California community college faculty and community members questioned this week whether draft recommendations from a task force aimed at increasing student success could have negative consequences for groups that receive special services, such as English as a Second Language students, CalWORKs recipients and foster care parents.
Representatives from the 20-member Student Success Task Force and the chancellor’s office have been canvassing the state to get feedback on a plan they hope will help more students earn degrees or certificates, transfer to four-year universities, and navigate college more successfully.
The task force will present a final set of recommendations to the Board of Governors in December, along with a report to the state Legislature by March 2012. Ultimately, the Board of Governors would have to vote on the recommendations. Some of the proposals would require legislative changes. Others would require additional funding.
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On Wednesday, task force member and Merced College President Benjamin Duran joined Chancellor Jack Scott and Executive Vice Chancellor for Programs Erik Skinner at Fresno City College to address a crowd of about 150 people.
One of the report’s more controversial recommendations would take eight separate programs that have their own strict funding streams and lump them together into one big, flexible pot. These include programs such as basic skills, California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) and foster care.
The idea is that this big pot, which would be named the Student Support Initiative, would give colleges the flexibility to target the money on student success strategies that best fit their schools. Colleges wouldn’t be required to change how much they fund each of these programs, but they would have more discretion.
But several people in the audience expressed concern that their program would see a reduction in funding as a result.
One foster parent from Fresno said the recommendation could decimate the Foster and Kinship Care Education Program, which provides education and support for foster parents and providers of kinship care – full-time care of children by their relatives or other kin – so that they can meet the special needs of these children.
The colleges now get $5.2 million in state Proposition 98 funds for the program. That expenditure helps the state draw down federal funds under Title IV-E, and the colleges also receive a chunk of that money for the foster kinship program – about $5 million.
Sue Shaw, coordinator of the Foster and Kinship Care Education Program at Fresno City College, said she’s worried that if the community colleges reduce the amount of money they spend on foster care, the federal government would provide fewer matching funds for the program – doubling the impact of the cuts.
“We’ve heard that around the state on a number of programs,” said Skinner, the executive vice chancellor. “I can assure you that the college presidents on the task force have expressed strongly that foster care programs would be the types of programs that would continue. The assumption that the programs would go away simply because the flexibility was provided was not what was envisioned here.”
But Skinner also acknowledged in an interview that the foster care funds aren't focused on student success. So despite the strong support for them, they could see cuts under this proposal.
"Flexibility will open up the door to directing dollars to other needs and priorities," he said. "Potentially, dollars could be diverted away from this."
Chancellor Scott told Shaw that the change would require legislation and that concerns like hers would come up at legislative committee hearings.
A staffer from one of the colleges’ CalWORKs programs had similar worries about whether the colleges could still get federal funding if the local funding is shifted to something else. Task force officials indicated they’re aware of that quandary and are trying to sort it out.
Colleges get state CalWORKs funds to provide services like work study, job placement and child care to welfare-recipient students and students who are transitioning off welfare.
Similar to the foster care program, the colleges' expenditures help draw down federal matching dollars for the state's CalWORKs program. Colleges now get about $27 million in state funds for CalWORKs, plus about $8 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding.
“We’re looking at the drawdown issue,” said Amy Supinger, executive director of the task force. “We’re not convinced we’re not able to draw down the federal dollars.”
Audience member Hector Duarte, who said he's been working with disadvantaged students for more than 20 years, voiced a more general fear that the recommendation would take the colleges back to the 1960s, before legislation forced the colleges to establish categorical grant programs for disadvantaged groups.
“These programs we talk about were made for a reason, because the system failed,” Duarte said. “We want to keep our doors open to all those in our community. … Let’s not shut these doors on those students.”
Skinner responded that one of the task force’s goals is to shrink the achievement gap between white and minority students at the community colleges. Minority students have lower rates of degree completion, transfer and other success measures.
“The task force has said throughout its deliberation that it does not want to push forward on improving our student success rates at expense of particular populations,” Skinner said.
In addition to concerns about categorical programs, task force members heard from English as a Second Language faculty and students concerned that the report would eliminate non-credit ESL classes or would put ESL students at a greater disadvantage.
One of the report's recommendations proposes changing the law to limit state funding for non-credit classes to only those identified as career development or college preparation. The idea was to stop subsidizing recreational classes, such as arts for seniors. But some non-credit ESL courses would be caught in the same net, Skinner said.
Scott indicated that the task force would possibly clarify the recommendations to protect ESL.
"As we've tested these, one or two have unintended consequences we didn’t realize," he said. "ESL is one of them. There was no intention of eliminating ESL non-credit courses."
Ruth Luman, an ESL instructor at Modesto Junior College, was more concerned about the impact of recommendations on basic skills education, which includes pre-collegiate English and math, as well as credit ESL classes. The recommendation states that "the time and resources devoted to basic skills instruction need to be balanced with the other missions of the system, namely occupational training, academic preparation, and transfer."
Luman questioned whether that recommendation meant that colleges would prioritize students whose basic skills could be met in a shorter period of time. She said such a move would disadvantage English-language learners. If these students couldn't take credit ESL classes, they would miss out on financial aid, she said.
"Consider the challenges that our ESL students have, not because they are developmental learners, but because they’re learning a foreign language," she said. "They need to be given more opportunities than their native-English-speaking counterparts in the community college system. I would like you to try to reconsider some of the recommendations made specifically for ESL students."
Scott urged Luman to submit any concerns about specific recommendations to the task force. "I don’t recall any kind of discussion that was in any sense deprecating ESL," he said. "If there’s some language that inadvertently has had some bad consequences for ESL students, we encourage you to submit that language."
The task force meets again Nov. 9 in Sacramento to discuss feedback from the statewide meetings, and town halls are scheduled throughout the month.