Partnership: Problems and Paradoxes


It sounded so wonderful. An infusion of millions of dollars over the next seven years to address student success and improve student achievement. Partnership for Excellence, as it came to be called, sounded almost too good to be true. Well, it was.

The Partnership for Excellence is a program to enhance student outcomes. These include transfer, degrees and certificates, successful course completion rate, workforce development measures, and basic skills improvement. The system's proposal was designed to exchange improvement in these areas for "a substantial financial investment by the State."

The Chancellor envisioned a seven-year program of structured budget increases in $100 million increments. In year one, $100 million (M) was added to the system's base; the next year another $100M was to be added onto the $100M base, for $200M total. Year three would be funded at $300M, and so on. The hope was to bring the California Community College System to within $1500 per full time equivalent student (FTES) of the national average. Currently we lag far behind other states in funding levels per student.

So, what's happening at the state level?

The system received $100M in its 1998-99 budget. The initial Governor's budget for 1999-2000 allots only $10M in increased funds for Partnership. The $100M is in the base, though no cost of living adjustment was given on that sum. While normally the Governor's recommendations are augmented by available state dollars in May (known as the May revise), it is too early to know just what the final sum might be. While it is possible that the allocation will go up from $10M, it's unlikely that the system will get the full $100M additional investment.

This raises a critical question. If the goals established by the system were envisioned as an exchange (a "quid pro quo" as the Chancellor called it), then what is the expectation for achievement if the program isn't fully funded? If we receive only 10% of the funding, it would seem reasonable that we be held only to 10% of the goals.

This view, however, is not held by other key players in Sacramento. The Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) along with the Department of Finance (DOF) and the California Post-Secondary Education Commission (CPEC) are charged in the Partnership legislation with assessing whether our goals and measures are "clear, reasonable and adequately meet the state's interest in accountability." In a December 1998 joint letter, these three agencies asserted that the "specific goals should be viewed as targets that can be achieved without increasing the level of additional Partnership investment... Any future increase in the level of funding for the Partnership would require that the goals be made even more rigorous."

More recently, in its routine analysis of the Governor's budget, the LAO recommended reducing the proposed $10M augmentation by $8.2M. This would leave only $1.8M as a 1.83% COLA on the original Partnership allocation.

The LAO also recommended that the "Legislature delete the request for $2.5M to improve the transfer ability of community college courses to four-year colleges, because the community colleges should do this within the Partnership for Excellence Program." Based on plans developed by the Intersegmental Committee of Academic Senates, this would fund development of undergraduate major preparation agreements to enhance seamless student transfer across the three systems.

Clearly, one of our deep concerns with Partnership, that we would be expected to do ever more with no additional funds, is a distinct possibility. It will be extremely important that this be addressed by the Chancellor as we engage in discussions about the future of Partnership.

For now, the money is distributed to districts by FTES. But, by April 15, 2000 the system is to develop a "contingent funding mechanism." By the third-year report (using 1999-2000 and possibly Fall 2000 data) it will be determined "whether reasonable progress" has been made. If not, the Board of Governors is authorized to distribute the funds to districts according to performance on the goals. That funding mechanism is to be developed in the state consultation process-and in collaboration with the LAO, DOF and CPEC.

You should note that "reasonableness" has not yet been defined. Whatever the definition, the determination will be based on results from the initial semesters. Given funding uncertainties, the late start-up and general confusion about the program, this is not likely an adequate "test" of colleges' abilities to improve outcomes with funding. It does mean that what individual districts and colleges do their first year of Partnership will be critical to the entire system and our future funding mechanism.

According to the bill, the Legislature "intends to provide funding for the an investment to supplement funding for enrollment growth and cost-of-living [COLA] adjustments ..." However, the Governor's initial budget proposes a disappointing 2.5% rather than the requested 4% in growth funds, and only 1.83% in COLA compared to the requested 3%. It is not clear what happens to the agreement if Partnership were funded while growth and COLA were not.

So what is happening

on the local level? The legislation says that districts will have flexibility in deciding where to put the funds. That sounds good, but what does it really mean? It all depends on whose voices determine the allocation of funds.

Academic senates have both the right and the responsibility to consult on matters of student success, as well as on establishing budget and planning processes, as stipulated in Title 5. Partnership clearly involves all of these. Ensuring the academic senate's role here is a minimum condition of receiving state apportionment. Beyond the legal requirement, if interventions to impact student achievement are to be effective, it is critical that faculty are involved in the design. If faculty haven't been involved at your campus, your senate needs to "crash the party." Let the Academic Senate Office know what's going on, and consider working with us to notify the Chancellor's Office about the problem.

In districts where senates are strong, and administrators are collegially inclined, some wonderful things have happened. Senates in consultation with administrations have set up task forces to address student success and to grapple with how best to utilize the funds to improve education for students. Mentoring projects, tutoring programs, enhanced transfer and articulation efforts, and increased counseling have been added. A sense of excitement, an aura of possibility in previously cash-starved districts, has been created.

But in some districts the promise has ended in disappointment, as demands for increased accountability on the part of faculty have not been matched with funds. In these districts, faculty report that district administrations have kept all or much of the Partnership money for district purposes; little to no money has actually gone to the colleges. From initial reports, it appears that such districts may have simply reported ongoing activities as if they were enabled by Partnership funds. While the legislation notes "districts shall have broad flexibility in expending the funds...," this supplanting approach belies the legislative intent that the money be used for "program enhancement that will improve student success and make progress toward the system goals."

If your district has not used the funds for projects and activities related to student success, then ask the question-what accountability is there for those who disregard the legislative intent and who keep in the district pocket funds intended for students? How will the actions of these administrations and boards be "benchmarked," and who will suffer if we go to district-specific payouts in the future?

