Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

The Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown had great expectations for new regional compacts and levels of cooperation five years ago when they invested an unprecedented half-billion dollars in a new program, the California Career Pathways Trust. They envisioned school districts, community colleges and businesses together creating hundreds of new programs in dozens of sectors, from health to high tech, seamlessly guiding students to work certificates, two-and four-year college degrees and jobs and careers of their choice.

Five years later, many of the career and college pathways that the money inspired continue, but the spirit of regional collaboration behind them has largely faded, a recent report concluded. Most of the consortiums that got multimillion-dollar grants failed to achieve the hoped-for regional impact and fully sustain the alliances.

“Although all consortia created important pathways during the grant period, many of them disbanded, did not sustain staffing of (career pathways trust) functions and saw members turn their attention to other matters as new grants or initiatives surfaced,” wrote researchers in the report, California Career Pathways Trust: Sustaining Regional Cross-Sector Partnerships. “By and large, organizations in the collaboratives defaulted back to business as usual after the demands of the grant requirements diminished,” they added.

The report was written by Milbrey McLaughlin, an education professor emeritus at Stanford University, Barry Groves, president of ACS Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and Valerie Lundy-Wagner, the associate director for research at JFF, a workplace development nonprofit based in Boston and Oakland that commissioned the three-part research.

Suddenly flush from a post-recession rebound and revenue from a temporary tax increase that Brown championed, the Legislature created the California Career Pathways Trust in 2013 and began funding it a year later. The $500 million program, a top priority of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, was a huge infusion following significant cuts to career tech and vocational education programs during the recession.

The career pathways trust legislation had a big vision. Most districts have college/career programs in their high schools. The pathways trust required the next step: To receive a grant, community colleges, districts, county offices of education and universities would have to establish consortiums whose mission was to plan for future needs of a regional workforce.

The concept of regionalism made sense. Consortiums brought together teachers, college deans and administrators to share ideas and conduct trainings. They could work through challenges, like creating a common sequence of courses enabling students who completed a pathway program in any high school to take the next requirements in community college. They could make it easier to expand dual enrollment, which allows students to take courses in community college while in high school.

Consortiums are also more efficient for business partners. “You need a regional approach if you are serious about connecting with businesses. They want to work with all districts. They can provide input into courses and provide instructors and resources,” said study co-author Groves, a retired Bay Area superintendent.

The first funding round of $250 million went to 39 consortiums with grants ranging from under $1 million to $15 million (given to 10 consortiums). Those consortiums included 167 K-12 districts, 371 high schools, 13 county offices of education, 845 businesses and 20 universities.

The grantees were required to state how they would sustain funding internally or through outside funding for two years after the three-year state funding ended. The consortiums were expected to continue the regional collaborations that they committed to.

In a rush of activity, grantees created 406 new career pathways and strengthened nearly 1,300 existing pathways, according to data supplied to the state. Most of these continued after the grant ended although the exact number is unknown because the Legislature didn’t require a final evaluation of the program. Because of limited data capacity, the state also doesn’t know how many students completed pathways after high school under the program. As a result, there was “inadequate evidence about student outcomes to make a persuasive case for pathway continuation,” the report said.

What is clear, though, based on researchers’ site visits and 100 interviews with consortium leaders, is that the goals of sustained regional collaborations proved “overly ambitious.”

As the 3-year funding ended, some consortiums cut back the number of pathways. Others laid off the staff responsible for building relationships, sometimes re-assigning the jobs to those with little interest in career pathways, the report said. Aligning pathway courses proved to be complicated and relationships between high schools and some community colleges were “rocky,” the report said. Several consortiums dropped “what they perceived to be uncooperative community colleges from the regional work.”

Success stories

Two successful consortiums cited in the report — the Orange County Regional Consortium and the two-county Tulare-Kings College and Career Collaborative — built lasting relationships and involved partners in making decisions. Both received $15 million grants.

“We did not hire a bunch of people at the regional level knowing funding would disappear,” said Jeff Hittenberger, chief academic officer for the Orange County Department of Education, which has guided the countywide effort. The consortium relied on leaders within the partnerships to do the work instead of funding new positions, he said.

The consortium worked closely with Wallace Walrod, chief economist of the Orange County Business Council, to plan pathways for the next generation of jobs in the county. Over four years, the consortium created 75 new career pathway programs in high schools and community colleges, with the biggest growth in priority areas — computer science and engineering. In response to the shortage of career tech teachers, perhaps the biggest challenge facing pathways’ stability, the consortium has created a credentialing program for career tech teachers.

Recently, the consortium celebrated the growth of career programs and partnerships at the 4th annual OC Pathways event at Edwards Lifesciences, an Irvine-based manufacturer of artificial hearts. Dozens of students told how high school and community college courses and work-based opportunities have put them on the path to becoming emergency medical technicians, machinists, engineers and nurses. Eight businesses were honored with Exemplary Partners Awards.

The Tulare-Kings consortium didn’t have Orange County’s history of district-community college collaboration; it built its new structure from scratch, said Joy Soares, director of the collaborative. “Money brought us together but trust and partnerships have sustained us,” she said.

Since the career pathways funding ended, Gov. Brown has restored $300 million in annual allocations for career technical education. This year the money is split evenly between Career Technical Education Incentive Grants administered by the California Department of Education and K-12 Strong Workforce grants administered by the community colleges. School districts and counties in both the Orange County and Tulare-Kings consortiums used the incentive grants and the money from the Local Control Funding Formula to support their ongoing efforts. Many members of other consortiums did not.

Unlike Tulare-Kings, other consortiums found that three years proved to be too little time to build sustaining relationships, Groves said. “By the time you hire people, start the work do the research, you realize the money will be gone. There was just not enough time.”

Hilary McLean, executive vice president  of the Linked Learning Alliance, a coalition of organizations that promotes rigorous pathways, agreed there is value to regional coordination but the fact that the collaboration wasn’t strong in every region doesn’t mean that the career pathways trust was unsuccessful. The grants provided “the opportunity to increase pathways on a scale California had never seen,” she said.

Groves said the state should take a 10-year look at building out college/career pathways and send a consistent message. It should continue funding regional efforts and have teams of experts to help districts. And funding, he said, should be tied to accountability and metrics.

Unlike the pathways trust program, “funding should be based on outcomes,” he said.

Story originally published by EdSource.