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Why California's Accountability Reforms Are a Big Deal

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We often refer to "California exceptionalism" on this blog (in addition to Charles Kerchner's first outline of the phenomenon, see other examples here, here, and here). One thing we have in mind is the state's new school funding law, and the local engagement lawmakers built into it.  Together, they have fundamentally changed both school finance and accountability.  The end of the law's first year of implementation is a good time for us to look back and ask: what is important about this law? How can Californians and non-Californians make sense of it?

The-LCAP-policy-has-the.jpgA little background: After a near-miss in 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown the Democrats in the California legislature decided in 2013 to do two things at once: they transformed the state's K-12 financing system and created openings for broad participation in local planning for much of what districts and schools do.

On the finance side, the new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) allocates state money to districts and charter schools based on simple, per-pupil formulas: so much per student, per grade, plus a bump for students who are low-income, English learners, or foster children, and another bump if a district has large number of such at-risk students.  FF is the operative part of the acronym here: the Funding Formula replaced the byzantine finance system that had developed since the Serrano v Priest court decree in 1971 and Prop 13 in 1978.  You can read more about LCFF here and here.

On the local engagement side, the law mandated the annual creation of Local Control and Accountability Plans, or LCAPs.  Every school district and charter school in the state must conduct an open public planning process to identify local educational goals and guide the allocation of funds toward those goals.  This planning process must include teachers, parents, district and charter employees, among others, who are supposed to join together and create their distinctive LCAP, a programmatic document that will enable those stakeholders to hold the district or charter school accountable for its work in the subsequent year.  Each LCAP is required to cover eight sets of priorities including not just student outcomes, but also curriculum and instruction, parent involvement, social services, and school climate.

A new EdTrust-West report out this week finds that school districts did indeed set up and run the planning processes, that they got impressive levels of public engagement, and that they produced the required planning documents.  But its authors also reserve judgment about whether the LCAP documents have actually guided the ways districts and charters provide education and services to students.  Daniel Humphrey and Julia Koppich also recently published an LCAP report based on interviews with officials in 10 districts across the state, finding that local and county offices are working hard to adapt to the new system.

Why is this all a big deal?  The LCAP policy has the potential to be a game-changer in several ways that we will explore in the New Year:

  • It replaces the old test-score-based evaluation systems embedded in No Child Left Behind (demanding Adequate Yearly Progress) and California's Public School Accountability Act (which created an Academic Performance Index).  Will the public accept an approach to accountability that doesn't boil down to a single, easily-identified score?
  • LCAPs will be in place for more than a year before we ever see Smarter Balanced test results based on Common Core instruction in districts and schools.  How will LCAP and SBAC get along, if at all?
  • The LCAP mandate also applies to each charter school and charter management organization.  Few of these organizations are built for open and inclusive public engagement.  How will they respond?
  • LCAP brings back some aspects of 1990s "restructuring" reforms that empowered school-based and district-based stakeholders.  What lessons did we learn in that era that could be useful today?
  • The required inclusive planning processes remind us in some ways of Chicago's Local School Councils, a powerful reform from the 1990s that was investigated carefully by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

California's new finance and accountability system is still a work in process.  It's probably a good thing that there has been no rush to judgment because, like other big social policy interventions, it will take a few years to take hold.

But after one year we can draw two conclusions.  First, school districts—large and small—are taking the process very seriously.  In several visible cases, community-level advocacy has changed the way districts spend their money.  Second, at a time when many Americans and Californians have begun to question the importance of high-stakes testing, the LCAP has focused conversations about how to rethink student achievement.

Some Stanford University students recently asked State School Board President Michael Kirst what grade he would give LCFF/LCAP at this point.  He reminded them that the university sometimes uses a grade of "N": no grade possible because the course still continues.

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