Monday, Nov. 26, 2007 | The bright-eyed high school junior taking calculus and Latin at the nearby community college is ahead of the pack. But according to the budget books, she’s not in class.

Due to a quirk in how schools keep attendance — and how the state pays them — California students who take multiple college classes or job training during school hours aren’t counted for attendance dollars, even though they’re earning credits in school-approved programs. In a time of dwindling budgets, the rule discourages California schools from freely recommending off-campus opportunities such as internships, college classes and career training to students.

“It’s counterproductive, and it’s not supporting the governor’s charge to develop career pathways that link high school and college programs,” said Lynne Ornelas, associate dean of the San Diego Community College District.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a vocal supporter of career technical education, formerly known as vocational education. In San Diego, schools offer those opportunities through the county Regional Occupation Program, which trains teens in everything from childcare and cabinetmaking to web design and international shipping. Job training, once tarred as the track for low-achieving kids, is back in vogue among educators who tout it as a way to make school more relevant to all teens, college-bound or not.

“We recognize that only 25 percent of California students will get a four-year degree,” said Scott Himelstein, director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego. “So what other pathways are we providing to people, to be successful? There’s a recognition that the career tech of yesterday is not the career tech of today.”

Yet if students flock to those programs, school budgets take a hit. California schools earn the bulk of their funding through “average daily attendance,” a formula rooted in the number of students at school each day. When a student spends a full day in class, her school earns roughly $32, according to the district’s accounting department.

But if on Tuesday, that student takes calculus at a community college and learns to edit digital video through the county Regional Occupation Program, she’ll spend less than three hours in a traditional classroom, and her school gets no money. If she goes to calculus on Wednesday but foregoes the video training, her school could get a fraction of its attendance funds.

In San Diego schools, the current formula leaves awkward choice for schools: Send students off campus to learn job skills and college smarts, or keep them on campus for the funding.

“It’s a problem, but we just don’t know to what degree,” said Steve DeWitt, a spokesman for the Association for Career and Technical Education. “We don’t want the schools to make this a disincentive.”

To Nellie Meyer, San Diego Unified’s assistant superintendent of high schools, the dilemma reveals that school attendance-keeping is “outmoded,” based on the assumption that learning always happens in a traditional classroom. Schools have also struggled with how to count students in online classes, Meyer said.

Rules tying funding to minimum hours in the classroom aren’t new. But the conflict has come up more frequently in recent years, as job training resurges in San Diego schools. And as school budgets have tightened, district staffers seek dollars wherever they can. Some are scrutinizing the loss of dollars for students who spend hours in college classes and career technical programs, wondering if those funds could be recouped.

Meyer cited the growing popularity of block scheduling in San Diego as another factor. Block schedules place students in fewer, longer classes than in a traditional schedule, rotated on different days. Under a traditional six-period high school schedule, schools lose state dollars if a student misses more than two classes. In a four-period block schedule, schools lose if a student misses more than one class.

In San Diego, schools have tried to dodge the problem by carefully scheduling job training and community college classes on different days, so the school receives partial funds, or asking students to enroll in college classes before and after school. Counselors who advise students about off-campus opportunities try to put students’ interests ahead of school budgets, said Virginia Eves, director of school to career programs in the district’s office of secondary school innovation.

“It’s been manageable,” Eves said. “But (scheduling) is messy and it takes a lot of time. It’s that kind of hand-scheduling that’s been time-consuming.”

Legislators are aware of the problem, Eves said. But the government is reluctant to double-pay for students who also rack up state dollars for the community colleges and career programs they attend. The simplest solution — splitting the funding — could drain money from colleges and other programs.

“If a student is pursuing a (career) pathway, and working to graduate from high school, shouldn’t both entities be supported?” Eves said at a recent committee meeting. What if California paid twice when students took required classes off campus, she speculated, but only paid the off-campus provider for non-required classes?

The issue has also cropped up in other states. To retain money, Minnesota schools have found an alternative: Pay colleges a small fee to train high school teachers, empowering them to teach college-level courses. High schools keep their attendance dollars, and colleges develop a natural pool of university-ready students, ripe for recruitment.

“There’s a small fee, but it’s far less than the school would lose otherwise,” said Dan Smith, supervisor of adult and career education for the Minnesota Department of Education.

Attendance has been criticized as a shaky basis for school funding, too volatile and too difficult to track as off-campus opportunities multiply. This year, the governor’s Committee on Education Excellence is expected to recommend a radical shift in school finance, allocating dollars per student enrolled, rather than by programs and attendance. Under the new system, needier students, such as English-language learners or low-income kids, would earn more dollars for their schools.

Along the same lines, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California has criticized California for “put(ting) the important school finance decisions on autopilot.”

“California’s new academic standards require a different approach,” wrote PPIC visiting fellow Jon Sonstelie in a March 2007 report. “…The answer is unlikely to be that every school district should have approximately the same revenue per pupil.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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