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Lesson 7.4

Thinking Regionally about Education:
County Offices, and Crossing Boundaries

What’s the County’s job in education?

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School districts in California have a great deal of authority.

School districts manage money and hire people, for example. They set the strategy for how their schools will accomplish educational goals, and measure results, for example using the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). But who oversees the school districts? Who in the system is formally charged with reading LCAPs with an informed and critical eye? And what happens when a challenge is too big for a school district to handle alone?

That's where county offices of education (COEs) come in. By forming partnerships with other local agencies and organizations, county offices can help school districts accomplish things that would be difficult or expensive to do alone, such as:

  • Develop professional development programs for teachers, principals, and other school staff;
  • Operate special programs for students (e.g. internships, concurrent enrollment at community colleges, service learning projects);
  • Develop a robust parent education program;
  • Craft partnerships with local business leaders; and
  • Support family services on school campuses.

School district and city boundaries don't match

In California, school district and city boundaries often don’t match. Many cities and counties have a patchwork of districts that local civic, business, and community leaders can't even begin to understand. Education entities do better when they join forces and think regionally.

Each of California’s 58 counties has its own County Office of Education (COE). You'll find county level information on the Education Data Partnership website. If you want to understand the details of districts and their boundaries in your area, the expert you are looking for probably works in a county office.

The role and scope of these county offices depend in part on the number of people they serve. Normal maps don't do a very good job of communicating how many people live in each county, so we created one that stretches to represent the relative population:

California Counties Animorphic Map

As you can see, California’s counties range from tiny to Los Angleles, which has a population so huge that if it were a state it would be America's 11th largest. In seven counties, most notably San Francisco, the county and school district boundaries are the same. And yes, of course there is a state organization of county superintendents of education, known as CCSESA.

Most County Superintendents are elected.

All county offices are administered by a superintendent and governed by a board. In most cases, these positions are elected. In four counties, the County Board of Education appoints the county superintendent. County boards of education are separate from the county board of supervisors in every county except Los Angeles.

What does the county office of education do?

County Offices of Education review and approve district budgets and LCAPs.

Most county offices provide at least some direct services to their local school districts. Some manage special statewide projects. For example, the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) operates out of the Kern County office. The state collaborative for Education Excellence (CCEE) operates out of the Marin county office. Some of the state's smallest school districts, also known as direct service districts, outsource most or all of their business office functions to their local county office.

Video courtesy of Orange County Office of Education.

Most county offices also operate some education programs that provide services directly to students. Typically, these are special education programs for students with specific disabilities such as blindness or deafness, schools for students who have been expelled, and court schools for juvenile offenders. About half of the state’s county offices run Regional Occupational Centers/Programs (ROC/Ps) that provide Career Technical Education programs to youth and some adults. Some county offices manage training programs funded by the federal government as well as programs for Native American education (OIE) and Migrant Education (MEP).

By law, county offices have various forms of oversight over local districts and charter schools. They include:

  • Approve each district's annual budget and two interim financial reports.
  • Ensure districts' sound fiscal operation, and take specific actions if a district may not be able to meet its financial obligations.
  • Monitor the quality of school facilities, instructional materials, and teachers.
  • Support the work of the County Superintendent of Schools in reviewing and approving each district's Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).
County Offices of Education review district LCAPs to enforce equity

In 2014, county offices were given new responsibility as part of the shift to the Local Control Funding Formula. County superintendents must assure that local school districts’ Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) are prepared properly and that a district’s budget is sufficient to implement the improvement strategies outlined in its LCAP. In 2021, the state department of education sent a clear signal that it expects county office to scrutinize school district plans and enforce the proper use of LCFF funds designated to support equity.

Other official agencies involved in education are also organized regionally, including Workforce Development Boards, First 5 agencies that support early education, and community colleges.

The next lesson turns to an often overlooked part of the school system: Teachers Unions.

Updated August 2017, May 2019, October 2021, February 2022.


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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 23, 2019 at 11:04 am
The complexity of the system is staggering and also enlightning. I’m now engaged in a roiling debate on Nextdoor about whether to approve a new property tax to benefit our school district. Without this tax, we will lose quite a few programs. But most people do not understand how the system works and simply do not want another tax.
user avatar
francisco molina August 19, 2019 at 12:54 am
No solo se deberia revisar el presupuesto, la consejeria estudiante /familia es un tema que nadie revisa ni procede.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale February 17, 2019 at 2:49 pm
I learned a lot here. I knew our County board of education was responsible for vetting and sometimes de-chartering Charter schools, that it runs the special schools (as cited in this chapter), but I didn't know (but should have guessed) that they vet the budgets and LCAP for the school districts. It makes sense and is comforting to know that there is an outside body doing that.
user avatar
Jeff Camp February 9, 2017 at 11:44 am
In 2017, a proposal to massively defund county offices of education begged the question: what do these offices actually DO? EdSource answers here:
©2003-2024 Jeff Camp
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