More Doesn’t Mean Better: How Over-Reporting Has Hurt Equity in Education

March 11, 2024

By the Children Now Education Team

Top image via iStock from SolStock

For over a decade, Children Now and other equity groups fought for accountability and transparency in the funding California provides to schools, to ensure it goes to the students who need it most.

Unfortunately, that added regulation hasn’t resulted in better outcomes for kids. It’s led to frustrated school leaders, excessive paperwork, and communities feeling left out, all while not closing achievement gaps or ensuring equitable funding. We need a simpler, more focused, “less is more” approach.

When Governor Brown ushered in education spending policies like the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs), both intended to result in a higher level of support for students with greater need, he championed the notion of “subsidiarity.” It’s the belief that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level and closest to where they will have their effect. Initially the State granted districts wide flexibility with minimal accountability, much to the frustration of Children Now and other equity groups. Most districts then used that flexibility to provide additional services equally across all schools in the district instead of targeting resources at the highest-need schools and students, as required by LCFF.

The result was overall improvement (at least pre-pandemic), but no performance gap closures. The Public Policy Institute of California found that much of the $13 billion the State provides to increase and improve services (supplemental and concentration funding) doesn’t actually reach the schools with students entitled to that funding. In fact, for roughly a third of districts, the LCFF funding is distributed across schools regressively (higher funding at low poverty schools and lower funding at high poverty schools).

Over the past decade Children Now and other equity groups fought to fix that. That work has led to several rounds of marginal, additional requirements added to the LCAP process that have provided some of the accountability that was lacking. With each round of additional regulations, the State has gotten closer and closer to meeting the original intent of LCFF.

Unfortunately, the additional requirements have also come at a cost. The overwhelming amount of reporting and planning now associated with the new state and federal funds provided to schools, on top of a growing number of requirements under the statewide accountability system and LCAPs, has led to confusion, disengagement, and worse – a lack of progress.

According to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, LCAPs are now typically over 100 pages (in Los Angeles Unified, the 2023-24 LCAP was almost 600 pages long!). And new requirements will likely lengthen LCAPs next year. In addition to the immense time and planning needed to digest and meet all of these requirements, another critical negative effect is how they’ve impacted community members. One of the tenants of LCFF is that local communities would be actively engaged in the decision-making process. But as the length of the LCAPs grew, and spending became harder to track and understand, the ability for community groups to engage has declined.

We need a system that ensures accountability for school districts to focus on the students with the greatest needs, but that doesn’t over-regulate the planning and expenditure process so much that it gets in the way of progress.

The solution? The State should dramatically shorten LCAPs to 5-10 pages and have them clearly state the most crucial goals and actions, as well as how funds will specifically be used to close performance gaps. Districts should also be required to set goals to close performance gaps and raise performance for all students (currently almost no districts set goals to close gaps). These changes would make the plans focused on what matters, instead of just paperwork. In exchange, the accountability for LCFF funding could come from better reporting on outcomes (overall improvement and closing of performance gaps) and inputs (the distribution of funding and the staffing levels across schools). If districts are both improving outcomes and closing gaps, we can celebrate. If gaps aren’t closing, then we take a closer look at the use and distribution of resources to assess what adjustments are needed to change outcomes.

There must be, and is, a better way to achieve the spirit and intent of LCFF, provide both transparency and accountability, and do that in under 100 pages. In this instance, less would be much better.