Pregnant at 14, Rhianna Schoon thought she had slender educational prospects. She wasn't sure if the demands of parenting would allow her to finish high school.
"I thought that I was going to have to drop out of school," Schoon said, "and at that point I started not even trying any more."
Then her guidance counselor referred her to a program for pregnant and parenting teenagers. Schoon received weekly parenting classes and enrolled her daughter Kailynn in on-site day care at her high school in Tracy. Kailynn is 2 1 / 2 now. Schoon, defying abysmal graduation rates for pregnant teens, is preparing to enter her junior year of a nursing program.
"I would either still be in high school or working towards a GED (without the program)," Schoon said. "I wouldn't be already graduated and have some college."
Now advocates warn that the California School Age Families Education program, or CalSAFE, and others like it could become casualties of Gov. Jerry Brown's push to streamline California's school funding machinery.
Currently, school districts receive millions of dollars via dedicated streams known as "categoricals," programs enacted to lift specific subgroups of students or bolster goals like career education. Cal-SAFE is one such categorical.
The governor's proposal would eliminate most categoricals, weaving the different threads into grants that districts can spend as they see fit.
When he defends the proposal, the governor is fond of invoking "the principle of subsidiarity" - or more simply, giving districts leeway to spend money on their individual needs, without worrying about satisfying cumbersome state mandates.
The strategy has precedent. During the fiscal tumult of the last few years, California sought to help schools cover budget gaps by making most categoricals flexible and allowing districts to decide where the money went. Brown's plan builds on that momentum.
"Categorical flexibility predates the Brown administration," said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Finance. "The difference is that it was more of a fiscally driven issue under the Schwarzenegger administration, whereas it's more of a philosophical discussion under Governor Brown."
Brown's formula is designed to ensure disadvantaged students aren't neglected. Districts with high concentrations of impoverished, English-learning and foster students would get extra money in the form of concentration grants, and they would need to track the progress of those groups of students. If the academic performance of the vulnerable students stagnates, schools would face penalties culminating in interventions.
But that doesn't account for other distinct groups or programs. Even if the categorical system is unwieldy, the Legislature created the different pots of money with certain students in mind.
"Categoricals were put in place for a reason: it was to protect money for certain categories of folks," said Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association. "So of course when you collapse categoricals into this big pot of money, that is a primary concern."
It is a concern for people who have worked with Cal-SAFE, which has seen its attendance plunge since it became "flexible" during grim budgetary times. Charlene Clemens, a consultant who for years worked for a San Francisco nonprofit that helped administer CalSAFE, worries that districts will have little incentive to continue supporting the program if they have no obligation to do so.
"We think this will be the demise of the program," Clemens said.
Similarly, some educators and lawmakers have criticized Brown's call to nix a categorical for career education entities called Regional Occupation Centers. The governor's blueprint would offset the loss by giving districts extra money for vocational programs.
But not everyone is convinced districts will follow through. The Senate advanced an alternate education bill that would spare the Regional Occupation Center categorical, with lawmakers saying the program is important enough to merit special consideration.
During a recent hearing,Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, lambasted the governor's plan for continuing "a multiyear program of saying career technical education doesn't matter." He pointed to high graduation rates at regional occupation centers in his district and warned against giving districts a "blank check."
Wright's critique of doling out money with no strings attached underscores the central premise of Brown's proposal: let districts decide.
Eliminating categoricals doesn't necessarily mean the end of the services they provide. If districts deem those programs to be worthy, they can retain and continue funding them, or devise new ways to address the same students.
Take Sanger Unified, a small district in Fresno County. Dennis Wiechmann, supervisor of child welfare and attendance for the district, said that despite budget malaise the district has preserved a "community day school" that enrolls kids with behavioral or attendance problems. Wiechmann predicted that even if the categorical funding for the school vanishes, the district would remain committed to protecting the school and the kids it serves.
"They're our kids," Wiechmann said. "The students who grew up here are generally going to stay here and have kids here, and our school board knows that so they're willing to support the kids who are struggling."
But "my fear," Wiechmann added, "is that there could be districts that potentially do not support the struggling students the same way that Sanger Unified does."
The experiment with giving districts more leeway with categorical dollars generally didn't produce huge changes in where those districts spent their money, according to David Plank, executive director of Stanford's Policy Analysis for California Education institute. He attributed that in part to the infrastructure that tends to grow up around categoricals, which includes students who rely on the program and employees that maintain it.
"It's partially institutional inertia to say you have people who are employed, who are members of a union, who are serving a constituency of students in your districts," Plank said. "It's hard - it's politically hard, it's bureaucratically hard - to make rapid changes."
Such hurdles have exposed the categorical system to charges of being overgrown, inefficient and unaccountable, and Plank said a change is overdue. But a shift on the scale the governor is proposing comes with risks, among them the possibility of some students losing out.
"We didn't choose categorical flexibility because we thought it was a good policy in 2009," said Erin Gabel, director of government affairs for the California Department of Education. "We did it because of a fiscal crisis. So we should be very deliberate as we move into a new system."
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543. Follow him on Twitter @CapitolAlert.