Which school do you want to support?
In 2013, California massively decentralized accountability for public education.
Citing a philosophy he called “subsidiarity,” Governor Jerry Brown argued that “a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at a more immediate or local level.” In the context of education, this philosophy suggests that control of local schools ought to rest with local communities.
A less philosophical explanation for the change also works:
Your budget shrunk. Here's what's left.
Use it as you think best!
When times get better
You might get a letter
With a new requirements list.
Decentralizing power was an important reversal. The passage of Proposition 13 centralized budgetary power in Sacramento in 1978. Centralizing power wasn't really the point of the initiative; it just worked out that way. Legislators, doing their best for their constituents, used their power to direct education money toward specific programs. Over time, education resources flowed from Sacramento with increasing limitations and program requirements. Districts adapted, learning to comply with these program requirements in order to get the funding they needed. This arrangement, though irritating and often inefficient, was sustainable so long as tax revenues continued to flow and grow. They didn't.
When the Great Recession crimped the budget in 2008, something had to give. Governor Brown and the legislature used the moment to substantially dismantle the "categorical" funding system that had directed state funds toward specific purposes. Because there was not enough money to run schools without dipping into restricted categorical funding, the legislature made the remaining funding “flexible,” essentially saying: “Use it for whatever you want to use it for.”
Districts received a new level of control over their (smaller) budgets, and the legislature was spared the perhaps-impossible political task of choosing which programs to prune. That unwelcome work was left to local control. A new system was created, dubbed (drumroll please!) the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).
It had been a long time since California's local districts and school boards had this much control over how to use funds. What would they do with it? Would their decisions tend to benefit the students who need the most help, or the students whose parents have the strongest voice? Or, perhaps, neither? As discussed in Lesson 7.1, constitutionally it is the state, not districts, that is on the hook for providing education. Subsidiarity is a principle, not a promise. How could districts be held accountable?
The answer continues to evolve. A bunch of things had to change at more or less the same time:
There are two general options for holding an organization accountable. It can be held accountable for inputs (what it spends and how) or outcomes (what it accomplishes). California has tried to use both.
Until 2013, the annual state tests mandated by federal law served as the primary outcome-based accountability measure for schools and districts. For all their flaws, these tests at least provided a modicum of transparency. Virtually every student took them. Wherever groups of students bombed the tests, the problem was visible at every level, from the student to the parent to the school to the district to Sacramento to Washington. California used the scores to create the Academic Performance Index (API), which was used for state accountability. Federal accountability relied on those test scores to measure Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).
The State and the Feds were the designated scolds. District, school and teacher leaders were left to interpret and explain the results, which were sometimes contradictory. The system labeled schools based on narrow measures, but at least it was familiar. Most parents and community members just took the measures at face value. But that was then.
The local control funding system turns the accountability system on its head: Don’t look at Washington or Sacramento to make schools succeed. Don't expect Washington or Sacramento to scold or praise your teachers and students. Under the principle of subsidiarity, local communities are best positioned to make choices that safeguard the vulnerable and achieve good local results for their kids.
This theory deeply worries many civil rights advocates, who perceive a great risk in counting on communities to hold their schools and districts accountable for equitable use of funds. "Subsidiarity," they argue, in practice permits lax or absent oversight.
Beginning in 2014 each district, county office of education, and charter school (each LEA) became responsible for preparing a Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). The plan describes the overall vision for students, annual goals, and specific actions that will be taken to achieve the vision and goals.
The LCAP plan is developed and reviewed each year in coordination with the district’s annual budget cycle. Each year the state evolves its LCAP Template, which districts use as a starting point. (They may design their own documents if they meet the requirements.)
The California State PTA’s Seasons of the LCAP describes ways to use the LCAP process to engage community members throughout the year.
The district-level LCAP, in combination with the school-level Single Plan for Student Achievement (SPSA), may serve as an important tool to drive action-based conversations about local investment decisions. Or, on the other hand, it might just be paperwork.
LCAPs must address eight areas that have been identified as state priorities. In particular, the plans have to call out details related to the three categories of students with high needs (low-income students, English learners, and foster youth).
California's 8 State Priorities
Districts are allowed and encouraged to identify and incorporate into their plans additional goals related to their own local priorities. Many organizations provide tools and support to help help districts make the most of the LCAP process, including the California PTA.
Each school district must engage parents, educators, employees and the community as they develop these district-level plans. The district plan should harmonize with each school's Single Plan for Student Achievement.
How does that actually happen?
The State Board of Education defines the templates that districts must use for LCAPs. The first section of the template asks for information about stakeholder engagement. The plans must include goal statements linked to the eight state priorities and budget information showing how they will pay for the program changes and improvements needed to meet those goals.
LCAPs must be reviewed by a parent committee - especially if a district has many English learners.
The plans cover three years, but are updated annually. Their development and the updating process must include consultation with various constituencies, including teachers and parents. Ultimately, the plan must be reviewed by a parent advisory committee. If at least 15 percent of the students in a district are English learners, a separate parent committee must provide feedback in this area. The final LCAPs are approved at the same time as the district’s budget, subject to review by the County Office of Education.
The requirement for each district to create its own accountability plan (LCAP) originated as part of the shift away from state-level mandates about how districts use funds. A number of debates erupted as the State Board attempted to fulfill its charge and develop the regulations surrounding LCFF. The most heated debates concerned the balance between local flexibility on one hand and assuring educational opportunities for high-need students on the other. Civil rights advocates expressed concern that in the rough and tumble of collective bargaining, resources that LCFF allocates on the basis of poverty or language-learning needs would find their way onto the bargaining table, there to be swept up into across-the board teacher salary increases, despite the spirit of the law. The LCAP was a compromise solution; it is required to include information about where LCFF funds go and how they are used. Enforcement of the intent of the law, however, is a community responsibility.
The state department of education has taken some steps to make some LCAP data easier to find, including a collection of graphical "LCFF State Priorities Snapshots" meant to make the data easier to find. Does the state-collected data match your district's LCAP? How about your school's Single Plan for Student Achievement? Does it match your school's School Accountability Report Card? If you haven't read these interconnected reports, who has?
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