A meeting of the San Diego Unified School Board / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The language of professional educators is a rattle bag of indecipherable jargon and acronyms: SELPA, ELIRT, “integrated multi-tiered systems,” “student centered coaching cycles” and SpEd CAC are just a few.

One of the most important acronyms is so unassuming it could easily be missed. LCAP, ironically, is shorthand for a state-mandated process designed to give parents a stronger voice in setting the priorities of a school district.

But an overlooked section in a state audit released in late 2019 slammed school districts for making the LCAP process impossible for parents to understand. The audit called out San Diego Unified School District, as well as other districts across the state, for their use of jargon, over-complicated explanations and redundant information, all of which “reduced transparency” in the LCAP process, the audit revealed.

LCAP stands for Local Control and Accountability Plan. Each school district in California is required to produce such a plan every year. The plan, in theory, explains in clear detail how districts will spend their money to overcome the achievement gap and help underserved groups of students. It is created over a period of months, with legally required parent involvement – and usually referred to as “the LCAP process.”

Valentina Hernandez is a parent who has been active in the district for years. She’s served on official committees and taken part in the LCAP process. The language of the district is so incomprehensible at times that it pushes parents away, she said.

“A lot of parents are working two or three jobs to make ends meet. They don’t want to go into a district meeting where they don’t understand what the officials are talking about and what’s being said. Then they feel uneducated and uniformed. Now they don’t want to come back, because they don’t know what it’s about,” she said.

Richard Barrera, a San Diego Unified board member, acknowledged that the jargon of top district workers can be a big problem.

“Oh my god, yes. It’s a constant issue,” he said. “It’s very difficult for anybody to read [the LCAP] document and say, ‘We understand what San Diego Unified is trying to accomplish and what its core values are.’”

Barrera said part of the fault lies with the state Department of Education for creating an LCAP template that is complicated and not user-friendly. But ultimately, he acknowledged that the responsibility rests with districts like San Diego Unified to communicate with parents in a way that is easy to understand.

The LCAP process was born of another important acronym: LCFF, or the Local Control Funding Formula. LCFF was a relatively innovative funding model ushered in by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013. It recognized that districts with higher levels of struggling students groups – low-income students, foster youth and those whose primary language isn’t English – needed more money than other districts to help close the achievement gap. LCFF was designed to increase funding for those districts.

The LCAP process is designed to give community members a voice in how the extra money will be spent to help disadvantaged students. The plan itself is supposed to clearly explain in writing how the district will spend the money. But the audit indicated that the plans are falling far short of achieving their purpose.

The audit focused on three school districts: San Diego Unified, Clovis Unified and Oakland Unified.

The LCAPs of the three districts ranged from 260 to 600 pages. “LCAPs of these lengths cannot tell a simple, brief, and coherent story of each district’s goals; rather, their length and complexity reduces readability and transparency,” the audit noted.

The LCAPs were also extremely redundant: “We determined that the LCAPs we reviewed could have been as much as 40 percent shorter had they not contained duplicative information,” according to the audit.

The districts’ use of education jargon also made the reports “less transparent and useful,” the audit noted.

From the report:

“San Diego Unified provided one particularly difficult description: “Integrated Multi‑Tiered Systems of Support (I‑MTSS) will be implemented in Grades TK–12 through the Academics and Agency (A²) model by ensuring the essential elements and solution seeking processes are in place at all schools.” We could not determine from that description whether and to what extent San Diego’s expenditure of supplemental and concentration funds would affect the intended student groups.”

Barrera has often indicated that one of the most important steps to increasing performance and improving culture within struggling schools is by raising parent involvement. He acknowledged that the district’s overuse of jargon regularly gets in the way of achieving this end.

“The intention is to have an honest conversation with the public about ‘Here’s what we’re doing and here’s where we can get better.’ But then you lose a lot of what’s intended when the strategies are – this is going to sound very negative – but when the strategies are buried in education jargon,” he said.

Barrera said his and other board members’ frustrations with jargon are often communicated to Superintendent Cindy Marten and her staff.

Last April, Voice of San Diego revealed persistent safety concerns and gaps in special education services at Porter Elementary School. The story generated a strong response from community members and the local NAACP. District officials decided to give a public presentation about the strategies they were ostensibly using to improve the school. Much of the presentation, like many others, was difficult to understand.

Area Superintendent Bruce Bivens made one statement that was particularly difficult to decode: “In the process of teaching into, learning from and building a culture of focus around academics and student supports among our educators at Porter, we are seeing evidence take hold on campus with this foundational initiative that supports the building of a safe, collaborative and inclusive culture – a level one high priority in becoming a high reliable school for learners and for families at Porter.”

At the time, Francine Maxwell, a community member, scolded board members. “We love to throw out the strategic words. We know how to wordsmith in this community,” Maxwell said.

Graphics have also been a problem. Mario Koran previously pointed out one chart in particular that summed up the chaos around a major change in English-learner policy, and ranked some of the district’s most absurd visual aids.

The primary findings of the audit indicated that districts are spending much of the supplemental LCFF money on general purposes, instead of directing it toward underprivileged groups. But the findings also make clear that even if districts were spending the money as intended, their purposes would be obscured by jargon and an inability to communicate clearly.

During its January meeting, the state Board of Education will consider revisions to the LCAP template that could make it more understandable for the public. But if the history of local level school officials is any guide, eliminating jargon from local accountability plans may not be so simple.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at will@vosd.org or 619-693-6249.

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