No Accounting for Partnership


Now in its second year, the Partnership for Excellence program continues to generate considerable controversy. In some districts collegial and collaborative approaches have worked to direct funds to much needed improvements in instruction and student services that address the five areas for increased student outcomes. However, in other districts, faculty report that Partnership funds have not even made it to the colleges, much less to the students.

The Partnership for Excellence is an "accountability program" with no fiscal accountability. The program was sold to the Legislature and the Governor's Office as a means for infusing additional money into the system in exchange for systemwide improvement on several quantifiable "student outcomes" measures. However, there are no real guidelines, and only minimal reporting requirements for the actual expenditures of dollars. As a result many districts are not using the money to meet Partnership goals.

Make no mistake: there is a real danger to our system here. The Chancellor has committed us to a course of action, failing which we will go to district-specific performance based funding, an "outcome" which, even the Chancellor's Office admits, would be disastrous. If the Partnership goals can be met within a framework of academic integrity, then new money is going to have to be expended in pursuit of those goals. In fact, on at least two of them, our prospects for success are dismal; both numbers of transfers and basic skills indicators are down after the first year of Partnership. And, if we fail, who will be blamed? We cannot afford a cavalier attitude toward the expenditure of Partnership dollars. Yet that is what we're finding.

Reviewing expenditures reported by their districts, faculty find that in many cases, districts are reporting already allocated expenses as Partnership investments. Thus, replacement positions for retiring faculty, ongoing transfer initiatives or basic skills programs, and other routine college operations already funded in the district budget are being reported as Partnership expenditures. While technically not prohibited, these supplanted expenditures do not represent increased or enhanced services to students and will not move the system toward the increased goal attainment required in the legislation.

And, apparently, anything goes. Paying down deficits, paying off Certificates of Participation (COPS), relocation of portables, building new fences around the track, fixing the pool and expanding to neighboring military bases are among the actual expenditures faculty are reporting for Partnership funds. How these projects will contribute to enhanced student success is evidently immaterial. In some districts, "flexibility" and "local control" have become proxies for "whatever the CEO wants." Such outright flaunting of the Legislature's intentions to foster student success breeds cynicism. In these districts faculty are enjoined to improve student outcomes without being given new tools or resources with which to do so.

The emphasis on outcomes, or ends, in the Partnership program, without a corresponding attention to the means, represents a real threat to academic integrity. For the program is sure to translate into pressures to "make goal," but without the accompanying investments of time and funds, the only sure way to increase student achievement rates is to "play the numbers game."

In September, Chancellor Nussbaum requested that each district estimate the share of increase each college could expect to contribute on each measure by 2005; districts were asked to report on their local goals by November 17, 1999. Districts have been asked to estimate whether their progress on each goal could be expected to be "Slow at first, but then more rapid," "Same each year," or "gradually increasing." No guidance or technical assistance was provided as to how to estimate this potential progress, and the districts were instructed to pretend that full funding of Partnership as well as growth and COLA would be provided. No matter "Partnership" from Page 1 that these assumptions have already proven unfounded given this year's budget. The Chancellor did not discuss the move to establish local goals with the Consultation Council prior to issuing the letter. Previous recommendations of consultation and the work of the task force on contingent funding were not reflected in the wording of the request. The instructions included no language to indicate that the targets should represent real, value-added gains in student preparation and achievement. The instructions did not suggest safeguards against playing with numbers, inflation of grades or reduction of academic rigor, the generation of meaningless certificates or reduced degree requirements, or the changing of administrative counting practices to achieve cosmetic numerical increases. The letter did not mention that bringing all students up to a comparable level of achievement should be a priority in this year of the Board's declared commitment to diversity. The letter did not issue warnings about shifting student demographics or the recruitment of already more prepared students to make the district or college appear more successful. There was no recommendation that colleges should carefully consider their commitment to the overall mission, their curriculum balance, and their mix of programs. The only stated concern was making goal, using already questionable assumptions.

Faculty are not the only ones concerned about the implementation of Partnership. Many local administrators-CIOs, deans, institutional researchers- have registered concerns as well; some have been very vocal in the current task force on contingent funding. Recently, a chancellor at a large district wrote Chancellor Nussbaum of his concerns regarding the lack of "bottom-up" involvement in the setting of goals and the potential for demoralization and cynicism in the current approach. Members of the Board of Governors have also expressed concern over the lack of monitoring and the continued implementation controversies. Board members asked questions in their most recent meeting, and many appear genuinely concerned about the issue of fiscal accountability.

Until recently, efforts on the part of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges to get the attention of the Chancellor's Office on this issue had been largely dismissed. We have been told that after all, the first year of funding came late, and there was pent-up demand given the leanness of our allocations in the last decades. When pressed, members of the Chancellor's Office have asserted that the program is an investment strategy, designed to increase the funds for the overall system in exchange for increases in student outcomes. Examination of Partnership budget language reveals the weakness. While there is clear legislative intent that money should be directed to educational programs and services to enhance students' educational experience, no categorical imperative instructs districts to actually so direct the money. As an argument, "not technically breaking the law" might work in court, but it hardly bodes well for the integrity of our system. It is certainly not a student-centered response. Nor will it move us collectively toward the goal attainment necessary to forestall the move to contingent funding based on college performance after the third year of Partnership funds.

While the Partnership budget language leaves room for debate, Title 5 language does not. Processes for institutional planning and budget development, as well as standards and policies for student preparation and success, are matters under the purview of the local academic senate. Thus, districts that do not follow existing processes or engage in collegial consultation regarding Partnership processes are in violation of Title 5. Students and staff also have the right to effective participation (by Title 5) in the decision-making process with regard to Partnership.

Local senates have reported numerous potential Title 5 violations to the Academic Senate. In a September 9 responses to the Contra Costa District Academic Senate's report of infractions, Chancellor Nussbaum stated that districts may act contrary to the recommendation of the senate, or without mutual agreement, "only after a good faith effort..." to consult with the senate on the part of the district. Yet, in many cases, local CEOs appear to be acting without any consultation at all, citing the need to act in the summer or the urgency of district obligations, or they simply remain silent in the face of faculty entreaties for consultation. Even where consultation has occurred, it appears many district administrations have taken sizable shares off the top of the Partnership allocation prior to consultation and distribution to the colleges.

The Academic Senate has asked for local senate sign-off on the plans and reports for Partnership to verify that appropriate consultation processes have been followed. If we are to work together and forestall contingent funding, this mechanism can serve to bring the necessary parties together and generate "buy-in." Districts doing things "right" should have no problem with this requirement, and those having difficulty can be identified for assistance. Upcoming meetings in consultation and with the CEO group are scheduled to address concerns. We have succeeded in getting the Chancellor and the system's attention. We hope that ways to work out the problems are possible.

The Academic Senate has challenged the Chancellor's Office to fulfill its obligation for compliance monitoring. If this is to be the system's accountability program, then the Chancellor's Office must be accountable as well for the implementation of the program which it designed and which it passed over the continued objections of many faculty and staff in the system. The reputation of the system is at stake-we must not shortchange students by encouraging districts to make progress on the indicators on the cheap.

But we have to help. Chancellor Nussbaum has asked for specifics. So if you have a specific problem with the way the Partnership processes have been handled in your district, please write to us immediately and let us know your concerns. If you believe Title 5 violations have occurred regarding consultation on processes for Partnership, you can write directly to the Chancellor and copy the Academic Senate. In either case, please act immediately.