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Calif.'s Categorical Programs Often Lose Focus, Study Says

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Sacramento, Calif.--Because of the particular process by which they are funded, California's state and federal "categorical" education programs--the largest in the nation--completely lose their structural distinctiveness at the local level, according to a study by the state's department of finance.

The programs merge, overlap, and often duplicate the efforts of other such programs, the study says, with the result that teachers, parents, and administrators find it "difficult, if not impossible" to coordinate and evaluate them.

The study team also found that even in schools receiving large amounts of support from categorical programs, "few teachers understand the distinct features of most categorical programs" or which children could be best served by alternative programs.

The money for "categoricals"--$3.3 billion of the $11.25 billion in funds from all sources spent on California schools this year--starts out at the state or federal level in separate budgets, with separate bureaucracies, target student populations, and grassroots supporters. But when it reaches individual schools, state finance department researchers found, it is put into the "pot" of budget funds that school officials use to run their overall program.

Categorical Program Funding

So muddled have the funds become that even state education officials are unable to say how much of the $3.3 billion spent on categorical programs comes from the federal government and how much comes from the state. "That is reflective of the whole situation," one official commented.

The only lingering trace of the original funding, according to the state report, is the "audit trail" that results when, after school officials have decided how to spend their budget, they reallocate the funds on paper according to the rules governing each categorical program.

"At the school site," the report says, "programs seem to be so completely merged that the differentiation seems to be centered almost completely around the maintenance of a sufficient audit trail. As a result, the technical requirements of the law governing each of the categorical programs could be met and the district would not be risking a potential audit exception. ..."

That process--which, in the words of one California official, in effect creates a "block grant" for schools--raises important questions for policy makers, according to the state study: "If program distinctions are not preserved at the student level, how can the effects of categorical programs be attributed to specific programs? Similarly, how can the public's concern about the need for, and the effects of, individual categorical programs be addressed?"

Begun about two years ago by a team of four researchers from the state finance agency, the study involved interviews with more than 500 educators in 75 of California's 1,100 districts and county offices of education. Its findings will most likely be viewed with interest by educators since California was a pioneer in adopting the concept of categorical programs--it launched a compensatory-education program in 1962, three years before the advent of the federal government's Title I--and its strategies have been emulated by other states.

But the findings, summarized in a 121-page report, have not been disseminated. After receiving a draft of the document in April 1981, aides to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Wilson C. Riles charged that the study was "flawed" and should be withheld. The agency's decision not to release it was apparently made after the aides argued in writing that its release "would obscure policy debate in this important area [categorical programs]." A copy of the document, however, was made available earlier this year to the Sacramento Union.

The department of finance routinely carries out studies of publicly funded programs for the governor and state legislators. Agency officials said they undertook the review of categorical programs in light of several national surveys that pointed to problems in the coordination and operation of categorical programs. The research team, said a department official, wanted to obtain "firsthand" information on the operation of the programs at the district and school levels.

The study focuses on some problems that were touched on in a Rand Corporation study completed last year for the U.S. Education Department (see Education Week, Dec. 21, 1981). That study also noted the phenomenon of "cross subsidy," in which funds for one categorical program were used to support others, and found that administrators ex-perienced significant "difficulties" in administering "multiple categorical programs."

The California researchers found that many officials were juggling as many as 12 state and federal programs at once. Among them are the state's Economic Impact Aid Program, School Improvement Program, State Preschool Program, Miller-Unruh Reading Program, Master Plan for Special Education, and Demonstration Programs in Reading and Math, and the federal government's Title I compensatory and migrant programs, Title VII bilingual program, and vocational-education program.

Conclusions of the Report

The researchers' report, "A Study of California's Categorical Education Programs for Kindergarten Through 12," concluded that:

Evaluation of each separate categorical program to determine its contribution to academic gains or losses is "difficult, if not impossible, because of overlap and duplication of program efforts."

"Comprehensive program coordination rarely exists."

"Administrative and statutory requirements may adversely affect program operations."

Significant participation by parents, often required by categorical programs, "seems to occur infrequently."

Parents interviewed for the report "could rarely indicate an area of specific change in the school plan that had taken place due to the impact of parents or other members of the community."

"Very few members of parent advisory councils or committees ... have a comprehensive understanding of the specific goals, objectives, funding mechanisms, and constraints of the various categorical programs."

Separate planning efforts are required for different programs even though many of them serve the same group of students.

"A dozen or more categorical programs can be operating in a school at any given time. Moreover, due to the special characteristics of some of the programs, two, three, four, or more programs can be addressing the needs of an individual student simultaneously."

Many local committees and councils for separate categorical pro-grams overlap or duplicate each other.

The researchers found that, at some schools, one group held a single meeting covering all programs; in others, the same people met on separate occasions to cover what they described as essentially the same issues.

In interviews, the team found that "some school staff question the practicality of maintaining separate and distinct programs at the student level. Some classroom teachers and administrators pointed out that many of the requirements imposed by categorical programs are simply not realistic, given the organization of the typical classroom and the natural desire of many categorically funded teachers and aids to help all children to learn."

Arguing that the programs are costly efforts that "have questionable impact in remediating student needs," the researchers questioned the advisability of continuing them. Because of their high administrative costs, they asserted, "less money is available for services which may have more direct impact on students."

"There are few assurances," they wrote, "that each pupil eligible to receive categorical services will benefit from any categorical program and that any consistent method will be used to select those who will be served."

The argument that ensued after Mr. Riles's office received a draft of the report is reflected in appendices to the final document. William Whiteneck, a spokesman for Mr. Riles, charged that the report "starts with questionable assumptions, proceeds to make findings based on opinion, provides no empirical evidence for its conclusions, and makes no formal recommendations."

Barney Donnelly, then-chief of program evaluation for the state finance agency, responded that the researchers had followed acceptable information-gathering procedures, but did not intend the study to be "a comprehensive review."

"If large organizations refused to examine aspects of their operations unless they could be studied exhaustively under rigid technical standards, then many activities that people consider important would never be reviewed," Mr. Donnelly said.

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