Draft accountability plans raise concerns about usefulness to parents

Parent committee members and school officials review a draft of West Contra Costa Unified's LCAP on Wednesday, April 16 in Richmond. Photo by Alex Gronke

Parent committee members and school officials review a draft of West Contra Costa Unified’s LCAP on Wednesday, April 16 in Richmond. Photo by Alex Gronke

California school districts are in the process of drafting plans detailing how they intend to spend state education dollars and, so far, most of the documents are dense with education jargon, acronyms and legalese. And in many cases, they don’t provide a clear picture of how districts will use state funds to improve the academic performance of “high-needs” students.

The Local Control Funding Formula law promoted by Gov. Jerry Brown and approved last summer by the state Legislature is radically revising California’s school financing system. It requires districts to file a Local Control and Accountability Plan by July 1 of this year, and publish a draft plan ahead of that date so that parents, teachers and others at the local level can give their input.

Only a tiny fraction of the nearly 1,000 districts in the state have issued their draft plans. But as the plans are released, they are raising concerns about how useful they will be to parents and other community representatives trying to understand how funds will be spent, including money that is supposed to be targeted at high-needs students – low-income students, English learners and foster children.

The accountability plans are at the heart of Gov. Jerry Brown’s efforts to give local school districts more decision-making powers – and to encourage parents to get involved as well.

“The plans are useful in pushing superintendents and schools boards to articulate clear goals, but then they rapidly descend into the minutiae and the weeds, which makes these documents very hard to decipher,” said Bruce Fuller, professor of education at UC Berkeley.

The plans end up being “so detailed and gangly that they are hard for the average citizen to make sense of,” said Fuller, who is co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, a joint research and policy center sponsored by UC Berkeley, Stanford and the University of Southern California. “They look like a buffet of different lunch items, a bunch of different program initiatives, not boiled down into two or three core priorities.”

In the draft accountability plans reviewed by EdSource, in many cases it is hard to easily zero in on key information, such as:

  • How much districts are receiving through the Local Control Funding Formula, including  additional dollars based on their enrollment of low-income and other high-needs children
  • Whether state funds are being spent on new programs, or to underwrite existing ones
  • What proportion of funds are being spent on all students vs. high-needs students
  • Projections of how student achievement will improve over time using specific benchmarks

Districts must use a plan template created by the State Board of Education to meet a range of requirements in the state education code. Districts are free to publish supplementary materials that more clearly describe their plans, but most districts are using only the template, although in some cases they are modifying it to achieve greater clarity.

Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, said if necessary, the board will revise the template. The documents issued by districts this year represent “a first take on what can go into an accountability plan,” he said. “We anticipate learning a lot from this first round of LCAPs and are committed to refining the template from there.”

Kirst, one of the architects of the new law who has advised Brown on education since the governor’s first term, said the law prescribing the accountability plan represented a compromise among a range of interests, and that “there is a risk of some plans being too brief or too high-level to be meaningful.”

Of the six districts EdSource is tracking as part of its “Following the School Funding Formula” project, East Side Union High School District in San Jose, West Contra Costa Unified and San Diego Unified have issued their draft plans. San Diego Unified’s 51-page plan has been scrubbed of acronyms, but its sheer length could intimidate all but the most intrepid budget watchdogs. West Contra Costa’s 17-page plan tends toward the “high-level” end, with pages of rows and columns containing programs and budget figures. East Side Union’s plan veers toward being “too brief” – a 12-page document with minimal detail.

One entry in West Contra Costa’s plan, in a column with the heading “Identified Need and Metric,” reads, “Decrease achievement gap on standardized tests (CAASPP, CAHSEE, PSAT, EAP, AP). Another reads, ”Increase % of facilities with overall rating of ‘Good’ or ‘Exemplary’ on Williams’ Visit Report.” Anyone who does not know about the Williams lawsuit and 2004 settlement to which it refers would be lost.

Even East Side’s slimmer draft plan runs the risk of losing all but the most informed insiders with entries like this one on teacher training: “Align the focus of collaboration to the targeted goals (CCSS, technology, ELL strategies, examining data, etc.).”

Liliana Garcia, who sits on West Contra Costa Unified’s 36-member District LCAP Advisory Committee, which has been meeting with school officials to review the plan, said she found it confusing. She said she did not get a clear picture of how approximately $24 million intended for the three categories of high-needs students targeted by the state will be distributed across the 30,000-student district next school year.

