Once Again, The State Has Dinged LAUSD Over Its $1 Billion Plan For Helping High-Need Students

Students at Leland Street Elementary School in Los Angeles' San Pedro neighborhood. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

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In 2013, when California inaugurated a new system for funding K-12 education, state policymakers offered a trade-off: Schools would face fewer restrictions on how to spend their state money, but they would have to publicly justify that their spending aims to help low-income students, English learners or foster youth.

Districts officials write their public justification in a document called the Local Control Accountability Plan, or LCAP — the cornerstone of California's school funding system.

But last week — and not for the first time — state officials ruled that the Los Angeles Unified School District was far too vague in its LCAP about how it used more than $1 billion in state money aimed at helping those three vulnerable groups of students in the 2019-20 school year.

"LAUSD did a really bad job," said Nicole Gon Ochi, senior staff attorney for the law firm Public Advocates, "of showing the community what the heck it was doing with this money, why it was doing it, whether it was working."


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This is the second time LAUSD officials have faced questions over how they spent money aimed at low-income students, English learners and foster kids. In 2017, LAUSD disbursed an extra $151 million to 50 district schools to settle a similar complaint — also from Public Advocates.

But unlike three years ago, the state's latest ruling only requires LAUSD to make changes in how it crafts future LCAP documents. The ruling does not require LAUSD to make retroactive changes that could result in new or different spending. (Gon Ochi said the complainants may still ask the state to reconsider.)

WHAT THE COMPLAINT WAS ABOUT

Public Advocates filed its latest complaint last summer on behalf of two LAUSD parents. They argued the structure of LAUSD's LCAP made it impossible to track district spending on different initiatives or to determine which low-income kids, English learners or foster youth these initiatives actually helped.

State officials agreed. One illustrative example: In its LCAP, LAUSD rolled more than $880 million in spending — about 80% of the funding at issue — into one, bloated category, covering a hodgepodge of expenditures ranging from counseling, to AP exam fees, to library services and more.

"It appears," the state's July 30 ruling reads, "that the district has included districtwide actions together with schoolwide actions as well as actions that apply to high school grades together with actions that apply to elementary grades."

LAUSD officials had defended themselves by arguing they were attempting to follow the state's previous LCAP guidance in writing the document this way. The state's ruling rejects this particular claim.


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WHAT SHOULD CHANGE: LAUSD OR THE LCAP?

The ongoing clashes between the state's largest school district, Public Advocates and other advocacy organizations highlights tensions inherent in the LCAP process.

In LAUSD's case, defenders have argued that Public Advocates is using the LCAP process to micromanage the district. In rejecting one portion of Public Advocates' complaint, the state ruled the LCAP is not required to "include everything [a district] plans to do in a given year. Such a requirement would be overly burdensome."

California policymakers originally conceived of the LCAP as the object of a vibrant conversation. Districts could use feedback from parents, and maybe even from teachers, students and community members, to shape their spending priorities — and then weave it all together into an LCAP that creates a narrative for often-inscrutable budget documents.

But last fall, we spoke to a number of experts who said that for many districts, the LCAP process has become more of a compliance exercise than an opportunity for genuine community engagement. They suggested that while LAUSD likely needed to do more to adapt, there are ways the LCAP process might also need to change.

Public Advocates' Gon Ochi recognizes the tension. While she does point to LCAP success stories, she said the quality of districts' efforts to seek and incorporate genuine feedback into their spending plans still varies widely.

"I feel," said Gon Ochi, "like all of the great stories and best practices that we're hearing about are hard to replicate."