Credit: Julie Leopo/EdSource

Right now, school district and charter school leaders, working with parents and the community, are starting to draft their Local Control and Accountability Plans. State law requires new plans every three years and annual updates to show how they plan to use and have used the funds they receive from the state under the Local Control Funding Formula.

The Covid-19 outbreak a year ago forced districts to move three-year planning to the back burner as district staff scrambled to keep delivering learning opportunities at home. Now planning is back on the front burner and soon will be in plain view of parents, voters, students and staff as the new Local Control and Accountability Plan is developed to show how districts will improve academic achievement, lower suspension rates and absenteeism and other areas of state concern.

This moment is a rare opportunity for district administrators to look with fresh eyes at how they deliver education and the quality of the results. It is also the time to give county offices of education more oversight authority.

The LCAPs reveal districts’ values. They determine where funds are invested, how much directly benefits students, how much benefits teachers and which programs live or die. These plans also reflect where district leaders think they are underperforming and how they will remedy these shortcomings.

No patient, however, should be his own physician. County offices of education serve as doctors to districts’ financial health. They have sign-off authority (and responsibility) for districts’ budgets and to their labor agreements. Why don’t they have a similar authority to reject plans that make poor assumptions about performance or target the wrong areas for improvement and send them back for rewriting before districts present them to their own school boards?

County offices do review each district’s plan, but review is constrained by law and policy to three simple questions: Did they answer all the questions on the state form? Can they afford to implement the plan? Is the plan spending money on English learners, low-income students and other high needs students as required by law?  

This is not a review. All too often, it is a charade.

Courtesy: Barbara Nemko,

Barbara Nemko, Napa County Office of Education

One educational leader who won’t play is Napa County Office of Education Superintendent Barbara Nemko. She and her deputy, Josh Schultz, have encouraged their staff to confer with district planning teams at the start of their planning process. Lucy Edwards, the Napa County Office of Education’s LCAP review chief, has invited district leaders to share their thinking before they draft their plans. Her diplomacy has built a climate of trust that makes better plans possible.

Superintendent Nemko, however, wants county offices to have more say. Rules governing the county office’s review reveal a mismatch of authority and responsibility, Nemko told me.

“Right now, county offices of education are only permitted to do a once-over lightly compliance review of their districts’ Local Control Accountability Plans. They are not allowed to dive into the content or results…. County offices of education have teeth when it comes to budget oversight, thanks to AB1200,” she said. “Why not give them the same oversight on the education side of the house? … Isn’t it time to put some serious oversight into how the money is being spent? And what results are being achieved?”

Nemko’s ideas are timely.

Her view is also consistent with a pre-pandemic report from the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, which urged the Legislature in January 2020 to direct the Department of Education, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence and the county offices of education to develop a set of accountability plan review standards.

The next steps should include putting more substance into the review process, the report suggests: “Based upon a holistic review of the district using the new review standards, a [county office of education] could assign a qualitative rating to the LCAP — for example, positive, qualified or negative (borrowing terms the offices already use to review district budgets). A poor rating would trigger more county office of education support for the district. Such an approach would make COEs’ role in instructional oversight somewhat more analogous to their role in fiscal oversight.” (Read more about the Legislative Analyst’s Office recommendations here.)

Nemko and the state’s legislative analyst are not the only critics. Scholars Julia Koppich and Daniel Humphrey captured exasperation with the process in interviews with more than 80 superintendents in September 2018. (This blog post recaps the report.) Koppich and Humphrey distilled their criticism of the entire Local Control Funding Formula law, the biggest change in state funding of public education in 40 years, which shifted most spending decisions away from the state and under local control and away from the state into three areas: compliance thinking on the part of district leaders (indicating compliance with state laws and regulations without considering if it makes sense for the district), districts coming up with excessively complex plans or even unreadable plans.

For many districts, what precedes their county office review is simply pretending to plan.

Too many plans merely justify staffing decisions and curriculum adoptions made years ago. Identifying weak spots would be an admission of a mistaken judgment. Someone would be blamed. Programs might need trimming. People might lose their jobs. Planning requires the courage to be self-critical and have a tolerance for conflict. Both are in short supply.

After reading dozens of these plans, I’m astonished at the misuse of data, the mismeasurement of districts’ vital signs and sloppy reasoning. Why not give each plan the same attention afforded a high school student’s term paper and question flawed evidence and illogical thinking? If county offices of education had the authority to review the heart of districts’ plans — e.g., are the improvements aimed at the most deserving students? How will these changes lead to improvements? What evidence would indicate success or failure? — better plans should result.

Districts and county offices can do better. The Legislature can help by reforming the law that constrains county offices. Parents, school board trustees, teachers and staff should demand better plans from their districts, and tougher review of those plans by their county office of education. We should all expect clearer thinking anchored to evidence of higher quality than we are seeing now.

•••

Steve Rees is founder of School Wise Press and leads its K-12 measures team.