Fellow committee member Carolyn Day Flowers, who has been on a member of her school site council for several years, worried about people who are newcomers to the issues. “It would benefit a lot of people out there if there were an objective primer people could use,” she said. “If you are a parent who has not been part of the process, the plan is just full of jargon and acronyms.”

At its meeting on April 28 the district’s advisory committee sought – and received – clarification from the district of some of the items listed in the district’s plan, evidence that the process is achieving some of its community engagement goals.

West Contra Costa Superintendent Bruce Harter said the draft plan is intended to give the school board detailed information about the full scope of the district’s activities and budget proposals. “We don’t want to take away the complexity from the board,” he said. “We are not trying to turn our community members into board members. That is not their role. Their role is to give advice to the board.”

He said community members and the board have been involved in the process at the same time and that “we feel our community deserves to have the same information as the board.”

The three parent advisory committee meetings his district is holding – the last one will be May 8 – are giving community members a thorough understanding of the plan, he said. “I think the process is working as intended,” Harter said.

He also pointed to an executive summary published by his district, which is far easier to read and understand than the heftier draft accountability plan, suggesting an approach that other districts could adopt.

Other districts are also trying to present information in a way that doesn’t befuddle the non-expert. Elk Grove Unified, near Sacramento, has included design features using different colors to help readers through its draft plan. The document has been translated into Spanish, Vietnamese, and two dialects of Hmong. In addition to its 33-page formal draft plan, Los Angeles Unified issued a companion document along with charts and illustrations that explains in simpler terms how it plans to spend state funds. Berkeley Unified has produced a four-page “overview,” which also attempts to explain its plan and priorities in simpler English.

After school boards sign off on the accountability plans, they go to county offices of education for approval. State Board President Kirst said the plans are being drawn up without districts knowing what county offices of education will need to approve them and what standards – referred to as evaluation rubrics – the State Board of Education will draw up next year to evaluate a district’s performance.

“Districts are operating in a world without having the benefit of the details of the county office review process, or the evaluation rubric, both of which will inform the completion of the template in future years,” he said.

The level of detail that county officials may need is not necessarily what parents unschooled in the complexities of school finance need, said David Plank, PACE’s executive director.

“The complexities, the density, the detail are right up a county office of education’s street,” Plank said. “That is what they would want to know. It is understandable that districts are looking at these as accountability documents and are providing as much detail as they can.”

Plank said the current accountability plans touch on a fundamental – and as yet unanswered question – question: “To whom are schools ultimately accountable?”

He said school districts are used to answering to Sacramento – and providing government bureaucracies information they need to satisfy both state and federal accountability requirements.

“The draft plans you see reflect that familiar orientation,” Plank said. “It is still an open question as to whether communities have the capacity, knowledge or interest to hold districts accountable in a meaningful way – or whether counties or the state will reassert their top-down authority.”

EdSource reporter Alex Gronke contributed to this report. 


Filed under: Local Control Funding Formula, Parent Involvement, Policy & Finance, Reforms, School Finance, State Education Policy

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13 Responses to “Draft accountability plans raise concerns about usefulness to parents”

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  1. concerned parent on May 26, 2014 at 3:33 pm05/26/2014 3:33 pm

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    I am upset at the LCAP process where my child attends. it is not incorporating any real meaningful input of parents. The LCAP committee meets in secret (not announced) and this committee takes the heartfelt and meaningful information presented by parents and discards whatever it does not like.

    Then the LCAP group (comprised of perhaps 95% of district paid workers) puts together a very lackluster, non meaninful, vague, LCAP 3 year plan where really the plan had no movement or molding from any parent input what so ever in my opinion.

    I say, the State of California needs to not trust school districts and instead go back to heavy oversight of mandated spending for the low income low preforming, the foster youth, those with disabilities and all other groups that the state believes are falling down or behind with regard to the education process.

    What a mess and what a lie the LCAP process is.

    concerned parent

  2. Manuel on May 18, 2014 at 9:43 am05/18/2014 9:43 am

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    After two full days of training, and more than eighteen hours of meeting time for the LAUSD Parent Advisory Committee, here is what “officially” came out of all that work:

    1) Focus funding on the three targeted student populations to ensure that they progress annually.

    2) Update the technological infrastructure at schools to support the delivery of curriculum and instruction and to provide ongoing training on the Common Core State Standards for teachers and parents.

