Louis Freedberg

There is a danger that the Local Control and Accountability Plans recently adopted by every California school district will experience the same unfortunate fate as the School Accountability Report Cards, or SARCs, which all schools are still required to produce each year.

The SARCs – which long preceded the LCAP as one of the myriad acronyms in the public school’s bureaucratic lexicon – have been mandated since 1988, when voters approved Proposition 98. That measure guaranteed school districts approximately 40 percent of the state’s general fund. Just like the LCAPs, the SARCs were supposed to provide information to the public to “ensure our schools are spending money where it is needed most,” according to the language of the Prop. 98 initiative.

But in most cases SARCs have evolved into long unwieldy documents – a state mandate loaded down with information that the Legislature has added to over the years in response to a number of interest groups. As then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell pointed out in 2006, report cards “that were intended to let parents and communities know how individual schools were doing, have become so unreadable that a UCLA study found them harder to comprehend than several IRS forms and Microsoft Windows XP Driver Installation Instructions.”

Over the past six months, EdSource, whose mission since its founding in 1977 has been to clarify complex education issues, has tracked the development and passage of the LCAPs in seven districts.

The LCAPs approved by these districts indicate that while they may be understandable to school finance experts, school administrators, and advocates steeped in education policy, they will be far less useful for parents and community representatives. That’s because the documents tend to be extremely long, are weighted down by acronyms and legal definitions, and contain descriptions of education programs that are unfamiliar to the average Californian.

“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, and co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, a joint project of UC Berkeley, Stanford and the University of Southern California.

Engaging parents and community representatives is a fundamental requirement of the new funding law, and it would be unfortunate if the key document they are supposed to review and provide feedback on erects unnecessary hurdles to their participation.

It will be a challenge to come up with a document that can be all things to all people – written with enough detail to satisfy the county officials who must now sign off on the plans, yet broad enough to be understandable to lay audiences. As West Contra Costa Unified Superintendent Bruce Harter explained to EdSource, the LCAP is intended to be a road map for his elected board of education that provides the full scope of a district’s proposed spending plans.

“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 also felt that giving different information to the board and community representatives wouldn’t be appropriate. “We feel our community deserves to have the same information as the board,” he said.

One way to ensure greater clarity – even for experts who may not have the time to wade through dense documents dozens of pages long – is to require districts to provide a brief overview of their LCAPs as a supplement to the more detailed document.

Such an overview would include a clear statement of the district’s goals, the amount of money it will receive in base grants, and the amounts it expects to receive in supplemental and concentration grants for high-needs students. In addition, it would state clearly what programs it intends to support that would benefit the three high-needs student categories – low income, English learners, and foster children –– and whether new personnel will be hired to implement them.

Four of the seven districts tracked by EdSource tacitly acknowledged the problem of translating the LCAP for a more general audience by providing briefer outlines of their plans. Merced City School District provided a three-page summary – the shortest of those examined by EdSource. San Diego Unified drew up a five-page executive summary, and West Contra Cost Unified came up with a 13-page overview.  East Side Union High School District in San Jose published the PowerPoint presentation it made to its board members, which summarized its 18-page LCAP.

One way to ensure greater clarity – even for experts who may not have the time to wade through dense documents dozens of pages long – is to require districts to provide a brief overview of their LCAPs as a supplement to the more detailed document.

Other districts that were not the focus of EdSource’s “Following the Funding Formula” project also attempted to come up with more accessible descriptions of their accountability plans. Berkeley Unified School District included a nine-page summary as a preface to its 61-page LCAP. Los Angeles Unified also prepared a 30-page PowerPoint presentation – less than half the length of its final 66 page LCAP – that explained its plan in a more straightforward, graphically appealing format.

All these summary documents could be abbreviated or sharpened even further. But they represent a starting point for the kind of overview that the State Board of Education, which is meeting in Sacramento today, could require districts to prepare as a preface to their full-length plans. Rather than coming up with yet another template, the board could specify that the summary should be no longer than four pages, list the key points that it should contain, and let school districts decide how best to present the information.

The state board, and Gov. Jerry Brown, who appoints its members, admirably do not want to weigh down school districts with more reporting requirements than they are already burdened with. But requiring a short outline of the LCAP, each with similar information, will be useful to numerous stakeholders – including the board as it tries to make sense of the impact of the dramatic reforms it is overseeing.

If it does not, the LCAP may well eventually join the SARC as yet another obscure acronym in the public school lexicon, a requirement mandated by state law that is not particularly useful for holding public schools accountable for the students they serve.

 Louis Freedberg is executive director of EdSource.

EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary for EdSource Today, please contact us.

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  1. Don 2 years ago2 years ago

    For every one of the last 50 years the annual Single Plan for Student Achievement has sat collecting dust on school office shelves. These documents, a supposed requirement of the Consolidated Application, are a prime example of how NOT to drive policy. Unless the CDE put immense pressure on districts to have their supervisors oversee the implementation local officials would do so voluntarily. Has the CDE taken the lessons of the past into … Read More

    For every one of the last 50 years the annual Single Plan for Student Achievement has sat collecting dust on school office shelves. These documents, a supposed requirement of the Consolidated Application, are a prime example of how NOT to drive policy. Unless the CDE put immense pressure on districts to have their supervisors oversee the implementation local officials would do so voluntarily. Has the CDE taken the lessons of the past into account in their LCAP? I don’t think so. There was absolutely no oversight of these plans and, hence, no motivation to make good on them and that’s the problem with the LCAP. If the State wants to get out of the business of oversight, which appears to be the case given how the whole monitoring scheme has evaporated, they should put mandates on the districts. The larger issue at play here is how to balance state funded public education (as opposed to district) and, at the same time, give total control to local boards without any oversight. You can talk all you want about the quality of LCAPs, but it is just another dust catcher without enforcement. Dr. J knows what’s going down.

