Lawmakers want to strip $400 million from new college-and-career program for public schools

Teacher Jessica DeAnda, left, instructs Liz Valdez, 11, center, as Kayla Torres, 11, right, works on her laptop at Sunrise Middle School on June 22, 2020 in San Jose, the first Bay Area school to reopen since shelter-in-place was announced in March. Photo by Randy Vazquez, Bay Area News Group

State lawmakers are signaling they want to severely downsize a new $500 million program designed to bring college-and-career academic programs to more high school and middle school students.

The learning approach that’s the basis for the half a billion dollar idea, Golden State Pathways Program, is called Linked Learning. 

Esther Soliman doesn’t want that to happen. 

In her 44 years as an educator, Soliman is convinced that Linked Learning is “the solution to exciting kids about learning,” said the administrator for career-technical education at Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest. 

The Senate budget subcommittee on education indicated in late May that it wants to cut $400 million from the Golden State Pathways, a program which the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom promised to fund last year. 

The rationale: Lawmakers want to avoid the $4.3 billion cuts Newsom proposed to school grants to fight against learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic plus funds for the arts.

Newsom needs to cut from a variety of areas to combat a $31.5 billion state budget hole

Lobbyists representing education groups and school districts told CalMatters that education budget staff in the Assembly, in contrast to the Senate’s desire to cut money from Golden State Pathways entirely, instead wants to take back $400 million now and return it at a later date. But a delay could also be a de-facto swing of the ax if the state’s finances don’t improve next year,  said Kevin Gordon, one of the lobbyists.

With a state deficit, California’s fiscal pie has to shrink, but no one wants to give up their slice. 

The agency tasked with doling out the funds, the California Department of Education, opposes the proposed cut. “We’re alarmed by any idea that there will be a cut to Golden State Pathways,” said Steve Zimmer, deputy superintendent at the department whose division includes overseeing the program. He added the cut would bode poorly for California’s economic recovery, given that the pathways program is supposed to train high schoolers in fields that don’t necessarily require a college degree but pay well.

The money, he and others said, helps students avoid having to choose between a college degree and a career.

Still, Zimmer predicted that students won’t actually see pathways programs until next fall. The department only received the $500 million from the state in February and plans to publish the application for districts to apply for the program funds sometime this fall. The department will pick the winners before the end of this year and determine how much a school can receive by then.

Image via iStock

That the money hasn’t been spent yet was another reason a Senate staffer gave for proposing to pull most of the program’s funding. “We did not wholly eliminate the Golden State Pathways Program because we recognized its importance. However, since the funding remained unencumbered, it was reallocated,” wrote Richard Stapler. He is the chief of staff to the Senate’s chair of the budget subcommittee on education, Sen. John Laird, a Democrat from Santa Cruz.

Gordon is counting on Newsom to reject any stripping of funds to the pathways program during negotiations with lawmakers as they finalize the new state budget before June 30. The governor proposed the program last year.

But proponents aren’t taking any chances. District officials, school advocates and business groups are in an all-out blitz to persuade lawmakers to change their minds before the Legislature adopts a budget proposal by the June 15 deadline.

“We recognize the tough fiscal context the state is facing, and we ask: Please don’t balance the budget on the backs of marginalized students,” wrote Kenneth “Chris” Hurst, superintendent of West Contra Costa in the Bay Area, to Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Oakland who is chairperson of the Senate’s budget committee and whose legislative district partially includes West Contra Costa’s.

So far, 93 California school districts that educate 200,000 students use the Linked Learning model, according to the Linked Learning Alliance, a nonprofit which champions funding for the pathways program and the educational model on which it is based. Fully funded, the pathways program could reach a larger slice of the state’s 1.6 million high school students, the alliance said.

It takes money to acquire supplies for career-focused programs. Beyond the equipment, which is often expensive — such as a medical simulation lab or $250,000 for a food truck for students in the culinary arts pathway  — schools need money to coach teachers, have them attend seminars and hire staff to work with community colleges so that students can take college-level courses at their high schools.

Los Angeles Unified employs six coaches to guide teachers in 82 Linked Learning pathways across 42 schools. “If we had more money, we could buy more coaches, we could get schools to have their own coaches,” Soliman said.

Senate staff said there’s already state money to purchase equipment for career-focused school work, citing the $300 million for career-technical education that’s distributed annually to schools that apply for the dollars, plus an additional $100 million left over to help high schools provide community college courses on their campuses. 

But backers of the pathways program say it’s not just a spigot of cash for schools. Instead, it’s a financial incentive to restructure academics based on an effective model.

One independent study found that high school graduation rates went up by 7 percentage points among students who previously had low grades. The same 2018 study said African American students in Linked Learning programs were 12 percentage points more likely to attend a four-year university instead of a community college.

The law creating the pathways program requires participating schools to enroll all their students in the 15 core courses required for entry into a University of California or California State University campus. Statewide, just half of high school graduates complete those courses. Schools in the program must also ensure their students enroll in at least three or four college-level courses, such as through a community college or advanced placement — equivalent to a semester in college. Schools with pathway program money are required to provide students jobs, internships and apprenticeships through employers in the academic pathways they’re studying. 

But unlike other state funding, the pathways program was originally designed to last only through 2029, an issue raised last year by the Legislature’s independent advisor, the Legislative Analyst’s Office. 

Zimmer, the California Department of Education deputy superintendent, said he views the promised $500 million as a way to create model schools that then export their know-how to other campuses, even when the funding runs out.

In her grand vision, Soliman, who is retiring this month, wants every high school student to earn college credit in a career-technical course. 

In a high school career pathway, a student can learn how to be a nurse or software specialist. Those are skills that could translate into passing certifications for entry-level work or credit for a specialized college degree, or working part-time while at college and earning higher wages than traditional work-study. 

A pathways model can also introduce students to professions that no one in their immediate social circle practices, combating racial and economic inequities that limit a child’s exposure to different careers.

“They don’t have mommies and daddies at home who are lawyers or doctors or journalists,” she said. “Our kids deserve that, too.”

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