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.