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Greater flexibility in spending hurts low-achieving students

U.S. Census Bureau

A $4.5 billion experiment intended to give schools greater flexibility over state education dollars has resulted in cutbacks in some programs targeting students who need the most academic help.

That is among the findings of a report issued this week by the RAND Corporation and Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE). The study looked at the fallout of a 2009 decision [PDF] by lawmakers to give districts complete flexibility in how they spend what is referred to in school finance vernacular as "categorical" programs.

Over the years, the state has introduced a kaleidoscope of 60 such programs [PDF], on every possible aspect of school life, from child nutrition and libraries to foster youth services and high school counseling. And for years, school officials have complained that the programs involve too much bookkeeping and red tape. 

Two years ago, as part of a compromise to get Republican support for passage of the state budget, the state lifted the requirements on how funds for 40 of those programs are spent, at least through the 2012-13 school year. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed extending that timeline by an additional two years.

The funds comprise 6 percent of the total state education budget. According to the study, the new system is the largest effort to date to reduce the state's regulatory role in school administration, and to give local school officials more power to make their own spending decisions. 

The study found that districts tended to "sweep" revenues previously intended for specific programs into their general funds to help them cover other costs.

While districts also cut programs for "gifted and talented" students, "our findings suggest that it is lower-achieving kids who are hurt most by these cuts," said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley education professor and PACE co-director. Cuts included textbook purchases and programs promoting adult literacy and helping students pass the high school exit exam.

The study, which was funded by three philanthropic foundations, involved interviewing 90 educators at 10 school districts. The districts were not named in the study because the authors promised school officials anonymity.   

Among the goals of more spending flexibility is to relieve schools of bureaucratic reporting requirements mandated by Sacramento for each program, and to give school principals more control over how dollars are spent in their schools.

The RAND/PACE study found that none of those goals were realized in most cases. School districts in general did not trim their accounting or administrative staff. And in seven out of 10 school districts, principals were not involved in making decisions about how the new "flex" funds were spent. 

"We did not find much savings in administrative staff, and we found no evidence that this approach is empowering principals," Fuller said.  

School officials are pressing Sacramento to give them flexibility in how they spend funds for many of the remaining 20 categorical programs, including those for keeping class sizes down in elementary grades, as they attempt to save core programs and avoid teacher layoffs.

Their pleas are getting a friendly reception from the Brown administration. Brown has made giving local governments more control over spending a core feature of his tenure in Sacramento, and freeing up state education dollars is consistent with that goal. 

But what is remarkable is that the state did not set up a mechanism to track the impact of the $4.5 billion experiment now under way, which is why the Hewlett Foundation, Kabcenell Foundation and Stuart Foundation decided to step in to fund the study.   

Fuller cautioned against giving districts more flexibility on the remaining categorical programs without looking more carefully at how the current system is working.

"We should slow down and see who has been helped and who has been hurt by deregulation," he said. 


Filed under: K–12, Daily Report


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Sonja L's picture
"...as part of a compromise to get Republican support..." The only thing the GOP will support is the destruction of public education as we know it. They want to starve public schools of funds so their Billionaire Boys Club friends can come in and convert all to charters. It's now good business to suck money from our children by "claiming" to provide better schools. Schools that discriminate against the moderate to severely disabled and English Language Learners. As the former Chair of LAUSD's CAC (Special Education Community Advisory Committee - a state and federally mandated oversight committee), I've collected data for years showing the lack of enrollment of these students in charters. Data also shows that what few students with disabilities are enrolled in charters are not provided the same type of supports available in a regular public school. Our new superintendent recently "appointed" several administrators who will have their salary paid for by outside charter organizations - and a large & generous salary it is. Why no one is shouting "conflict of interest!" is beyond me. LAUSD has also replaced the Administrator who oversees Title I parent groups with a person who is charter-friendly and comes from a charter organization. These organizations practice discrimination against our special needs and English Language Learners, but are now infiltrating the very fabric of our educational system with the blessing of our school board. How can they truly represent all children when they chose to ignore our most needy? Six of the seven board members were "elected" with help from Mayor Villaraigosa's Billionaire Boys Club funding. I've spoken to the board for years regarding the discrimination, but no one really cared. To discourage public parent involvement the board also recently declared that there would no longer be funds to provide coffee/snacks at these meetings. Those administrators placed with charter funding could donate 15% of their salary to our parent groups and would still be making more than most people in their positions. Charters don't want parents like me involved - critics. They want the astroturf groups paid for by Steve Barr. Parent Revolution was created by a businessman. He paid Ben Austin to be the parent "leader". It's all about having the wealth to buy your way in. Parents of students with disabilities and English Language Learners do not have the time or funding to fight such machines. They want our public schools to fail, go into Program Improvement so the charters can take over. Then they'll remove those "problem" kids. Our special needs population will be warehoused in the big charter plan. How do you think these schools have such supposedly good test scores? Eliminate those who bring down the averages. It's about Westside developers looking for property and nothing more. Between them and the various "associations" and "nonprofits" who manage to take a little off the top of the student's ADA (Average Daily Attendance) from charter schools by charging "membership fees per ADA" - there is less money to help the children. It is a business - I cannot state it strongly enough. If it was truly about providing a quality education for all students, then they would be taking all students. They are violating the rights of our children and there should be a class-action law suit filed against all charters. Our children cannot have a "do-over". We need to get business out of education and let those who truly understand child development and appropriate curriculum development do their jobs without being turned into pariahs. If these businessmen and our Mayor would've put their energy and money into making it safer to walk to and from school, provide jobs and health care for families so students could come to school "ready to learn" - then we could have a discussion. Blaming test scores on teachers is wrong. Society does not respect our children nor our educators anymore. Children are considered widgets now and we all lose.

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