If you’ve been following news about the state education budget, you’ve probably been hearing the term “flexibility” quite a bit. At a press conference yesterday, Oakland’s interim superintendent, Roberta Mayor, asked for more of it — minutes before a state PTA representative spoke out against it. (You know you’ve got a contentious issue on your hands when clashing appeals emerge from a joint publicity event.)
But what is budget flexibility, exactly, and what might it mean for California schools?
Brief primer: As of now, in addition to general purpose money, schools can receive more than 60 different kinds of funds — each one with its own rules on how the money can be spent. Those are called categorical funds, and they make up nearly one-third of the state education budget. Some are earmarked for adult education, others for smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, others for school safety, special education, after-school programs, or physical education. You get the picture. (See the entire list, from the state Department of Finance, here.)
Gov. Schwarzenegger wants to let school districts spend that state money however they see fit – at least temporarily, in the face of the budget cuts he has proposed. With three exceptions: special education, child nutrition and child care. Federal funds, such as Title I money for schools serving low-income students, would also be untouched.
The debate: The superintendents I interviewed yesterday at the press conference were all for it. School district financial officers have been complaining for years about the state’s complicated funding system and its byzantine rules. But others, especially those who fought for certain programs, are nervous about giving school districts that kind of discretion. What will it mean for adult education, for example, or for kindergarten class sizes?
The California Teachers Association ran this ad recently, implying that school administrators might not spend the money “in the classroom”:
There is some middle ground. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, for example, takes issue with the governor’s blanket flexibility proposal. Instead, the state agency recommends that California lump 42 of its education funding programs into three block grants: one for special education, one for at-risk students, and one for instructional support.
… Our office, as well as numerous education policy researchers (including the recent collection of Getting Down to Facts authors and the Governor’s Commission on Education Excellence), have long argued the state’s existing system of categorical programs is convoluted, irrational, and overly prescriptive. While the rationale for reform exists in any fiscal environment, the current fiscal climate lends a greater sense of urgency to revisiting the state’s education funding system by offering the possibility of stretching limited dollars further. …
What do you think should happen in this “fiscal climate,” and in the long-term?