Opportunity Won: A Cradle to Career Assessment of California's New Budget

By The Opportunity Institute Staff

Governor Brown recently signed a $171 billion budget for 2016-2017 that makes substantial investments in California’s children and education system. With record-high spending for K-12 schools and community colleges under Proposition 98, and higher reimbursement rates for child care providers, this year’s state budget makes progress on developing a more inclusive approach to education that is at all levels more efficient, better connected, and more quality-centered.

The $74.4 billion education package is a turning point for education in the state and marks a significant step up in the long and grueling climb out of the recession. But the opportunities won for education in the budget will not be felt by students who continue to fall through the cracks of the system, cracks that begin in early childhood and widen through 12th grade and college. 

Here are the major education investments - from early childhood to early career - for 2016-17, how they’ll impact each area, and where additional efforts are needed. 

Early Learning

It’s well documented that all children, but especially low-income and dual language learner children, benefit from high-quality early learning experiences. Children who participate in high-quality programs have higher test scores when they enter kindergarten, are less likely to repeat grades, and graduate from high school and attend college at higher rates; early childhood programs are a good deal for the whole system of educating children. By adding nearly three thousand new subsidized slots this year, California’s budget deal makes strides to increase the number of children who will benefit. It also improves early childhood educators’ ability to deliver high-quality care by increasing the rate at which they’re reimbursed for services to keep pace with the minimum wage.

For the early childhood community, this is a good budget that will make progress toward closing achievement gaps and ensuring that a quality education begins in the earliest years. But there is still work to do to increase access and shore up quality. The income eligibility limit at which families qualify for subsidized child care has not been updated since 2007, making access to high-quality early learning out of reach for many families who still must earn less than before the recession to receive state assistance for child care services. While the budget recognizes the need for more subsidized preschool slots, thousands of California children still need access to programs and remain on the waiting list for subsidized care.

 K-12 Education

The budget’s investments in K-12 both complement existing investments in higher education and advance the goal that students - especially disadvantaged students - successfully graduate from high school, well-prepared for college and career.

Proposition 98, which guarantees minimum funding for K-12, community colleges and state preschool, adds $71.9 billion to the budget – a new high record for spending in California and an increase of more than $23 billion since 2011-12. Of this, $2.9 billion goes to helping districts implement simpler school finance and accountability systems through Local Control Formula Funding. A combined increase of $35 million in one‑time General Fund investment focuses on strengthening programs aimed at recruiting additional teachers and streamlining teacher preparation programs – incredibly important in the face of growing teacher shortages.

An additional one-time $1.3 billion will help support and empower local authorities to allocate resources to continued Common Core implementation, Smarter Balanced Assessment infrastructure, and other areas that are not otherwise adequately funded.

But beyond the question of what minimum basis of funding is necessary to support California students, public education advocates should also pay careful attention to matters of equity, even in the face of increased funding levels. Specifically, that local funding truly prioritizes the students with the highest needs, and that increased financial flexibility for districts translates into more intentional and effective programs, strategies, and resources for at-risk students. Ultimately, whether California can deliver on the promise of equitable, high-quality education will depend not solely on bottom-line accounting principles, but on the integrity of community education and engagement.

Higher Education

The budget makes important investments in higher education, too, with a $30 billion plan that increases funding to the University of California, California State Universities, and community colleges, and seeks to bolster degree attainment for low-income and underrepresented students through a number of newly funded programs.

The largest program provides $200 million to establish the Strong Workforce Program at the community colleges, which seeks to increase the availability of regionally relevant, high-quality career and technical education (CTE) courses and pathways. An additional $25 million will be spread among the winners of the Governor’s Awards for Innovation in Higher Education, which encourages community colleges to develop creative and equitable solutions for increasing transfers to four-year institutions, graduation rates, and improving overall time-to-degree. CSU also receives $50 million for its Graduation Initiative, a program that aims to improve four- and six-year graduation rates to 24 percent and 60 percent, respectively, with a particular focus on underrepresented students and first-generation college students.

These programs are crucial for helping to close California’s looming 2.4 million degree gap and we applaud the state for taking the necessary steps to ensure that our public universities and colleges have the tools and resources to help students succeed.

College Opportunities for Currently and Formerly Incarcerated Californians

As we consider how to build opportunities from cradle to career, we must also address the additional challenges faced by Californians who have been impacted by mass incarceration. Millions of the state’s residents have been derailed by incarceration, removing them from the path to a career and leaving them more likely to remain in poverty. California’s public higher education institutions can and should help break the cycle of crime and poverty by reaching out to currently and formerly incarcerated individuals. The budget reflects some dedicated funding directed towards these potential new students, including a one-time allocation of $500,000 to UC Berkeley’s Underground Scholars Initiative, which assists formerly incarcerated students on campus and supports currently incarcerated students seeking to transfer to a UC. This funding will allow UC to join the existing endeavors of community colleges and CSUs, both of which have been opening opportunities for currently and formerly incarcerated students with strong leadership support.

The budget also continues to support the inmate education coordinator office within the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO), providing $2.5 million through 2021 for CCCCO staffing. Two years ago, no California community college offered face-to-face instruction inside a prison. Now, face-to-face transferable college courses are offered in more than half of the state’s prisons, with classes targeted for 30 of the 35 prisons by the end of the year. We urge the CCCCO to take advantage of this budget allocation by maintaining a commitment to high-quality face-to-face college programs, and by finding ways to directly support the local colleges that are carrying much of the burden of this new endeavor.

Finally, one of the biggest hurdles faced by incarcerated college students is the cost of books. The budget allocates $3 million for reusable e-readers specifically for incarcerated students, which, when combined with free open source textbooks, provides a cost-effective way to support the maximum number of new students seeking to rejoin the pathway to a career.

What’s Next?

While the budget is in many ways a win for the state’s early learning, K-12 and higher education sectors, the time has come to shift the debate to a broader conversation about an approach to education in the state that is more holistic and that aligns systems from early learning to early career.

An aligned system helps students prepare for successful, productive futures and helps educators prepare to support students effectively. Alignment is also about forging consistent and clear institutional pathways so that programs are accountable and the opportunity for a great education is available to all children, not just the privileged few. If we’re serious about closing the opportunity gap, we must work to create seamless learning standards, smooth school transitions, and equal opportunity for all students and their families.