Some of these districts utilized partnership funds to increase their reserves or to pay down pre-existing debt. The Partnership Question & Answer document available on the Chancellor's Office website notes in reference to debt retirement that "such action is not restricted but is not advised. Use of a small portion of the funds to retire debt may be allowable if such action directly enables the district to improve its ability to address Partnership goals... As for reserves, use of the funds in this way is not directly related to progress toward the goals."

Other districts utilized Partnership funds to hire full-time faculty. Increasing the ratio of full to part-time faculty can clearly provide students more access to faculty in office hours, more frequent counseling appointments, or smaller classes. Full-timers review programs and identify areas for improvement or redesign. While some predict Partnership dollars will significantly improve the ratio of full to part-time faculty by the end of this year, it remains to be seen how many new faculty were actually hired with Partnership funds and how many were merely retirement replacements charged to the Partnership in district reports.

Chancellor Nussbaum has requested that CEOs re-examine their commitments for 1999-2000 to ensure they are contributing to the Partnership effort. In a recent E-mail to them, the Chancellor noted, "I would expect each of you to address those isolated instances where some of you may have invested some portion of the funds for purposes that you now recognize as having no conceivable relationship to improving performance on system goals."

It remains unclear, beyond coaxing recalcitrants to do the right thing, what the Chancellor's Office is going to do about those districts not responsibly utilizing the funds. What role will the Board of Governors (BOG) and the Chancellor play? In this era, the expectation is that all groups-faculty, administrators, trustees and staff-will be held accountable. How this will be done without truly categorical funding is not evident.

The Partnership approach can be seen as one in a series of attempts to decategorize funding. General calls for "relief from mandates" and the "deregulation of education" have become almost commonplace. Administrative organizations often argue that funds should be given with the least regulation possible. But those who divert Partnership funds for unrelated projects undermine the case for flexibility and make such pleas sound more like rhetoric than prudent fiscal policy. The Legislature has a right to expect that, when it funds a program, a good faith effort will be made to invest the dollars as intended.

The Legislature also has the right to set fiscal policies and priorities for the expenditure of public funds. Historically, ensuring access to underrepresented populations and the promotion of educational equity have been among the key reasons for categorical funding. While Partnership was funded, augmentations for the very programs with proven positive impact on student outcomes (matriculation, EOP&S, Puente, DSPS) did not receive requested augmentations in 1998-99. In the initial Governor's 1999-2000 budget, augmentations for these categorical programs were again not awarded.

Currently the system is discussing May revise priorities, and categorical programs do not appear to be in the mix. For the following year, local districts are asked to review existing state budget categories and comment on which should continue or be deleted from consideration. Local-and state- boards and administrations need to hear from supporters of such programs if they are to be funded in the future. In the meantime, local senates should remember to consider the needs of all students as they make Partnership recommendations for program enhancements.

While many may assume that categorical programs are "okay" and have enough money, this is not the case. For example, according to a 1998-99 budget analysis by the Community College League, funding levels for Disabled Student Programs and Services remains roughly the same as 1989 levels - even though the number of students needing such services has substantially increased, as have expectations and requirements for reasonable accommodations with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

While the continued disparity of student outcomes across demographic and economic groups is a glaring problem in all of public education, Partnership did not specifically include any goal or measure to address this problem. For now, if student equity in achievement is to be addressed, local senates and administrations will need to take up that challenge. Revisiting student equity plans and examining current institutional data would be a good place to start.

Your district was required to report in December 1998 processes and plans for partnership spending. Unfortunately, the report was not intended to serve the purposes of accountability as much as it was to enable the Chancellor's Office to lobby for more Partnership money.

If you were not involved with creating your district's report, or have not received a copy, you should request one from your district office. These are public documents, so you shouldn't have trouble accessing them. The Academic Senate requested a sign-off for the local academic senate on the Partnership reports as is done with matriculation. While this was not adopted, this could be revisited as implementation issues are reinvestigated.

A summary and analysis of the district spending reports is being prepared by the Chancellor's Office. The Academic Senate President, Bill Scroggins, has requested copies of the district reports. We'll be working together to provide that information back to each local senate president. We urge you to review the report and investigate the local use of the funds. If the report is inaccurate or misleading, contact the Academic Senate Office and challenge the report with the Chancellor's Office.

The Academic Senate is sending out a turn-around survey to gauge how many districts actually used Partnership funds for student success purposes and engaged in consultation to do so. Be sure that your senate representatives turn in the survey. It can be mailed back, or brought to the on-site Senate Office at the upcoming spring plenary session (April 15-17, San Francisco Airport Westin)

The Academic Senate will be holding a session breakout on the Partnership for Excellence. Representatives of successful college partnerships will be invited to share tips. Other breakouts will address a range of student success issues and model programs.

Each college will be receiving in the near future a "FACT Book" detailing baseline data on Partnership measures for each college for 1995-1998. It is important that faculty and college personnel review and verify the accuracy of the reported data.

Those faculty and administrators who have risen to the challenge and are using the money to enhance students' educational experiences deserve our recognition and gratitude. They are contributing to the statewide effort; more importantly, they are focused on our true calling, student success.

If we are to take advantage of the current funding and forestall moving to district specific payouts in the future, local senates will have to do what they can to secure Partnership dollars to enhance educational programs and services. Work on your campus to form a real partnership with other faculty, administrators and staff committed to improving education for students.

After all, the point is to get the money to the students. That's where the real magic happens - in the classrooms and student services, libraries and tutoring rooms, the transfer centers and counseling offices-wherever student aspirations and achievements can be supported and extended.