Partnership academies face squeeze

Money for 210 academies set to expire

Partnership academies, the linchpin of the state’s career and technical education, face a critical year ahead. Funding expires for 210 of the 500 academies at the end of the school year. And there will be renewed pressure to remove protections that have preserved annual funding for the remaining 290.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, like governors before him, has praised partnership academies as a win-win for student achievement and the state’s workforce. But academies remain vulnerable to budget cuts with the state facing a $25 billion budget deficit.

Partnership academies are small communities within a larger high school. Students in the three-year programs take core academic classes and technical classes related to the academy’s theme, whether information technology, business, health, biotechnology, construction and engineering, or themes tied to other industry sectors.

Students must participate in business internships in their junior or senior year, exposing them to the work world and mentorships with partnering companies. At least half of the students must be at risk of dropping out.

Program evaluations consistently have been positive. As David Stern, professor emeritus at the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Education, noted recently, “Academies are one of the only education and youth programs that have produced long-term and sustained impacts on employment and earnings, especially for young males of color, the subgroup that is most vulnerable to long-term spells of unemployment.” Academy students tend to graduate and go on to college in higher numbers, and years later, report higher incomes.

And the academies are a bargain. Schools receive $900 extra per student who meets attendance requirements and completes course credits – up to $81,000 per year for the 90-student program. Business partners are obligated to put up a match.

Total funding for all 500 is $40 million – only about a tenth of 1 percent of expenditures for K-12.  But the timing is bad nonetheless. Five years ago, Schwarzenegger pushed through funding for an additional 150 academies through the general fund, and 60 additional green technology academies were separately established. Both programs will expire in June.

In September, Schwarzenegger vetoed SB 675, sponsored by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, which would have established 97 more green-tech academies by diverting $8 million from a small surcharge on electricity charges run by the Energy Commission. Gov.-elect Jerry Brown, a big proponent of developing alternative energy and a green economy, would presumably be more receptive to the bill if it were reintroduced. But there’s no obvious source of new funding for the other academies.

The 290 original partnership academies, some of which date back 25 years, have been funded as a separate categorical fund. One idea, proposed by the Legislative Analyst’s Office this year, would be to direct  the $19 million for them into a larger career and technology education block grant to counties, along with $383 million for regional occupational centers and $15 million for apprenticeship programs. Counties or districts could use the money however they wanted for career and technology education.

Stern, the Cal professor, thinks that’s a bad idea, because districts would no longer be bound to adhere to the elements that have made partnership academies successful: internships, cohorts of students learning together, an industry advisory board, a cohesive three-year program.

But LAO analyst Jim Soland said that the counties or districts would be free to create funding criteria that match partnership academies’ expectations: high graduation rate, inclusion of A-G core classes, successful internships. Districts whose partnership academies no longer are achieving results or have lost full industry partners could shift the money elsewhere.

At a time when the state Dept. of Education no longer has the staff to monitor all 500 programs – that job is now handled by two people – that may make sense. But it has taken many years to build successful partnership academies, and it would take only one year of discontinued funding for them to fall apart. Successful academies will need advocates and defenders this year.


  1. PA’s are not the “linchpin of the state’s career and technical education” as you stated, John.  They only serve about 3% of our high school population (whereas more traditional forms of CTE on high school campuses serve nearly 30%). 

    But in the last few years, they have become the politically acceptable form of CTE delivery (since they are tied to UC’s A-G admissions coursework and criteria, and therefore not considered “institutional racism” as some social justice groups have unfairly tagged traditional vocational education programs).

    I work with teachers, administrators and industry partners involved with (and funding) Partnership Academies, so I am not anti-PA.  But they are costly ventures that require significant district, state and private dollars and personal investment by faculty, administrators and industry partners. 

    It is often very difficult, for example, to get core academic instructors who understand how to integrate career themes into their instruction (our universities do a poor job teaching real-world applications, given their decontextualized, academic focus).  And it’s even more difficult getting industry-relevant instructional materials to present to students.  That curricular development job used to be done by the CA Dept of Ed CTE staff, but they have largely been driven to extinction, diverted to ELA/Math remediation teams and administration (since the state and fed’s prioritize these two subject-matters at the expense of all the others).

    So while I, too, worry about the future commitment to our state’s PA’s, we ought to be considering the broader issues facing CTE … and, for that matter, the underlying purposes of taxpayer funded education.  We need to get beyond protecting  and advancing politically correct, boutique delivery models and start seriously reconsidering the very purpose of public education before we can ever get real about necessary policy and budgetary reforms.  We simply cannot afford — both in terms of our state’s fiscal abilities and the pressing need to compete in the global economy — to defend the status quo.

    But, as long as the state and federal government continue to prioritize ELA and Mathematics at the expense of other curriculum, the last thing in the world California ought to do is remove the Categorical funding protections afforded CTE (including PA’s).  In 1987, three-quarters of high school students enrolled in campus-delivered CTE courses; this year, it’s less than 29%, and that slide would only build momentum by allowing districts to divert vocational ed dollars toward non-vocational ends.

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