Saturday, April 25, 2009

Education programs on the chopping block

By Dana Hull | Mercury News

Alyssa Lopez, 18, attends Del Mar High School in San Jose in the morning. Every afternoon, she rides the bus to take Jeff Schmidt's three-hour video class at the Central County Occupational Center, a vocational center in San Jose. She's creating a short documentary about animal rights and learning how to edit the images with the latest computer software.

"I was going to drop out of school until I found out about this class," said Lopez, who does not have a computer at home. "This is all hands-on learning. I love movies, and I want to learn everything that I can about how they make them. I would cry if they shut this program down."

But the future of her course, and other vocational classes across the state, are in question.

For decades, programs like regional occupational centers, high school counseling, or gifted and talented education got dedicated education funds. So-called "categorical" programs made sure there were services to properly educate California's diverse student body, from teaching migrant students to training principals on how to use technology.

But under the state budget deal crafted this spring, legislators broke such "categorical" programs into three tiers, giving strong protection to two groups but lumping more than 40 programs into a so-called "Tier III" that allows their funds to be raided, or the programs to be eliminated completely. The idea was to give superintendents flexibility in balancing shrinking budgets.

"We wanted to knock down the walls," said H.D. Palmer of the California Department of Finance. "School districts said, 'If you're not giving us money, at least give us maximum flexibility.' "

Now supporters for programs as disparate as adult education, music and California Indians are pushing Sacramento to get them out of Tier III. And as local school districts begin crafting next year's budget, groups are urging their superintendents to spare their programs instead of using the money to pay for, say, class size reduction.

"This was a major shock to the bureaucratic structure that's been in place for 30 years," said Brett McFadden of the Association of California School Administrators. "Each program has its own constituency and its own followers in the education community, and now everyone is like 'Oh My God, we're going to be cut.' Everyone is lobbying for their program to be spared."

Push for flexibility

School districts had been pushing Sacramento for more categorical "flexibility." With state education dollars shrinking, school officials argued, it made less and less sense for the state to be in charge of chopping up the money. Let local people make the hard decisions instead.

"One district may say our biggest need is staff development," said Dennis Meyers of the California Association of School Business Officials. "Another district might say our priority is technology. We finally have a funding system that sends money to the local level without too many strings attached. The problem is that we got it in a really bad budget year."

Originally, every program was supposed to be on the table. But certain issues, like class size reduction, had enormous support from teachers and parents, who immediately began a campaign to save it. Other programs like special education came with federal mandates that helped to protect them. Educators associated with the vast majority of the programs in Tier III, however, are deeply worried. And while everyone is grumpy, advocates for adult education, regional occupational centers and gifted and talented education are complaining the loudest.

"Basically everyone who is in Tier III wants out," said Rick Pratt of the California School Boards Association, a keen observer of the months-long budget wrangling. "We pushed for there to be no sacred cows — for basically everything to be Tier III. But there was a lot of horse-trading that went on, and the outcome is a compromise driven by politics instead of sound public policy."

Teri Burns, a Sacramento lobbyist with School Innovations and Advocacy, is concerned that GATE, or gifted education, now finds itself in Tier III. Children who usually have large vocabularies, ask numerous questions and learn at a swift pace are often identified by teachers and standardized tests as "gifted" when they are in the third grade.

GATE could be gone

Such students attend GATE classes where the work is usually more challenging, requiring different textbooks, specially trained teachers and field trips. The new tier system means school districts could decide to use money that used to go toward GATE for something else entirely.

Nora Ho, principal of Ruskin Elementary in San Jose's Berryessa Union School District, also worries that GATE is in the cross hairs.

"Being in Tier III means they don't have to give us anything," said Ho. "GATE is vulnerable to cuts because people think that gifted children will make it no matter what."

Ho said nothing is further from the truth: Bright children often get bored and act out in class when they are not challenged.

"There's a lot of training on how to work with kids who are not doing well. But there's very little training on how to work with the advanced kids," said Ho. "Leave me enough money so that I can continue training my teachers."

It's unlikely, however, that the tiers will go away.

"My sense is that there's not much political will to move from the structure that was created," said Jennifer Kuhn, director of K-12 education with the state Legislative Analyst's Office. "It's a Pandora's box."

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