An advocacy organization that analyzed dozens of school districts’ inaugural improvement plans under the state’s new school funding law praised the level of community involvement but criticized the lack of clarity in the finished product.
Under the Local Control Funding Formula, districts get more spending flexibility and autonomy but in return must reach out to parents, students, teachers and the community to help shape the plan and be accountable for the results. Although not uniform across districts, there was “an unprecedented level of engagement among school district leaders, community leaders, parents, teachers, and students,” Education Trust-West, a nonprofit based in Oakland that works to narrow the achievement gap in education, said in a report issued Tuesday. “We also find that district leaders have oriented themselves to the new law. Administrators responsible for instruction and budget are collaborating more than ever before in a real effort to align budgets with academic plans.”
However, Ed Trust-West also said it could not determine whether all the talk led to the law’s intended action – directing sufficient resources to students entitled to extra money under the Local Control Funding Formula. State regulations don’t require the spending details that the public needs to make that judgment, and some of the plans, which ranged from dozens to hundreds of pages, omitted key information, the report said.
“It is difficult at best and impossible at worst to tell whether districts have complied with the law’s requirement to ‘increase or improve services’ for low-income, English learner, and foster youth students,” the report said.
The organization conducted a detailed analysis of 40 plans covering about 20 percent of the state’s nearly 6 million students, and a shorter review of 100 more. It also spoke with 60 leaders who were involved in school engagement efforts across the state.
Requirements of an LCAP
The Local Control and Accountability Plans, or LCAPs, are three-year district improvement plans, updated annually, that are supposed to detail a district’s basic education expenses. The LCAPs must include measurable goals and list actions districts will take to achieve them along with associated costs, in response to eight priorities specified by law.
Those priorities include basic services, such as clean facilities and qualified teachers; student achievement, as measured by test scores and other academic and college and career-focused measures; parent engagement; equitable access to courses; implementation of the Common Core and new science standards, and school climate. Districts must describe how they will meet the needs in each area for all students as well as specific subgroups, such as special education students, and the three “high-needs” groups receiving extra funding: foster children, English learners and low-income students.
Carrie Hahnel, Ed Trust-West’s director of research and policy analysis, said that several factors contributed to a disappointing “opaqueness” in the LCAPs that Ed Trust-West examined. Some districts detailed only new or expanded programs and not the full range of educational services, while others, she said, were vague about how they were using the supplemental dollars for high-needs students. Many districts wrote dense plans full of jargon, the report said.
“In all, we are left with LCAPs that offer frustratingly little insight into how (the Local Control Funding Formula) will help accelerate efforts to close our state’s opportunity and achievement gaps,” the report said.
“It is difficult at best and impossible at worst to tell whether districts have complied with the law’s requirement to ‘increase or improve services’ for low-income, English learner, and foster youth students.” – Education Trust-West
Hahnel and Ryan Smith, Ed Trust-West’s executive director, acknowledged that the LCAP encompassed a new and very different process. Many districts had little experience reaching out to parents, and districts faced a compressed schedule under temporary regulations that the State Board of Education adopted six months before the July 1 deadline for passing the LCAP.
“We are conscious of the fact that we are a single year into a decade-long process, with the opportunity to address issues in real time,” Hahnel said. “We did not want to be critical so early.”
For that reason, she said, the report did not identify individual districts whose LCAPs were insufficient or out of compliance. Instead, the report highlighted districts whose LCAPs went beyond the minimum reporting and demonstrated a full commitment to implementing the law.
“We will be encouraging districts to check out the exemplary work and ask them, ‘Why not do what you see these other districts are doing?’” Smith said.
Best practices cited
The report credited the Berkeley Unified School District for clearly spelling out how it planned to use its supplemental money for high-needs students and for dedicating staff to evaluate the effectiveness of the goals and programs the district funded. It cited the San Jose Unified School District for directing money to its school redesign and staffing experiments – one of the few innovations that Ed Trust West found. It pointed to decisions by Oakland, Sacramento, Torrance and Los Angeles to channel more money and authority down to the school level.
Hahnel and Smith agreed that the adoption last month of clearer permanent regulations, a more readable LCAP template, and a second year of experience should lead to some improvement. But the new regulations do not go far enough in demanding more information about district spending, and so the public will continue to have problems tracking the money, they said.
The LCAP does require that districts state how much supplemental funding they will receive and describe how they will use the money to improve or increase services. But a detailed accounting isn’t required, and Ed Trust-West says the LCAP doesn’t require that districts show how they derived the overall dollar figure or cite the sources of funding (federal, base or supplemental funding) for each expenditure. Hahnel said many districts weren’t clear in distinguishing which programs and services were new and which were previously funded.
The report found districts using supplemental dollars to increase salaries and retirement payments for all teachers, “without regard for whether those teachers are focused on the particular needs of low-income, English learner, and foster youth students.” For many districts, however, how they are funding pay increases is unclear, since they aren’t including figures for employee pay in the LCAP even though that is the primary driver of basic educational costs.
The balance between flexibility and accountability
The state board chose not to require the specificity that advocates for low-income students sought after a year of debate. The board’s position was that the LCAP should be an improvement plan, not a budget or accounting document. The board also opposed creating uniform accounting codes for supplemental dollars and base dollars, which would make cross-district comparisons easier.
The adoption of the new LCAP regulations will not end the issue. Legislators tried but failed to pass stricter accounting for LCAP dollars this year, and are expected to renew efforts again. Smith said Ed Trust-West would support that effort. At a panel discussion Tuesday at the California School Boards Association’s annual meeting, Karen Staph Walters, an adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown and executive director of the state board, reiterated Brown’s position that the LCAP process should play out for several years before adopting stricter rules.
Among the findings in the report:
- Nearly all of the 40 districts mentioned the Common Core standards but few plans fleshed them out.
- Nearly half of the districts are offering career pathways in fields like business, health and the arts, and 30 percent are providing work-based experiences and internships.
- “Conspicuously absent” in most LCAPS was a discussion of how to implement the new English language development standards for English learners.
The report makes a number of recommendations:
- A newly organized state agency, the California Collaborative for Education Excellence, should help districts develop ways to engage parents and develop the LCAP.
- To increase transparency, the state should require districts to distinguish between base and supplemental spending.
- The state should require consistency in LCAP approval and enforcement by county offices of education. There were striking differences in the quality of the LCAPs across county lines, Hahnel said.
- Districts should make LCAPs more readable, with executive summaries, fewer acronyms and “community-friendly materials” that include infographics, slide presentations, videos, and flyers.
Hahnel said that Ed Trust-West also plans to evaluate LCAPs next year. That document must include a first-year update, in which districts are required to state whether expenditures were made and whether students benefited from the programs and other actions that the districts took.