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Brown's "Principle of Subsidiarity" Draws Support - with an Asterisk

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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, April 29, 2013
There's a paradox in many of the reactions to Governor Jerry Brown's proposal to give California schools more flexibility on how they spend their state tax dollars.  There's general support around the Capitol for breaking down the funding walls surrounding several dozen programs.  But everyone seems to have a favorite program they want to protect.
"So It's Pretty Straight-Forward, Right?"
At a Career Technical Education class in the southern Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove, Sal Lascola talks his high school students through a mechanical engineering class called "computer-aided design drafting," or CADD.  It's one of the state programs with a guaranteed funding stream that could soon go away.
"So it's pretty straight-forward, right?" he asks.
It seems that way to Lascola's 34 students, who each have two computer screens in front of them.  They're measuring and drawing very precise geographic lines and angles to create shapes with rectangles, cylinders and cones.
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A computer-aided design drafting (CADD) Mechanical Engineering class, part of Elk Grove Unified's Career Technical Education program at Monterey Trail High School. (Photo by Ben Adler)
"Right now they're just learning the basics of how to do design, technical drawing, so that they can create objects that they're going to create in their engineering classes or anytime in the future," Lascola says.  Their potential future fields of work could include mechanical engineering, manufacturing, civil engineering and architecture.
Eliminate "Categorical " programs? Yes, But...
Career Tech is one of 60 state-funded programs known as "categoricals."  Others include art, music, Advanced Placement classes, even summer school.  Each comes with its own pot of money and its own rules for how that money must be spent.  Governor Brown wants to eliminate about three-quarters of them - the ones that don't have strings attached, like federal funds or voter approval.  Instead, Brown wants to leave it to each school district to decide how to spend that money.  He called it "the principle of Subsidiarity" in his January State of the State address.
"Subsidiarity is offended when distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught and how it is to be measured," the governor said then.  "I'd prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work - lighting fires in young minds."
Ask around the Capitol and you'll generally find support for this part of the governor's education funding proposal.  Yet more often than not, that support comes with an asterisk.
For example, "I think the overall thrust is a positive one, in terms of local control and giving flexibility to school districts," says Democratic Assemblyman Kevin Mullin.  "But in some fairly rare instances, I believe the administration of those programs works best with direct state oversight."
Mullin has offered a bill in the aftermath of the Newtown, CT elementary school shooting that would exempt a school safety program.  He originally wanted to exempt a teacher training program too, but dropped that idea.
"Maximum Flexibility will Help"
The governor does have some support without the asterisk.  "Of course, there's some in there I like and would like to protect," says Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff.  "But I'm willing to take the things I like and throw it in the whole and let the school districts make that decision, because I think the maximum flexibility will help them use the money that they have a lot more wisely."
Democratic Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg also generally supports eliminating categoricals, with the exception of money for school buses.  He also wants to find a way to ensure Career Tech - one of his top priorities - is expanded.  One way or another, he wants to "make it in the district's best interest to say, God darn - we gotta do more of this.  Right?  Without the need for categoricals."
Which should be good news for Sal Lascola, the Career Tech teacher in Elk Grove.  He knows the governor has a tough job dealing with school funding, but insists his program is worth keeping.  "I'm not asking for more money," he says.  "Just don't cut it.  Keep it coming, if we can, 'cause we do great things."
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Sal Lascola and two of his students, Abdul Haq and Jonathan Leong, at Elk Grove Unified's Monterey Trail High School. (Photo by Ben Adler)
Lascola's school district says it fully intends to keep his program funded - no matter how the governor's proposal ends up.  And that's what Brown wants: for the district to make those decisions, not the state.
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