California school districts get extra 5 months to pass local accountability plans

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Gov. Gavin Newsom, as expected, released an executive order Thursday giving school districts more time to complete the annual accountability document in which they set academic and spending priorities. Districts will now have until Dec. 15 to pass their Local Control and Accountability Plan for the fiscal year 2020-21 that will start July 1.

It made sense to push back the deadline for the LCAP, since the Legislature won’t set a final state budget, determining funding for K-12, until after July 15, the new deadline for Californians to file their income and capital gains taxes for 2019. And district administrators’ and staff’s attention has been consumed with school shutdowns and coping with the impact of the coronavirus. Were it not for the pandemic, districts would have headed into a period of public hearings and LCAP planning.

“The Governor’s action frees up staff time and resources for districts to focus solely on the immediate learning needs and health of our students,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said in a statement Friday.

Although they won’t have to complete their LCAPs by June 30, districts will have to report by then how they have spent money on the three areas that Newsom made conditional in a March 13 executive order for receiving state funding while schools are closed because of the pandemic. They are “high-quality” distance learning, meals for students who qualified for subsidized breakfast and lunch, and child care for the children of first responders and essential employees. The report should account for how districts met the needs of English learners and low-income, foster and homeless students – the “high-needs” groups that get additional state funding under the Local Control Funding Formula.

Because children are confined to their homes under shelter-in place requirements, the executive order also waives the annual instructional minutes for physical education that schools must provide. It also indefinitely suspends physical education tests for grades 5, 7, and 9.

Last week, officials from the California Department of Education also announced that the department will ask the Legislature to cancel the 2019-20 California School Dashboard, the color-coded accountability system that rates schools and districts on multiple performance measures. School closures and the cancellations of standardized tests because of the coronavirus have rendered this year’s dashboard, which would have been published in the fall, incomplete and invalid.

School management groups like the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators had asked Newsom to suspend the LCAP for a year. The decision to delay it instead is at least a partial victory for a group of statewide nonprofits that advocate for low-income, black and Latino children under the name Equity Coalition.

In a March 23 letter, the groups said the delay should also enable parents and community groups to give their views on the local budgets. Districts would have to account for what they will do in 2020-21 to help student groups that likely have been disproportionately affected by school closures and the coronavirus’ economic impact.

Districts shouldn’t get a year off, John Affeldt, one of the letter’s drafters and the managing attorney for the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates, said in an interview. “You don’t get a mulligan on democracy.”

Edgar Zazueta, senior director of policy and governmental relations for the Association of California School Administrators, said that school management groups are happy the spring deadline for the LCAP will be dropped, since school districts have been consumed by the impact of the coronavirus. “We would have liked freedom until next year, and so will move forward and do our best to accommodate” what’s required, he said, knowing circumstances may change, as, under a pandemic, they have multiple times already this year.

Still to be determined, though, is what will be in the LCAP.

The LCAP is a district’s blueprint for local control and the key tool for measuring if money will be spent on high-needs students. In it, the school board must set the priorities for student improvement and how much to spend on them, and lay out, in a 3-year plan, specific ways to measure progress.

The funding formula, which provides about 80% of districts’ funding, provides additional money to districts based on their numbers of high-needs students. It requires that the supplemental dollars be spent to improve or expand services for those students. Districts where high-needs students make up the entire student population receive more — about 40 percent above base funding.

The coalition favored a roughly comparable accountability document to what districts have been required to write. Since state law — the 2013 Local Control Funding Formula — prescribes what should be in the LCAP, the Legislature must decide whether some requirements should be dropped for a year, in what would become a slimmed-down version requiring fewer details.

Sudden school closures have exposed a digital divide separating rural and low-income families, from Tulare County to Los Angeles, who lack computers and internet access at home from other families with technology needed for distance learning. Districts are spending tens of millions of dollars on hotspots and Chromebooks for students without them. But the rollout of technology and of distance learning has been uneven in the state. When schools closed, state officials estimated 1 in 5 students lacked a computer and/or a broadband internet connection.

Student advocacy groups are warning that those student groups already behind will experience the greatest learning loss because of the school shutdown in response to the coronavirus. A study of the impact of the Great Recession on a decline in test scores backs them up. That’s why, in the letter, they called on directing spending through the LCAP on summer programs for high-needs students, outreach to families of English learners, and counseling and trauma services for high-needs students once shelter-in-place orders are lifted.

The funding formula law states that districts should address a range of priorities in the LCAP: academic improvement, school climate, student engagement, parent involvement and preparation for college and careers, while using two dozen metrics to gauge improvement. But just as the coronavirus has disrupted markets, it has in effect broken the “supply chain” of data and parent voices needed to create a new LCAP.

Parents stuck at home can’t attend LCAP meetings, and “virtual meetings don’t always ensure equitable access,” said Lindsay Weiss-Tornatore, interim director of the California Department of Education’s Improvement and Accountability Division. Districts will continue compiling data to set priorities in the LCAP but the information will be limited to pre-closure data on student attendance and chronic absences. It will lack key data to measure students’ readiness for college and careers. The 2020-21 dashboard will mostly skip 2019-20 data and use 2018-19 data to compute the rate of improvement.

Districts will also face monumental budget problems. Newsom’s order pushing back the filing dates for state personal income and capital gains taxes from April 15 to July 15 will leave the Legislature without accurate revenue forecasts for 2020-21 until August. So lawmakers are expected to pass a working budget in June at roughly the same level as this year, and revise it in the fall.

Districts will likely follow suit, adjusting their budgets in the fall. The anticipated new Dec. 15 LCAP deadline would coincide with districts’ first update on their financial health that they must submit to their county office of education. But that might come months after districts revise their budgets, which concerns Affeldt.

“The state should ensure meaningful and robust community engagement not only around the LCAP but also the budget,” he said.

At this point, neither Newsom nor his finance experts will predict the fiscal impact of a pandemic-created recession. But all agree that districts will face difficult decisions. In a memo this month, Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, said “ongoing major reductions to major programs” would be possible.

Instead of 5 percent to double digit annual funding increases since the first LCAP in 2014, for the first time in the LCAP era spending could fall, possibly substantially — creating tensions over additional staff layoffs and cuts to programs created to address long-standing funding inequities.

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