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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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Image: California Poppy CC Rhonda Johnson

School districts in California have a great deal of authority.

They 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 come in. By forming partnerships with other local agencies and organizations, schools can accomplish things that are difficult or expensive to do alone, such as:

  • Develop well-crafted 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
  • Provide robust student and family support services on school campuses.

School district and city boundaries don't match

Among California's 58 counties, the smallest are in the gold country region. (Map from California Dept of Finance) Among California's 58 counties, the smallest are in the gold country region. (Map from California Dept of Finance)

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 don’t even begin to understand. In those situations especially, education entities do better when they join forces and think regionally.

Counties offer one approach to such coordination and state law requires that 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 cubicle in a county office.

The role and scope of these county offices depend in part on the size of the county. Public school enrollments in California’s counties range from about 100 students (in Alpine County) to 1.6 million (in Los Angeles County). In seven counties, most notably in 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 have a superintendent and board, but the method for selecting them varies. In some cases, the County Board of Supervisors appoints both the superintendent and board; in some, both are elected by voters; and, in a few, an elected board selects the county superintendent.

What does the County do?

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

Most county offices provide at least some 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. Some of the smallest school districts, also known as "direct service districts," outsource all their business office functions to their local county office.

Most county offices also operate some education programs that provide services directly to students. Typically, these are special education programs for students with rare disabilities, special day 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 Indian Education and Migrant Education.

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

  • Approving each district's annual budget and two interim financial reports.
  • Ensuring districts' sound fiscal operation, and taking specific actions if a district may not be able to meet its financial obligations.
  • Monitoring the quality of school facilities, instructional materials, and teachers.
  • Reviewing and approving each district's Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP)

In 2014, county offices were given new responsibility as part of the shift to the Local Control Funding Formula. County offices of education 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. With this change, county offices of education became potential power players in education change: in principle, at least, county offices of education may be in a position to evaluate and influence district plans not just on the basis of fiscal issues, but on the basis of other concerns including equitable use of education resources.

Other official agencies involved in education are also organized regionally. Those include 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

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Which of the following is TRUE about County Offices of Education in California?

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Questions & Comments

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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: https://edsource.org/2017/state-urged-to-shift-1-billion-from-county-education-offices-to-school-districts/576731?utm_source=Ed100
©2003-2017 Jeff Camp
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