I've Seen the LCAP's Future, And it Ain't Pretty
By Arun Ramanathan
I've been reading a lot of California district's Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) lately. After the first few, I felt this acute sense of deja vu. I knew there was a time years ago when I also sat in a dusty office, surrounded by stacks of paper covered with check boxes and objectives and targets. I couldn't pin it down. Then, like a bolt of lightning, it hit me. It was the time when I was a special education teacher, reading through the Individualized Education Plans of students with disabilities. Reading LCAPs was like reading the IEPs of schools districts.
The similarities are striking. Both are government-sanctioned forms divided into sections that require hours of manual text and data entry. Both have an annual review process and a three year timeline. Both mandate parent involvement and collaboration with educators. Both are used for planning, resource allocation and accountability.
A Good IEP Doesn't Equal Great Education
They also have the same problem. The greatest IEP in the world does not guarantee that a child will receive a great education. In fact, many children with beautifully written, thoroughly compliant IEPs receive just the opposite.
There are some basic reasons why. Forty years ago, the IEP was designed to ensure that all students with disabilities were given a free public education. Because Congress didn't trust local school systems, it created the IEP and gave their parents the right to due process. That way if their local school district declined to educate their child, they could eventually sue.
This bottom-up accountability has had both positive and negative impacts. It has protected the rights of millions of students with disabilities to a public education and provided them with supports and services they had long been denied. But the legal nature of the IEP process has often resulted in the prioritization of the procedural aspects of special education (numbers of meetings, length of services, etc.) over its impact on student outcomes. Because federal and state governments have historically used the IEP as their primary tool to improve the special education system, this trend has only worsened. Over the years, the increasing complexity of the IEP process and plan has made it challenging for parents, particularly low-income parents, to understand and educators to use.
The LCAP Exhibits The Same Flaws
The same can be said for the LCAP. After two short years, it is already exhibiting many of the same flaws.
First of all, it tries to do too much. Authentic parent engagement, strategic planning and financial accountability are difficult tasks all by themselves. Wedging them into a single plan ensures that none of them will be done very well. But because these processes are required by the state, districts will do their absolute best to make it seem like they've all been done perfectly. The end result, as evidenced by all those really long LCAPs, is an unfortunate combination of incoherence and procedural compliance. The data may be entered on the right lines and the dates correct, but the actual plan is incomprehensible and inaccessible to the local stakeholders who supposedly helped develop it and utterly useless for any district efforts at continuous improvement.
In other words, as is the case with far too many IEPs, if educators feel that they are being required to do something that takes a lot of time and distracts from their real responsibilities, they will do it but the end result will be largely meaningless to everyone except for bureaucrats and lawyers.
Bring the LCAP Into the 21st Century
To fix this, we need to revisit and rethink both the LCAP process and the plan to make them useful and meaningful. We need to bring them into the 21st century and create enough flexibility to allow them to evolve with the times.
This does not mean taking the existing LCAP form and turning it into a form on the internet as the state is planning. That may have seemed innovative in 2005 when companies first started making "electronic" IEPs, but it is not today.
In this day and age, we should be asking whether parent engagement, strategic planning and financial transparency should be bunched together, driven by an IEP-style process and encoded in annually updated form. Instead, we should identify the result we want in each area and then backwards map the process that will create it. Similarly, we should identify the accountability questions the LCAP is supposed to answer and ask whether a bunch of check and text boxes are the right forms of evidence.
A Few Key Priorities, Not Long Plans
As we design a new process, we should emphasize innovation, simplicity and prioritization. Instead of 300 page LCAPs with too many priorities to count, districts should be encouraged to develop accessible strategic finance plans that outline a few key priorities, target resources, monitor progress and assess return on investment. These plans should be linked to the student information and financial data already inside district data systems, allowing educators to focus on planning instead of data entry.
To know how high-need students are doing , we should be using dynamic data dashboards linked to district data systems that provide real time information on student progress toward targets instead of depending on an annual IEP style form reviewed and repopulated once a year. For public and government accountability, we should focus on the actual data instead of the LCAP narrative describing it. Rather than manually transferring student information and financial data into a separate form, why can't a district's actual budget answer questions on whether supplementary and concentration grants are being spent appropriately?
As we redesign this process, we should not depend on government officials in Sacramento or lobbyists to design and create the best solutions but incentivize and promote their development by leading technology innovators working in collaboration with educators and parents.
This work should start now. The future of LCFF is far too important to maintain the status quo and let the LCAP continue to calcify. Otherwise, in a few years, we might as well drop the pretense and start calling it the school district IEP.
(Arun Ramanathan leads Pivot Learning Partners, a state-wide education non-profit that partners with over 90 of California school districts to support their efforts to improve leadership development, education finance and teaching and learning.)