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.