Study: deregulating education funding leads to program cuts

State deregulation of about $4.5 billion in funds for K-12 education has resulted in deep cuts to popular programs, as school districts have attempted to use the now-flexible money to balance their budgets, according to a study released last Thursday.

Authored by researchers from the RAND Corporation and Policy Analysis for California Education, the study analyzed 10 districts from across California that were chosen based on fiscal health, centralization, size and geographic location, with equal representation for both sides of each criterion.

In the study, the responses of individual districts to the greater flexibility in program funds were compared with one another to track whether there were similarities between the changes being made to categorical-aid programs.

The categorical-aid programs — meaning the funding was intended for specific uses such as adult schools, arts and music and libraries — were gradually implemented over the last few decades in California until they numbered around 60. Increasing bureaucratic complications appeared as the programs expanded, and there was a call for deregulation to free up funding.

Two years ago, the state government agreed to loosen restrictions on categorical aid for 40 K-12 programs with the intent of allowing local school districts to have more opportunities to fix their budgets in the face of continued cuts from the state.

“We kind of talked about this deregulation as a double-edged sword,” Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley education professor and co-author of the study, said. “It gave local school boards more options as to how to balance their budget, but at the same time, it allowed them to severely cut popular programs.”

According to the study, the cuts had a definite negative impact on low-achieving students because programs that were directed toward these students — such as tutoring and summer school programs as well as textbooks — were some of the programs being cut as a result of the funding flexibility.

“There were some exceptions, but by and large, it particularly hammered programs for low-achieving kids,” said Fuller.

According to Fuller, the study is the second of four reports on the topic. He said the first report, a much shorter statistical report released in January, tracked the formally tied-up money in the districts.

“After doing that analysis, that was how we knew that, by and large, most of this $4.5 billion went to low-achieving kids,” he said.

The third report will be composed of a survey of superintendents to see whether the pattern found in the second can be generalized, and the fourth will be a wrap-up summary report, said Fuller.

Mark Coplan, spokesperson for the Berkeley Unified School District, said he did not find the results of the study completely applicable to the district because its funding is strengthened in part by the roughly $22 million it receives annually through a local parcel tax.

“Berkeley is one of the few districts that is actually flourishing and surviving in this really critical situation around education,” Coplan said.

Currently, the district is looking at its smallest cut in years in state funding after Gov. Jerry Brown’s May revision of the state budget provided $3 billion more in funding for K-12 than had been anticipated back in January. As a result, Coplan has said the district will likely see a cut of $700,000.

According to Coplan, though the district has made efforts to avoid cuts to the classroom, it has been cutting in other areas — such as eliminating administrator, manager and supervisor positions — for the last five years.

“We’ve been cutting positions and programs, but we haven’t been taking and shifting and shuffling dollars to fill holes,” Coplan said. “We’ve been making straightforward, honest cuts.”

A version of this article appeared in print on Thursday, June 2, with the headline “Study: fund flexibility leads to program cuts.”

J.D. Morris is an assistant news editor.