now studying to be a nurse.

It made me think of my own family’s assimilation. A Norwegian-born grand-father who became a railroad gandy, a grandmother who spoke only Polish until she went to school, forebears from Ireland, who spoke English with a brogue, but had other challenges. Now, there are third-generation railroaders but also doctors, nurses, teachers, pharmacists and engineers. Education was the key.

Adult basic education is a worthy investment. Cutting the budget so severely is like throwing away the potential of good people.

Kate Riley’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com