Finally, districts’ accountability plans may be easier to read and use

October 27, 2016

For three years, school districts have been writing an annual budget and accountability plan using a state-dictated form that has irritated just about everyone writing and reading it. Next week, the State Board of Education is expected to approve a new version that promises to be simpler, better organized and easier to follow.

The revised Local Control and Accountability Plan, or LCAP (see draft template starting page 7), has gotten generally positive reviews, with some reservations, from school officials and advocates for high-needs students who disagree over how much information should be in the document but credit state board staff for trying to strike a balance.

“We are not completely satisfied, but we will support the revised LCAP,” said Martha Alvarez, legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators, which had recommended changes through months of hearings and drafts. Districts’ LCAPs had mushroomed to dozens, and in some cases hundreds, of pages over the past three years. It’s unclear, she said, despite improved readability, whether LCAPs will become shorter or longer under the new template. “At this point, districts need time – a number of years without further changes – to work with it,” she said.

“It’s a meaningful improvement in many ways and in some ways a step backward,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney for the nonprofit law group Public Advocates and an author of a six-page critique of the new LCAP signed by a dozen student advocacy groups. Although organized to enable districts to “better tell their story to the community,” the new LCAP template doesn’t demand a full accounting of how districts will use money intended for low-income students and English learners under the state’s new funding formula, he said.

Because the Local Control Funding Formula also gave districts more control over spending, the Legislature envisioned LCAPs as a way to hold them publicly accountable for their decisions. School boards must reach out to parents, teachers and the public for their ideas before setting improvement goals and committing to actions and expenditures to achieve them. Districts also must say how they will improve education for high-needs students – English learners, low-income, foster and homeless students – commensurate with the extra funding they get for the students.

Legislators envisioned the LCAP as a comprehensive planning tool, but not all districts interpreted it that way. The revision makes clear that the LCAP should account for all money that districts receive under the funding formula, which is the bulk of their funding, and address the eight broad educational priorities that lawmakers laid out. They include not only student achievement, as measured by standardized test scores and other metrics, but also parent engagement, school climate, implementation of new academic standards and hiring qualified teachers for all students.

The new LCAP template doesn’t demand a full accounting of how districts will use money intended for low-income students and English learners under the state’s new funding formula, said John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates.

The revision also includes a new section that Alvarez and Affeldt agree is important: Requiring that districts make addressing poor performance under the state’s new school and district accountability system a priority.

Until now, this has been missing. For several years, the state board suspended the school accountability system while it created a new one. As a result, districts picked their own spending goals and rates of improvement. Last month, the state board chose a half-dozen metrics to measure school and district performance: standardized test scores in math, reading and science; chronic absentee and suspension rates; measures of career and college readiness; and the success of English learners in learning English. In addition, school districts will be required to create their own ways to measure school climate and parent engagement. The new system will go into effect next year, when districts and schools receive their first “report cards” that will grade achievement and set uniform targets for improvement.

The revision creates two sections that will ask districts to highlight low achievement in any performance metric and describe steps the district will take to improve. One section is for the district overall; the other is for lower-performing student subgroups. There is no section in the LCAP requiring districts to identify lowest-performing individual schools.

Significant changes in the revised LCAP to improve organization, clarity and readability include:

Additional formatting changes and financial transparency requirements: 

District officials had sought more flexibility and fewer requirements for the LCAP than the state board staff recommended. Student advocates wanted more details on spending than the new LCAP calls for. Parents, however, should find the new LCAP easier to use.

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