    Replies

    • Don 2 years ago2 years ago

      Sorry correction to previous comment. I'm forgetting my negatives. For every one of the last 50 years the annual Single Plan for Student Achievement has sat collecting dust on school office shelves. These documents, a supposed requirement of the Consolidated Application, are a prime example of how NOT to drive policy. Unless the CDE put immense pressure on districts to have their supervisors oversee the implementation local officials would NOT do so voluntarily. Has the CDE … Read More

      Sorry correction to previous comment. I’m forgetting my negatives.

      For every one of the last 50 years the annual Single Plan for Student Achievement has sat collecting dust on school office shelves. These documents, a supposed requirement of the Consolidated Application, are a prime example of how NOT to drive policy. Unless the CDE put immense pressure on districts to have their supervisors oversee the implementation local officials would NOT do so voluntarily. Has the CDE taken the lessons of the past into account in their LCAP? I don’t think so. There was absolutely no oversight of these plans and, hence, no motivation to make good on them and that’s the problem with the LCAP. If the State wants to get out of the business of oversight, which appears to be the case given how the whole monitoring scheme has evaporated, they should NOT put mandates on the districts. The larger issue at play here is how to balance state funded public education (as opposed to district) and, at the same time, give total control to local boards without any oversight. You can talk all you want about the quality of LCAPs, but it is just another dust catcher without enforcement. Dr. J knows what’s going down.

  2. Doctor J 2 years ago2 years ago

    Speed Limit signs without cops to hand out tickets to offenders are meaningless. There is a huge danger of LCAP just becoming an obscure acronym. Today NAACP's Willie Mims blasted Mt. Diablo's LCAP before the SBE. Let me share a response from MDUSD's Supt. Nellie Meyer to a community question: #35 Q: There isn’t enough specificity in the plan. This is a vision, not actions. Nellie's Response(redacted): "In most cases the actions … Read More

    Speed Limit signs without cops to hand out tickets to offenders are meaningless. There is a huge danger of LCAP just becoming an obscure acronym. Today NAACP’s Willie Mims blasted Mt. Diablo’s LCAP before the SBE. Let me share a response from MDUSD’s Supt. Nellie Meyer to a community question: #35 Q: There isn’t enough specificity in the plan. This is a vision, not actions.
    Nellie’s Response(redacted): “In most cases the actions are broad actions. . . . . The second challenge is that for many things we just don’t know yet everything we need to do. We know we need to improve communication across the district but we need some time to find out everything we can about what is happening everywhere, get input about what is working and isn’t from students, parents, community members, and staff. We need to work with communication experts about how to make it better and create the plan. Then, we need to roll it out, get ongoing feedback and make adjustments. Right now we just don’t know enough to make detailed plans. . . . .”
    When Nellie came to Mt. Diablo she has kept the district leadership team virtually intact. How could she say “We just don’t know enough to make detailed plans” ????? Yet she knew enough to give everyone new titles, big raises, and smile. How does she expect to implement change using the same team of people that have resisted change for over ten years ?? Why didn’t her experienced team already know everything about what is happening everywhere to make detailed plans ? LCAP in Mt. Diablo has already been minimized. It’s a travesty.

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    • Paul Muench 2 years ago2 years ago

      Do you know why the board and superintendent still have their positions in Mt. Diablo?

      • Doctor J 2 years ago2 years ago

        Paul, three Board members are up for at large election in November, the former elementary teacher declined to run for a second term after announcing at her first Board meeting that she "was elected to represent the teachers", but the other two will run, including a four term member who sits on the state PTA Board. The Supt. was hired a year ago after having been passed over by San Diego USD where she … Read More

        Paul, three Board members are up for at large election in November, the former elementary teacher declined to run for a second term after announcing at her first Board meeting that she “was elected to represent the teachers”, but the other two will run, including a four term member who sits on the state PTA Board. The Supt. was hired a year ago after having been passed over by San Diego USD where she was #2 in command. Two others have announced their intent to run; a former candidate who has been quite critical of the LCAP, and from a low income part of the district who likely would win if the voting were by voting districts rather than by at large. The other person is the retired teacher’s union president. Other major issues among the affluent voters will be residual issues from the Clayton Valley High Charter formation two years ago and the most current sudden resignation on June 30 of highly regarded Northgate High Principal John McMorris who was publicly outed by the teachers union for accepting $40,000 from his PFC he claims was approved by the prior Supt. Northgate High parents and community a couple of months ago formed a committee to succeed from the District and form their own district. Lots of worms in the MDUSD can.

        • Paul Muench 2 years ago2 years ago

          Our school district moved to district voting a couple of years ago. There was a group of lawyers sending out letters to districts suggesting to move to district voting as at large voting was violating civil rights. The implication was that a lawsuit would be imminent if no change was made. In his prior position John Fensterwald covered this trend. But I have not heard much about it in the last year or more.

  3. Paul Muencj 2 years ago2 years ago

    Or now that the community knows its board has direct control of how money is spent they could remove the board if it doesn't provide clear and detailed explanations of how money is spent. If a community can't manage to replace its board then likely any requirement from the state won't make a difference. Better to leave the responsibility on the local boards and not have the state get involved so boards can't … Read More

    Or now that the community knows its board has direct control of how money is spent they could remove the board if it doesn’t provide clear and detailed explanations of how money is spent. If a community can’t manage to replace its board then likely any requirement from the state won’t make a difference. Better to leave the responsibility on the local boards and not have the state get involved so boards can’t confuse matters by saying they met some state requirement.