In proposing to give school districts money with fewer strings attached, Gov. Jerry Brown is confident that local school boards and superintendents are best able to make the right decisions so that all students can graduate ready for college and work. A report released today by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) questions that assumption. PACE is a joint research group based at UC Berkeley, Stanford and the University of Southern California.
“School Finance Reform: Can It Support California’s College and Career Ready Goal?” considers Brown’s proposed local control funding formula through the lens of career technical education programs. It concludes that removing all spending restrictions could lead to the dismantlement of important programs that the Legislature has created and protected, and it suggests that lawmakers could retain some broad but limited controls over spending in priority areas.
“I think that the education community as a whole and the social justice advocates have remained skeptical about this finance reform,” said Mary Perry, an educational consultant and former deputy director of EdSource, who authored the report. Earmarked funding for specific categorical programs, she said, often came about for a reason: districts were not meeting the needs of all of their students. At the same time, she is excited, she said, about Brown’s attempt to redesign a school finance system that is overly complicated, inequitable and incomprehensible.
“What are the policy options for addressing those concerns and at the same time getting to this goal of simplicity and transparency?” she asked.
Perry focused on career technical education (CTE) because of the state’s new emphasis on career readiness, which, she noted, California has yet to clearly define. Career technical courses, particularly those that connect to local employers, offer the best chance for students to experience what work is like and to see the relevance of their high school classes, she said.
The two primary programs are Regional Occupational Centers and Programs (ROCPs) and Partnership Academies. Regional centers provide hands-on learning for high school students in areas such as auto mechanics, graphic arts and medical assistance training. Partnership Academies are essentially “schools within a school” that offer a specific curriculum linked to career areas such as health, the arts, business or construction. Students are guided by mentors drawn from these professions and often are able to work as interns in their chosen fields while still in high school.
Before the recession, California allocated more than $480 million to ROCPs, and this year $19 million for Partnership Academies. Brown would allow districts to use the funding for both programs for any purpose. Brown also proposes giving K-12 and high school districts an additional $215 for each high school student, ostensibly to support career tech efforts. But it would be up to the districts how they would use the funds.
The state should be encouraging “more high schools to provide their students with an ‘appropriate blend’ of demanding career technical education and academic classes so that more students leave high school ready for both college and career,” Perry wrote in the report.
Perry offers three ways legislators could keep some controls over career tech education – without requiring all the paperwork and specific requirements associated with categorical programs – as they consider Brown’s local control funding formula:
- Use a block grant approach to set aside some district funding for career technical programs.
- Set funds aside to support a cross-sector (districts, community colleges, city or county workforce development organizations), regional approach to career technical education.
- Reward innovative proposals with “Race to the Top” style grants. Districts, county offices and regional centers could compete for funding based on new educational approaches they would like to try.
Legislators have yet to meet regarding Brown’s proposal, but some may be willing to consider Perry’s suggestions.
“While I support the governor’s effort to streamline education finance and provide greater funding to the neediest school districts, I am concerned about how the flexibility formula will impact CTE programs,” said state Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood). “We need real-world relevance in the high school curriculum to not only keep students’ interest in school, but prepare them for a life of success. Even President Obama in his State of the Union Address recognized the great value of career technical education programs for our students and the economy.”
Career tech’s regional focus makes it more vulnerable
Perry chose to focus on career tech partly because of its need for a regional approach, which makes it more vulnerable if future funding goes to individual districts.
Of the state’s 70-plus Regional Occupational Centers/Programs, only five are governed by a single district. County offices of education run most of the programs.
Under Brown’s proposal for ROCPs, the county offices of education would receive the same funding as in the past, but they would get no cost-of-living increases for their ROCPs, said Peter Birdsall, executive director of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. Meanwhile, each district would receive the $215 extra per high school student plus cost-of-living. Brown’s theory, Birdsall said, is that the districts would give those dollars to the county offices to maintain ROCP programs. However, he said, some counties currently get substantially more money than the districts would be able to supplement in the future.
“What struck me the most in the governor’s reform proposal was the presumption that the dollars have to go to a school district,” Perry said. The governor appeared to overlook the reality that county offices of education are providing most of the programs.
Christopher Cabaldon, principal of Capitol Impact, a Sacramento organization that helps develop policy agendas, said for most districts, a regional approach works best because large employers do not want to have to deal with each district in their area requesting mentors or internships. Employers work regionally and would expect districts to do so as well, he said. In addition, many career tech programs require large spaces and specialized equipment.
Even for most large districts, a regional approach can work best. “It doesn’t make sense for every district to have a health academy,” he said. “Once you go beyond a career academy for 50 kids or internships for a small number of students, it’s very hard for districts to do it by themselves. That’s a heavy, heavy lift.”
Some districts that have integrated career tech into their curriculum, such as Long Beach Unified near Los Angeles or Porterville Unified in Tulare County, would probably be better able to expand and innovate if Brown’s proposal went through, he said. But after years of cutbacks, districts without their own career tech programs might be tempted to use those dollars for academic courses.
Advocates for career tech are afraid that districts will focus money on programs that raise standardized test scores because that’s how the state and federal governments judge schools’ performance. Cuts in recent years to programs not central to that purpose – the arts, physical education, counseling, after-school enrichment – have heightened their concerns.
“If we had a decent accountability measure for college and career readiness, then Brown’s strategy makes sense,” Cabaldon said. “If not, it’s not a good strategy.”
In 2016, the Academic Performance Index (API), which is used to determine whether schools are meeting state student achievement goals in core academic subjects, primarily English and math, will include other measures. For high schools, 40 percent of their API score will include graduation rate and career and college readiness measures.
But Fred Jones, who represents a coalition of employers, labor groups and others concerned about career technical education, is worried that districts facing pressures to restore salaries and cuts that were made in many programs may start to chip away at career technical education. He said he is far from assured that the implementation of the new API in 2016 will be as Senate Bill 1458, championed by Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), intended, with criteria that underscore the importance of career tech.
“That ‘check in the mail’ is far from delivered, while the governor’s proposal will start taking effect next year,” he said.