State School Finance Plan Threatens Career Education

SANTA CRUZ — Wednesday, a day before Gov. Jerry Brown was expected to unveil a proposal to revamp California school finance as part of his budget plan, 17-year-old Alma Martinez weeded a row of broccoli in a garden at Costanoa High School.

Martinez's effort was part of an agricultural class that combines vocational experience with academic instruction in science. It's one of 44 courses offered through the Santa Cruz County Office of Education's Regional Occupational Program. The program serves about 3,500 students countywide each year.

For Martinez, a senior at the Santa Cruz City Schools alternative school, the agricultural class has introduced her to plants, how they grow, and their nutritional value. She's eating healthier these days, she said.

Martinez also travels to Harbor High School to take a second ROP course in health care, which is helping focus her interest in a career in the medical field.

"It's pretty much like a gift," Martinez said.

ROP provides options and opportunities to students, whether they're enrolled in the long-running cosmetology courses or the latest offering, biotechnology, said ROP Director Mark Hodges.

But if Brown's proposal is accepted, advocates say ROP is unlikely to survive. The proposal, known as weighted student formula, would take funding from a slew of special programs, such as vocational training, and hand it over to school districts to spend as they see fit.

It's Brown's second stab in as many years at simplifying the state's complex system of school finance while putting more money into classrooms serving low-income students or those learning English.

"They probably mean well," said Michael Watkins, county schools chief and an outspoken critic of the proposal. "On paper it sounds good. We're going to help the poor and English learners who make up a large percentage of our students."

But Watkins worries that programs, such as ROP, support for beginning teachers, professional and leadership development, will fall victim without assurance that the money will be better spent.

Brett McFadden, chief business official at Pajaro Valley Unified, was involved in discussions about the proposal with the governor's office late last year. With its large numbers of English learners and low-income students, he expects the shift would benefit the district, and he supports the concept.

But McFadden agrees threats to programs like ROP need to be addressed, and he's optimistic they can be.

"Not only are those programs lost, but the pressure to provide them is on me and other districts. We don't have the capability of offering these things," he said.

But the current system has built up over decades, and doesn't work well to meet the current and future demographics of California's students, he said.

"It doesn't mean I don't have concerns," he said. "But for the first time in a long time a governor is actually offering substantive reform and we owe it to ourselves to engage in this dialogue and move through this."


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