California's Education System

by Jeff Camp | September 26, 2021 | 1 Comment
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Mary Perry

Can you explain how California’s education system works in about 30 minutes without making assumptions about what listeners already know? It’s a doozy of a question, but at the summer conference of the Ed100 Academy for Student Leaders in 2021, we asked Mary Perry to give it a go.

This is a familiar topic for Mary, who for years has been one of a handful of go-to “explainers” of the California education system, first at EdSource, then as an independent consultant. She played a big role in the early development of In recent years she has served in multiple roles as a member of the leadership team of the California State PTA, which insiders call CAPTA ("CAP-tuh").

This post summarizes Mary’s presentation. Here are her slides. Video of her full presentation is embedded below (38 minutes at 1x speed).

What makes a public school public?

Mary organized her remarks as answers to four questions, starting with “what makes a public school public?” Traditional public schools and charter public schools are funded by taxpayers, she explained, mainly through state taxes. As a general principle, Mary said, a kind of “golden rule” applies — that is, those with the gold make the rules. The state controls most of the money for public education, so state laws determine a great deal of the basic structure of it. Most of the money in the system is ultimately spent by school districts, which administer the schools.

About 6.2 million K-12 students attend more than 10,000 public schools in California, so the system is complex. She urged student leaders to learn some of the buzzwords and acronyms that are frequently used in the education system, such as LEA, which mostly means “school district or charter school.” LEAs receive funding to operate schools. There are 949 “regular” school districts in California. Most of them (525) don’t serve high schools. There are 78 high school districts that have only high schools; the remaining 346 are unified districts that serve grades K-12. The 1,303 charter schools in the state operate independently.

The state requires that access to a public school be available to every student. The majority of students in California’s diverse schools are Latinx.

The state categorizes 61% of students as socio-economically disadvantaged, and 19% as English Learners. About 12% have disabilities.

How are schools funded?

These student attributes are relevant in the state’s school funding system for schools, known as the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Mary explained that funding for California public schools comes from five sources:

The five sources of funding for public education


State general fund (mostly income taxes)


State lottery


Federal government


Local property taxes


Other local funds such as parcel taxes. Or bake sales.

The amount per pupil that school districts actually get from the funding system varies by grade level and by student attributes. The LCFF system is designed to deliver supplemental funding to districts to be spent in schools where students are identified as higher-need, especially where there is a concentration of such students.

How do schools spend the money they get and why?

School districts are in charge of how to spend money, Mary explained, but there are limits. For example, teacher pay and some other things are negotiated in a contract with the local teachers’ union. The district is obligated to meet the needs of kids with learning disabilities.

Still, there are many choices within the scope of control of the school district, including who is allowed to attend, who teaches, the technology available to students, teachers and families, and how kids get to school. Districts manage school facilities, the school calendar, the courses offered and the curriculum materials available. Districts set most of the rules about class sizes, and make tradeoffs about whether to invest in counselors, nurses, security guards, after-school programs, teacher training, or other worthy programs.

Districts also manage school facilities. School districts make choices about maintenance, improvements and new construction. Facilities are expensive, so the cost is spread out over time by borrowing, using bonds.

The most powerful way for students and other constituents to influence all of these choices, Mary explained, is through the Local Control Accountability Plan, known as the LCAP (pronounced “el-cap”). It’s a formal three-year plan, updated annually, that guides how the school district uses money and evaluates success. Students can change the district’s priorities by persuading the members of the school board to change the direction in the LCAP.

How well do California schools perform?

Historically, California has been a state with low funding for education. Perhaps unsurprisingly, California lags other states on many indicators such as test scores and graduation rates. These indicators and others are collected on the California School Dashboard.

How students join the Ed100 Academy: The Ed100 Academy for Student Leaders is a free membership program for student leaders and aspiring student leaders. Students meet one another in student-led online discussion events held online monthly, where they learn, connect and work toward earning their certificate. The monthly sessions lead up to the summer conference, which will be held June 20-22, 2022. It’s all free. Learn more and apply.

How adults can help: Students have to hear about the Academy to apply for it! Our student Outreach Ambassadors are actively seeking to connect with adult allies in each and every high school community to help. If you are connected to one or more high schools, please sign up to refer students.

Some districts are trying to create new, broader ways of measuring and celebrating student success using local indicators on the Dashboard.

There are other options, too. For example, Mary described how Eastside Union High School District uses a student-led poll to collect feedback. “Officially, students are supposed to have a voice in the LCAP process,” she said. “There are lots of places where it happens really well. If it’s not happening in your district, step up and make your voice heard!”

In her final remarks with Zaid, Mary closed with an exhortation for student leaders: “I would love to have student leaders push their school leaders to really get a better sense of how they’re defining student success. I think that’s a place where students could play an incredible role.”

Each school has a site council with open meetings. Echoing advice from experienced student leaders, Mary suggested that this is a great place for high school students to get started building their experience and resume as a leader.

Questions & Comments

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Breanda Lopez Valdez September 27, 2021 at 9:58 am
So interesting! Is there an article comparing each state's education?
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