Do school districts need more flexibility?

image from Ingorrr’s photostream at flickr.com/creativecommons

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?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • ProStudent

    I’m a little nervous about the school district having free rein to spend as they like (or principals). Yes, there should be flexibility but there should be money specifically allocated for certain things that cannot be eaten up (teacher professional development/mentoring, english language learners, special education, etc.). I think it makes principals and the district have to plan very carefully instead of saying “oops! I ran out of money. I guess we won’t be able to do anything for our ELLs this year.”

  • district employee

    OUSD’s categorical flexibility IS being applied in a middle ground – they are keeping the site-based categorical funds (Title I, EIA-SCE, EIA-LEP, and SLIBG) just as they are with the same restrictions and oversight that we’ve always had. They will be using lottery and TIIG funds to backfill the cuts to GP so that they cuts sites experience are closer to 4.5% than the 9.25% first estimated.

    However, there are many many “centrally funded” programs and staff that provide direct support to one or many sites (program managers, instructional and operations coaches, even school security officers and some counselors) that will likely be eliminated due to the majority of the costs being absorbed centrally. If schools want to continue to receive these services, they’ll have to allocate some of their funds to do so.

  • Katy Murphy

    But do you think the restrictions on some or all of the state’s categorical funds should be lifted, or not?

  • Nextset

    If we go into a fast moving collapse of the economy and the municipalities you would think that maximum flexibility of the governing board would be safer than rigid rules on spending.

    On the other hand you see Congress printing money and giving it to Wall Street fat cats to pay for more bonuses and parties while they move to lay off as many workers as humanly possible. That is also an example of “flexibility”. Flexibility to steal more money.

    Yet we do want to stave off collapse. Collapse comes faster when there is little flexibility.

    Maybe bankruptcy is the answer. A bankrupcy judge and complete freedom from any previously enacted contracts, and then liquidation.

    Does it boil down to whether you trust in democratically elected leaders or not? Well we all know the answer to that. No trust at all. We have seen what they – democrats and republicians alike – do at every opportunity and it’s not paying thier taxes.

  • Nancy

    What evidence can anyone point to that would suggest that to lift controls of how money should be spent would be done responsibly? Even the State Controller had spent $2 million dollars worth of new furniture while in the same breath stopping money to those in need.

    Maybe things need to collapse to break down the sociopathic tendencies of many of those in control of thousands, millions, and billions of dollars wasted at the expense of the regular citizen.

    There has been no indication of ANY content of character of the part of the banks and other corporations bailed out, nor on the part of any at the State level to act morally and distribute money for those intended to benefit, without first taking a huge chunk first.

    It seems to be nepotism and loyalty to those who will kick back to those with the resposibility to oversee large sums of money, and then animal like attack to anyone and everyone who challenges.

    If things need to totally collapse so that each and every program will have to be renegotiated with strict limitations and accountability to wipe out all of the corruption and favortism that appears to be at every level, then let it happen. Bankruptcy, Collapse, whatever. How else can we demand accountablity from sociopaths?

  • Nancy
  • Diane

    I am a new teacher in a Denver urban school. I believe there should be flexibility within the schools however, I also think there should be some kind of static allocation for the special education department. Our school is very poor due to low property values throughout the district. Each one of my students brings in $3200 per year and I have 13 students which equals $41,600. I have not seen one dime of it and currently have about a grand of my own in my classroom this year. We are a vocational/life skills class and everything we do costs money ie. shopping, moving around the city, cooking etc. I have no computers which is a pretty important to for the cognitively low student. Mean while our school is using their money for computers in the 2 new computer labs for the general ed kids. All I ask for is 5 computers to enable my students to learn and progress. Every time I ask for anything I get the same response, “there is no money”. As I first year teacher, I am very discouraged in the way our funds are being allocated. I have a feeling I am not alone.