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Strengthening Local K–12 Accountability: The Role of County Offices of Education

Paul Warren | August 2016

Summary

Recent changes to the funding and governance of California’s schools give county offices of education (COEs) several important responsibilities. County offices are now charged with helping districts use their Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) to improve student performance—a critical part of the state’s school improvement strategy. Among other duties, county offices provide technical assistance to support strategic planning at districts and will eventually work with districts that fail to meet state performance expectations.

This report examines the new role of county offices and offers recommendations to strengthen the LCAP process. In general, county superintendents think the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF)—the 2013 law that established this new financial and accountability system—is working as intended. Yet there is an undercurrent of concern about the quality and impact of district plans. A few districts have responded to LCFF by complying with state requirements without using the planning process as an opportunity to try and improve student outcomes.

Districts report that county offices have provided useful guidance thus far, but vary in their assessment of COE capacity to offer more substantial assistance in the future. We also found that some county offices are more willing than others to provide feedback to districts on the effectiveness of their plans. Indeed, some county offices have a compliance mindset regarding their new responsibilities.

Three problems warrant the attention of the California Legislature and State Board of Education. First, LCFF does not contemplate that districts might write plans that meet the letter, but not the spirit, of the law. Second, the law lacks a workable support program to provide low-performing districts with resources and guidance. Finally, there is no plan for building COE capacity to assist districts in the improvement process.

Our recommendations strengthen oversight of and support for districts and county offices. These steps preserve the local focus of LCFF—with county officials playing a leading role:

  • County superintendents should ensure that districts make a meaningful attempt at a strategic plan for improvement. The specifics of the plan, however, would remain the district’s domain.
  • County offices should collaborate with underperforming districts, helping them find a better path for meeting their goals.
  • The state should help build capacity in both districts and county offices. In our proposal, county offices would provide most of the technical assistance to districts. We also suggest establishing a county office grant program to support district projects requiring more substantial assistance. The state-level California Collaborative for Educational Excellence would oversee the health of the plan review and assistance processes.

State policy is a rather blunt instrument of change in local schools. Mandates are most effective when local educators think new policies will help them achieve their goals for students. But educators must also have the knowledge, time, and resources to take advantage of these policies. Our recommendations recognize these lessons by embedding the district planning and improvement process in a broader continuous improvement cycle. By helping local educators build their skills and knowledge, the state would give the LCAP process its best chance for improving student outcomes in California.

This research was supported with funding from the Stuart Foundation.

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