    3) Ensure that services follow foster youth, who need individual academic, social-emotional and health‐related support with appropriate monitoring from counselors, state and federal agencies.

    4) Ensure that there are effective classified, teaching and administrative staff who will work with a racially, socio-economically and linguistically diverse population.

    No analysis of the proposed expenses, no questions about the efficacy of the suggested line items, in other words, no analysis. Yeah, even though examining the LCAP was good for these parents, their attempts to provide meaningful comment was totally thrown out the window in favor of something that matched the desired outcome. A banana republic has more public scrutiny of its public affairs than this.


    • Manuel on May 18, 2014 at 9:44 am05/18/2014 9:44 am

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      oops, sorry for the wacky characters that resulted from cut-and-paste…

  3. Doctor J on May 8, 2014 at 9:12 pm05/8/2014 9:12 pm

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    Mt. Diablo USD told principals last night that the LCAP is “almost finished” –all written in secret behind closed doors with no real meaningful public input and principals are now tasked with recruiting one member of their School Site Council for a single meeting on May 22nd from 3pm to 5 pm to review the plan (without prior inspection) and “approve it” ( read that as RUBBER STAMP). But the leading candidate in the County Supt election has the support of MDUSD administrators. Meaningful ??? It’s bogus — that’s the nicest word I know to describe it.

  4. Don on May 8, 2014 at 1:04 pm05/8/2014 1:04 pm

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    Just to clarify with a a simple example – Jose is an English language learner in the LAUSD. As such he generates funding in the form of the supplemental and concentration grants to LAUSD which is in excess of 55%. But that doesn’t mean Jose himself will receive a penny of that extra funding. If Jose is not a recipient of funding why should his parents participate in the LCAP process? Moreover, how can the CDE determine whether the LEA is in compliance with serving the targeted students if there’s no headcount of students served?


    • Floyd Thursby on May 8, 2014 at 2:56 pm05/8/2014 2:56 pm

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      I have only one question. What?

  5. Don Krause on May 7, 2014 at 9:23 pm05/7/2014 9:23 pm

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    If parents are motivated to participate in the LCAP process it is mainly to advocate for their children. Because the LCAP is designed to provide extra services to low income, limited English, and foster students, most parents/guardians of those students want to know how the LCAP will help them as LCAP translates to school sites.

    Unfortunately, while there is a general expectation in the LCFF law to address the targeted demographics, there is no requirement to meet the needs of all targeted students in those demographics. In other words, every targeted student increases the allocation of supplemental and concentration grant money to districts, but districts are not obliged to allocate the grant money to each and every one of those targeted students generating it – a funding scheme which is fundamentally different than the strict requirements of many former categorical programs and some existent ones. This loss of per-pupil accountability on behalf of the LEA to the SEA equates to greater local discretion on how to spend, that is, greater flexibility. Unfortunately for parents, if they think their targeted students are entitled by law to S and C grants they are mistaken. A district can decide with this new found legal discretion to allocate grants monies to a particular set of schools and provide no additional monies to others, even if those other schools are filled with targeted students. This happens in an extreme fashion in San Francisco.

    In this way LCAP falls down on the job when it comes to families because it doesn’t deal in people or schools yet asked for participation by the end users whose focus is on schools only. The LCAP is a district level strategic plan that deals in numbers and demographics, and in larger districts in particular the daily concerns of families and communities are not part of the LCAP equation. As parents find out that they have no say in the process as it relates to their schools they will have no reason to participate in a sham.

  6. SD Parent on May 7, 2014 at 6:25 pm05/7/2014 6:25 pm

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    Ditto to TransParent’s comments. Despite having many LCAP input sessions, ultimately San Diego Unified dusted off its 2011 staff-developed “12 Indicators of a Quality School” and used each of the 12 indicators as their goals in the LCAP. As a result, one of the glaring omissions in the LCAP is any stated goal(s) around parent involvement. Instead, involvement is stuffed into corners of goals like “Closing the Achievement Gap” and “Access to a Broad and Challenging Curriculum” by including parents in planning and monitoring student courses to graduate. There is no mention at all of engaging parents in the LCAP process and all the issues surrounding this, like understanding the district and site budgets or rules and responsibilities of School Site Councils and Single Plans for Student Achievement.

