Vital student programs may be sacrified on the altar of flexibility

Over the past few weeks, several articles have appeared in TOP-Ed (here and here) identifying programs that have been threatened by the governor’s latest budget proposal. Gov. Brown would dramatically overhaul current funding for education in California by instituting a pupil-based formula prioritizing districts with high-poverty and English language learner populations, while eliminating virtually all existing categorical programs.

Advocates for many successful categorical programs such as Foster Youth Services and California Partnership Academies have appropriately noted the importance of maintaining these programs within our K-12 system to serve students whose needs would be otherwise unmet. Look no further than Regional Occupation Programs and Adult Education, whose funding has been fully “flexed” for the past several years, to see what happens when funding protections are dropped. Both categorical programs have seen devastating cuts across the state in programs and services as their funds have been diverted by local administrators for other educational priorities and uses.

The authors of those articles cited several specific aspects of those programs that seemingly validate their need for existence, without addressing the core issue of why categorical protections have been, and will continue to be, vitally important if we intend to truly meet the needs of all students in our schools.  While the current system of education funding is often cited as “confusing” and “arcane,” in reality it is merely a reflection of the driving forces that have evolved over the last several decades in education – drivers that dictate, without exception, what we value and expect out of the system, and therefore what is taught in the classroom.

Simply stated, the three primary drivers dictating what schools deliver are: what is required, what is funded, and what is measured. These forces that drive districts to act were not created locally; they have been consciously put in place over several decades by policy makers at the state and national levels.

Sure, some local administrators are frustrated by the “strings” attached to certain funding streams, but most are equally frustrated by the mandates and the narrow range of accountability measures that fail to include many important aspects of student growth and achievement. Eliminating categorical funding priorities, absent a complete overhaul of the mandates and accountability system currently in place, won’t result in a sea change in educational performance; we’ll simply get more of what we already have – a narrowing of curriculum, programs, options, relevance, and inspiration for our students.

The proposed budget can’t be characterized so much as inspired thinking as it is a manifestation of a “throw in the towel” mentality – without any consideration for the damage done to students who directly benefit from some crucial categorical programs.

Nowhere will this impact be noticed more than in the loss of existing Career Technical Education programs. Widely recognized as a major factor in engaging students in relevant, inspiring, hands-on learning experiences, programs like Partnership Academies, Apprenticeship Programs, Agriculture Education, and Regional Occupational Programs are not part of the mandated curriculum (i.e., the “required” driver); nor are state accountability measures in place to quantify the positive difference these programs make in the lives of young people (the “measure” driver). Without some designated funding stream that incentivizes local districts to continue these important activities, and absent the protection of being “required” or “measured,” these programs are ultimately headed for extinction – a result of our misplaced frustration with our own ability to design an educational model that works for all students.

Stripping the funding for programs that inspire and benefit often-ignored students in a fit of pique is not an option we should be considering.

A more thoughtful and rational approach would be to identify and “group” those categorical programs that serve common needs, and then give local districts some flexibility in how those funds are used within the context of those common deliverables. The Career Technical Education programs cited above could fit this model, while other existing programs might be grouped around themes that focus on core academic instruction or counseling and health services. This approach provides an opportunity for a more thorough analysis of the entire categorical funding process, while allowing additional flexibility at the local level to weather these tough economic times.

One universal truth of life within the State Capitol is that hastily enacted, ill-conceived, “big-idea” policy changes inevitably result in a proliferation of unintended consequences, with the potential to cause more damage than they “cure.” We need to ensure that there is a thoughtful, balanced approach to funding education programs and priorities in California in a way that produces optimum results. The current proposal does not meet that standard.

Jim Aschwanden is the Executive Director of the California Agricultural Teachers’ Association and a founding member of the Get REAL Coalition, an organization promoting the revitalization of Career Technical Education in California. He is an immediate past member of the California State Board of Education, where he served for two terms.

Author: Jim Aschwanden

Jim Aschwanden is the Executive Director of the California Agricultural Teachers' Association and a founding member of the Get REAL Coalition, an organization promoting the revitalization of Career Technical Education in California. He is an immediate past member of the California State Board of Education, where he served for two terms.

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