In response to critiques from a range of sources, the state is moving toward making the Local Control and Accountability Plans that districts are required to draw up more understandable and user-friendly.
The State Board of Education is expected to vote next week in Sacramento on recommendations from the California Department of Education to authorize the department to overhaul the template that districts have been required to use for their plans, known widely in education circles as the LCAP (pronounced el-cap).
Among the changes being considered, according to a department memo to the board, is a simplification of “the structure and language” of the 16-page template itself, as well as better instructions and more support for the school officials who have to draw up the plan. Districts may also be required to include an executive summary to make the plans more useful to those without the time, patience or knowledge to wade through a document that in some districts runs to hundreds of pages.
The recommendation comes on the heels of a survey conducted by the California Department of Education in March to get direct feedback from school administrators about their views on the template. Nearly 400 school administrators responded to the non-representative survey, along with nearly 200 school board members, parents, principals, teachers and representatives of nonprofit organizations.
A report last fall by EdSource found that the accountability plans had mushroomed in size. The average length of the LCAP in the state’s 30 largest districts had grown to 145 pages this year from 45 pages last year. Several other advocacy groups have also documented a range of problems with the LCAP.
“These documents are getting longer, but not any clearer,” said Samantha Tran, senior managing director of Children Now, an Oakland-based advocacy group. She welcomed the proposed changes, although she said that it was not yet clear what revisions the state will eventually make.
If the state board gives the green light to the proposal, further input will be sought on the redesigned template from key constituencies before presenting it to the board at its July meeting for approval. The changes would go into effect for the accountability plans covering the 2017-18 school year.
Angelica Jongco, a senior staff attorney with Public Advocates in San Francisco, said her organization was “eager to see what the revisions will actually look like.” However, she said, “we think it’s critical for the state to provide adequate time and space for engagement and feedback from stakeholders, including families and students, on those revisions.”
A common theme that emerged in the CDE survey is that district accountability plans are frequently viewed “more as a legal or compliance instrument rather than a community engagement tool.” Some 31 percent of respondents said the section of the report in which a school district outlines its goals and the actions and costs to achieve them is “in need of major revision.” Another 26 percent said that the template was in need of “moderate revision.”
Respondents indicated that the way LCAPs are typically written makes it “difficult to track actions from one year to the next.” Another common criticism was the template contained “too much technical language, was too long and is visually unappealing.”
Respondents also expressed unhappiness with the annual updates required by the state to what are supposed to be three year plans. According to the survey, these updates “may be accessible to educational professionals but not to other stakeholder groups.” One of the recommendations to the board is to ensure that the annual updates are in fact updates, and don’t involve what amounts to a rewrite of the plan each year.
Children Now’s Tran said her organization would have preferred to see a greater emphasis on requiring districts to provide more specifics on how state funds will be spent, especially the additional funds they receive to improve how they educate low-income students, English learners, and foster and homeless children. Jongco of Public Advocates said her organization also wanted to make sure “that the improvements to make the document more accessible do not sacrifice the fiscal transparency and equity principles at the heart of the Local Control Funding Formula,” the law that created the accountability plans.
State officials have a compelling reason to make changes to the LCAP, which the state board already did 18 months ago. Districts spend large amounts of time drawing up these plans, and they are at the heart of major reforms of the school financing system championed by Gov. Jerry Brown as part of his effort to promote a new, decentralized approach to holding districts accountable for how well, or badly, their students do.
A particular concern is that the LCAP not become simply a document that complies with the requirements of the law. That has been the fate of the School Accountability Report Card, an annual report known as the “SARC” that every school in the state is still required to draw up. It was mandated by Proposition 98, approved by voters in 1988.
Over the years, the SARC has also grown to an unwieldy length and, in many instances, is read by few. Like the current LCAPs, the SARCs were supposed to provide information to ordinary Californians to “ensure our schools are spending money where it is needed most,” according to the language of the Prop. 98 initiative.