    Even within the stated goals, there is ambiguity and little accountability. “Quality Teaching” is listed as a goal with a $409 M price tag and four actions. But ambiguous actions like “provide for effective teacher hiring and recruitment…and retention practices” leaves one wondering if this is just a euphemism for salary and benefit increases (at the same time the district is offering every single parcel of “excess” property it owns for sale in an effort to balance it’s huge budget deficit, really?). Other services and “metrics” under “Quality Teaching” include the ambiguous “Quality Teaching and Leadership Continuum” (huh?). And while there are several references to teacher quality and support, there is no mention of an actual metric with any rubric/evaluation system to determine whether teaching IS quality.

    The reality is that San Diego Unified’s LCAP is full of ambiguities and vague pleasantries with no meaningful accountability. “Demonstrated Growth” is the actual response to “What will be different/improved for students (based on identified metric)” for all goals in the LCAP over the next three years. Without real metrics, this LCAP is meaningless…

  7. TransParent on May 7, 2014 at 3:22 pm05/7/2014 3:22 pm

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    Parents are usually the last to know anything about the public school and district their children attend. Schools rarely welcome parents in discussions around planning, policy and shared decision-making and when they do, they don’t have a method that consistently allows families to understand terms, documents, programs, budgets….none of it. Families have not been given an appropriate orientation to any of this, by and large. I am not saying it is easy to do. I am saying the schools receive funds to help them to build expertise among families and more funds to help teachers learn how to talk with families. I do not see how anything is going to improve when the over arching operating philosophy in our public schools is that when it comes to making decisions like these, families do not matter.

  8. Roberto Fonseca on May 7, 2014 at 11:54 am05/7/2014 11:54 am

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    When it comes to the issue of accountability, LEA’s are not only held accountable to Sacramento, but most importantly, Tax Payers. Also, to diminsh people’s ability to discern,comprehend, analyze,revise etc, it an insult to all. In los Angeles Unified School District, global information has presente to parents which was useless. LAUSD has consitently failed to provide detailed information as well as a breakdown by schools, personnel etc..Remember, the devil is in the details and district are counting only on providing general/global information and leaving out specifics. Why is that? As a taxpayer, I would like to know where the money goes, how is invested, how effective will be its utilization etc.. In addition, the parent involvement component does not have a strategic plan on how all the schools will be involved. By far, LAUSD has not even trained parents on Common Core. Ask any parent in LAUSD that is not part of the Parent Advisory Committee is they know what LCFF and LCAP is and you will find that most, if not all, have no clue as what you are talking abouot.


    • el on May 7, 2014 at 5:30 pm05/7/2014 5:30 pm

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      I maintain that a district-wide Local Control Accountability Plan for LAUSD is ridiculous on its face. LAUSD consists of over 700 schools. There’s certainly not even a page per school. And the people writing the plan have probably never visited every school, and may not even be able to locate them on a map. It’s not local. It’s hardly even possible for every principal to have input into such a plan.

  9. Doctor J on May 7, 2014 at 9:28 am05/7/2014 9:28 am

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    West Contra Costa got an early start and it shows. Its neighbor, Mt. Diablo Unified could best be described by the old TV program “Lost in Space”. It’s still conducting community information meetings, not allowing meaningful input, the actual plan being drafted in secret behind closed doors after most of the new money spent on administrator and teacher raises, out of compliance on AB 1575, MDUSD has no specific public plans on development of the LCAP, has traditionally hid the budget specifics from the public, and only provided last minute generalized PowerPoint presentations that are so simplistic they don’t allow Board members to ask intelligent questions. complaints by Board members go unneeded. The Big Four contracts all expire on June 30: 3 Asst. Supt’s, the CFO, In addition, the Boards legal counsel is interim. Unfortunately, I think MDUSD is the rule rather than the exception. Kudos to its neighbor, West Contra Costa USD, who seems to have it together on this issue.

  10. Bruce William Smith on May 7, 2014 at 8:32 am05/7/2014 8:32 am

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    Most useful would be if the federal and state governments adopted accountability orientations consistent with those of the parents — which around here means improving outcomes for our young people by raising the academic accountability of the students, and this could be done by establishing a credibly world-class qualification for higher education. The present coalition government of the United Kingdom is showing the way by reforming advanced level examinations; we at One World Lyceum propose similar exams at the center of a baccalaureate diploma that California could innovate for the United States, thus reforming the least competitive aspect of our state’s education system, our miserably performing comprehensive high schools.

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