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  1. Todd Maddison 2 months ago2 months ago

    As one who signed on to LCAP oversight instantly (I was the first parent representative on our local district's LCAP committee), I can tall you most of this is obvious to anyone inside the process. The only reason that level of scrutiny is not a requirement is because almost no one in education wants it to be a requirement . Protecting their ability to prioritize benefits for themselves - or, more accurately, their special interests … Read More

    As one who signed on to LCAP oversight instantly (I was the first parent representative on our local district’s LCAP committee), I can tall you most of this is obvious to anyone inside the process. The only reason that level of scrutiny is not a requirement is because almost no one in education wants it to be a requirement .

    Protecting their ability to prioritize benefits for themselves – or, more accurately, their special interests – is number one. Not kids.

    The LCAP surveys we see are the epitome of that. The LCFF law requires that stakeholder input be used to guide spending, but almost no survey I’ve seen asks the simple question of parents “where do you feel we should prioritize spending?”

    Instead, we see “customer service” surveys. “How much do you like this?” “How well do you feel we’re doing at that”, etc. I designed those surveys for corporations once, I know how that’s done.

    Good feedback for a district, but it deliberately avoids getting quantifiable data from parents on where they feel money should be spent.

    Related to this is the lack of transparency in disclosures on large cost increases – mostly in negotiated contracts with labor groups.

    There, our counties also completely duck their responsibility to make sure stakeholders are notified of cost increases that threaten the financial viability of the district, and literally ignore critical parts of already-existing law designed to do that.

    More depth on that at http://toddmaddison.com/education/k12transparency

  2. Robert Manwaring 2 months ago2 months ago

    Steve raises a good point. At a minimum, county offices should be given greater LCAP oversight authority in the districts identified for greater assistance based on past performance. There are districts which have been identified for support every year since the new accountability system started. Providing a deeper level of review for districts whose outcomes suggest they may need better planning seems like an great place to start.

  3. Carrie Hahnel 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you, Steve, for elevating this ongoing issue. This pandemic year's Learning Continuity Plans continued to prompt compliance-oriented planning, although arguably with greater focus and clarity. As The Opportunity Institute and Parent Organization Network note in a newly released brief (https://theopportunityinstitute.org/publications-list/2021/4/23/lessons-learned-from-the-learning-continuity-plans), a compliance-oriented plan is not entirely bad, as it offers parents, school board members, and other community stakeholders a tool for monitoring implementation and holding districts accountable. My co-authors and I point out, however, … Read More

    Thank you, Steve, for elevating this ongoing issue. This pandemic year’s Learning Continuity Plans continued to prompt compliance-oriented planning, although arguably with greater focus and clarity. As The Opportunity Institute and Parent Organization Network note in a newly released brief (https://theopportunityinstitute.org/publications-list/2021/4/23/lessons-learned-from-the-learning-continuity-plans), a compliance-oriented plan is not entirely bad, as it offers parents, school board members, and other community stakeholders a tool for monitoring implementation and holding districts accountable.

    My co-authors and I point out, however, that there may be better ways to achieve the same goals of public accountability while also supporting more meaningful strategic planning. For instance, the state could increase local flexibility in planning tools and templates while tightening up county oversight in the ways you propose – in addition to strengthening and standardizing fiscal transparency.

  4. Jim 2 months ago2 months ago

    "I’m astonished at the misuse of data, the mismeasurement of districts’ vital signs and sloppy reasoning." I'm not. I was part of a LAUSD school parents group when the area school board guy and his aide came to talk to us. The aide talked about the "incredible community support." I pointed out that according to the LAUSD demographer, only 8% of the children in the catchment area attended the school. I then asked her as … Read More

    “I’m astonished at the misuse of data, the mismeasurement of districts’ vital signs and sloppy reasoning.”

    I’m not. I was part of a LAUSD school parents group when the area school board guy and his aide came to talk to us. The aide talked about the “incredible community support.” I pointed out that according to the LAUSD demographer, only 8% of the children in the catchment area attended the school. I then asked her as 92% of the kids currently rejected the school, what would “tepid community support” look like?

  5. Michael Kirst 2 months ago2 months ago

    Local school boards should take more advantage of LCAP and use it to examine budget priorities and strategic resource allocation. CSBA has not helped their members enough on how to use the LCAP. Counties need to focus more on training school board members on how to rise above the detail and see the big decisions within the LCAP.

    Replies

    • Steve Rees 2 months ago2 months ago

      Dear Mike: What would you think of county offices of ed inviting the board members of their districts to briefing sessions on the fundamentals. What do solid plans look like? What does sound evidence of high quality look like. What makes for a well reasoned logic bridge between diagnosis of weak spots and the remedy? Yes, I agree, county offices could do more without a change in law. But the law is now a … Read More

      Dear Mike: What would you think of county offices of ed inviting the board members of their districts to briefing sessions on the fundamentals. What do solid plans look like? What does sound evidence of high quality look like. What makes for a well reasoned logic bridge between diagnosis of weak spots and the remedy?

      Yes, I agree, county offices could do more without a change in law. But the law is now a constraint. It keeps CoE leaders from giving a “thumbs down” to LCAP plans that are riddled with poor quality evidence, weak reasoning and wasteful spending. Districts have too much freedom to do harm. If being a California district is to mean anything, it should mean that governing authorities own some responsibility for the plans districts present to CoEs for approval.