Which school do you want to support?
No matter where a child lives in the state of California, there is a public school district obligated to provide him or her with a free public education.
Think of the state as a jigsaw puzzle with the districts as the pieces. It's a huge puzzle, with about 1,000 pieces, not counting the state's 58 County Offices of Education.
But wait, there are some additional wrinkles. (Are you surprised?)
For one, not all California school districts serve the full range of grade levels. Actually, only about a third of them are "unified" districts, meaning they include schools serving elementary, middle, and high school grades. California has about 75 districts with only high schools. The rest are elementary districts, typically serving grades K-8.
The state’s school districts vary tremendously in size. The smallest have as few as 20 students. The largest is Los Angeles Unified School District, which is responsible for educating about a tenth of the 6.2 million children attending California's public K-12 schools.
Your school's budget is managed by your school district. Little money if any is managed at the school site level.
A bit of education jargon worth knowing is the term Local Education Agency, usually abbreviated as LEA. Most LEAs are school districts, but county offices of education and charter schools (which are independent of districts) are also LEAs. California's education laws frequently refer to LEAs, because "school districts and charter schools and county offices of education" is quite a mouthful.
Districts are responsible for passing an annual budget, hiring staff, and much more. Traditional school districts are also required by state law to have a publicly elected school board. (When boards have vacancies, boards can make appointments to fill them until the next regular election.) School boards are responsible for setting policy in a district and hiring the superintendent. The superintendent has the job of implementing policies, managing the district, and making all other hiring decisions.
Charter schools are governed differently from traditional schools. See Lesson 5.5 for more on how charter schools are created and overseen, including information about Charter Management Organizations (CMOs), which are increasingly prevalent.
What is a state mandate?
Although the state of California is ultimately accountable for public education, responsibility for the work is delegated to districts (LEAs). This relationship can get complicated. Whenever the state legislature passes a law related to education, the law has to specify which part of the education system is responsible for carrying it out. Is it a job for the state department of education? County offices of education? School districts?
As part of the "tax revolt" movement of the late 1970s, California voters passed Proposition 4 in 1979 to reduce state "mandates." This proposition requires that whenever the state requires a local government entity (like a school district) to take an action, the state must pay for it. The reimbursement process is overseen by the Commission on State Mandates. These mandated reimbursements are a consistent source of tension and litigation. The California legislature tends to avoid requiring school districts to do anything that might cost money — even providing students with access to feminine hygiene products. Avoiding mandates has had a particularly large influence on the quality of data about education in California. The state cannot require districts to collect data or use a particular data system without creating a state mandate, and thereby risking big claims for reimbursement. This isn't the only impediment to decent data collection in California, but it's one important reason why California's data systems are in such a bad condition. State lawmakers who care about data quietly cheer if data collection is required as a condition of a federal grant program, because then it isn't a state mandate, but a federal one. California's weak education data systems are discussed further in Lesson 9.5
Most people are surprised to learn that mayors and other city officials have neither responsibility nor power when it comes to the operation of public schools.
Most people are surprised to learn that mayors and other city officials have neither responsibility nor power when it comes to the operation of public schools. Schools are an independent fork of the executive branch of government, and they are usually governed by school boards (a mostly legislative function) that are independently elected. When citizens complain to a mayor about schools, the mayor's official role is to shuffle their feet and give the audience a lesson in municipal civics.
In some places (mainly large cities outside of California) mayors play a role in school governance through appointment of members of the school board. This governance strategy is known as mayoral control.
Local school boards can serve as agents for change. In some cities (for example, Houston and Los Angeles), citizen groups have invested enormous energy to field and support candidates with a shared agenda, such as whether to encourage or discourage formation of charter schools. In California, where Proposition 13 removed school boards’ authority to set tax rates, most school board elections have been relatively sleepy affairs with low voter turnout.
In 2018 an important and precedent-setting lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act changed the way that school board elections work in California. In the past, most school board members represented all students and all schools at large in a district. The suit ruled that at-large representation is insufficient; districts must be subdivided into smaller voting districts. Voters in each of these smaller sub-district areas now separately elect their board representatives, who must be residents of the sub-district.
An advantage of this model of representation is that each school and each school community clearly has a board member who ought to have their ear and their back. On the other hand, this arrangement can make some decisions (such as whether to close a poorly performing school) more painful and political than ever.
California’s 2013 adoption of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) substantially increased the power of school boards to set local priorities through their budgets. (See Lesson 7.8 for more about this.) School boards are public entities that must operate under public scrutiny subject to an open meeting law known as the Brown Act. In 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic made meetings in person unsafe, so the meaning of an Open Meeting was expanded by executive action to include virtual meetings.
The state and some federal programs require that school districts leave some decision making to individual school sites.
Some districts concentrate decision authority in the central office; others devolve power to school leaders.
The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires that each school create a School Plan for Student Achievement to document how certain federal funds are spent. In California this federal requirement is matched by state requirements. Every school should have an active site council, a topic that we explore in some detail in the Ed100 blog post How Do SchoolSite Councils Work? Schools with more than 21 English learners, and districts with more than 51, are legally required to have advisory committees.
The relationship between school districts and their schools can vary enormously. Some districts concentrate decision authority in the central office; others devolve power to school leaders.
Some school reformers see decentralization or site-level control as a critical strategy for educational improvement. Major areas where districts sometimes give sites discretion include:
In a state as big as California there are always exceptions. For example, it seems that a few California districts are always experimenting with ways to give school sites more autonomy.
Schools are locally administered, but not unconditionally. Ultimately, the California constitution obligates the state to provide for education. If a district fails abjectly, particularly through financial mismanagement, it can be placed under state administration until it gets its house in order. Colloquially, this is called a state takeover.
In these rare circumstances, a State-appointed Administrator combines the functions of the school board and the superintendent into a single office. These state takeovers are rare in part for a practical reason: turning around a district in crisis is incredibly difficult, politically-charged work. Wherever possible, it is best for districts and boards to get their own house in order. In 2016, The California Legislature created the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE) to provide "advice and assistance" to county offices of education, school districts, and charter schools in achieving their LCAP goals. Districts sometimes resent being called out for needing help, but they usually miss it when they improve to a level that they no longer qualify. (More on this topic in Lesson 7.9.)
As discussed in Lesson 5.5, California’s 1,000+ charter schools operate somewhat outside of this system of local governance. Charter schools are authorized by a school district or county office of education, subject to written expectations set out in the charter agreement. They are accountable for performance and can be closed by their chartering authority if they don’t meet certain goals or don’t operate in a financially responsible manner.
Clearly, school districts serve a vital educational role, but they are also economically important as employers and service providers. Districts hire teachers, administrators, counselors, aides, and specialists. They plan and execute maintenance and upgrades of school facilities. They coordinate with city public services on everything from crossing guards to bus routes and schedules.
The organizational structure and personnel investments of districts can differ a lot. School district budgets are public information, but hard to understand in isolation. In California the district financial reports on the Ed-Data Partnership website show how school districts allocate resources and allow comparisons. But high-level comparisons of staffing structures should be taken with some skepticism. Schools involve a lot of part-time roles, from crossing guard to band teacher to web site manager to department chair. Those nuances make comparisons wiggly. Also, because schools are different sizes, specialist roles like counseling are often shared across campuses.
When comparing the organizational investments of different schools, it helps to think in terms of the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) positions associated with a role at a school. It also helps to compare that number to the number of students affected. Staffing ratios can often paint a picture more informative than a simple organization chart can provide.
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