Will the LCAP become just another obscure acronym?

July 9, 2014

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.

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