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Lesson 7.1

The State:
The Buck Stops Here

Under California’s constitution, schools are the responsibility of…

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How does the California education system work?

This lesson is the first in a series that describes the education system in California. Buckle up. The education system is complex, partly because of its sheer size, but also because it serves many competing interests and involves many organizations. Let's start with what might seem like an easy question: Who's in charge of public education?

The US Constitution makes no mention of public education whatsoever. That means each state has considerable power when it comes to education laws. The constitutional provisions relating to education vary a lot from one state to the next.

The original constitution of California said very little about education — it merely directed the legislature to “provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each district at least six months in every year…” This is such a weak direction that it almost seems to pass the buck to school districts, but a 1991 ruling by the California Supreme Court affirmed the main point: the state is ultimately responsible for education — no ifs, ands or Butts.

California's constitution has been massively amended and extended since 1849, largely through ballot measures passed by voters.

The state is ultimately responsible for education

State government exerts considerable power over public education because, well, the state controls most of the money. (See Chapter 8 for more on that.) Through laws and regulations, the state touches nearly every facet of school operations. Public education is a very big part of what government does, so the Education Code is huge.

State government exerts power over education because, well, it controls most of the money.

For your bedtime reading pleasure, California School Law summarizes the state’s education laws in a comparatively svelte 500 pages. (You're welcome.)

It's breezy to say that "the state" is responsible for education. In practice, the state consists of many distinct entities and organizations.

What is the role of the Governor in education?

As chief executive officer, state governors wield considerable power in the education system, including the power to veto legislation, appoint leaders and drive the budget process. Education is the single largest function of government in California, as in most states.

California's constitution requires the state budget to be balanced each year. Supported by the state Department of Finance, the Governor plays a central role in working with the legislature to make tradeoffs.

What does the State Board of Education do?

The State Board wields significant power, including the power to grant waivers.

The governor wields power in the education system partly by appointing members to the State Board of Education (SBE), an 11-member governing entity with specific authority and responsibilities. Among other things, the SBE is responsible for approving the state’s academic standards, tests, and guidance related to instructional materials. In 2013, the legislature also directed the State Board to develop regulations for the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which governs how funds flow from the state to school districts.

The California education code is permissive, which means that school districts are free to take any action not specifically prohibited. Even if something is prohibited, that's not necessarily the end of the story. The State Board of Education has the power to award waivers. If some part of the Ed Code is standing in the way of a plan to improve your school, contact the staff of the State Board for advice about the process.

What does the California Department of Education do?

The state Department of Education (CDE) administers and enforces state and federal education laws. It also provides technical assistance to school districts and collects, analyzes, and disseminates data about the school system. The CDE website is a bit challenging to navigate, but it offers a wealth of raw information for the determined sleuth.

The CDE faces many challenges in carrying out its broad mission. According to research undertaken as part of the 2018 Getting Down to Facts II effort, California's department of education is quite small in comparison to other states, which has left it with "limited in-house subject-matter expertise."

Among its challenges, the CDE tends to offer relatively low salaries for state-level positions. According to the GDTFII study, "One challenge to attracting and retaining subject-matter experts arises from lower average salaries in the CDE than in high enrollment county and district offices."

What does the Superintendent of Public Instruction do?

The State Board of Education is the governing body for the California Department of Education (CDE), but it doesn't appoint the head of the department. Instead, the state constitution assigns that role to the Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI), a non-partisan position elected by the voters of California.

The SPI has limited authority to set policy, but often serves as a spokesperson and as a well-placed advocate for policy changes. For example, in 2023 the Superintendent of Public Instruction used a timely donation to argue that California ought to require high school students to receive instruction in personal finance.

Learn much more about the role of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in our blog.)

What is the Commission on Teacher Credentialing?

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) sets standards for the programs that prepare teachers. Operating independently of the CDE, the State Board, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction, it oversees the credentialing process for educators. Except for the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the members of the CTC are appointed by the governor. Representatives of the state’s systems of higher education also participate as ex-officio members.

The state is a "many-headed beast"

The state is ultimately responsible for providing students with an education, but the California constitution is mushy about what "the state" means. There have been times when the governor, legislature, and Superintendent of Public Instruction have disagreed about education policy. In these times, state governance of education can become a “many headed beast.” Prior to the Brown administration, the beast had yet one more head, a governor-appointed Secretary of Education. A cohesive group of leaders in California, all Democrats, has seemed to tame the beast since 2010. It still has many heads, but they stopped biting one another.


During the years of recovery from the Great Recession, the state-led parts of California's education system went through a major remodel. Mike Kirst, the former president of the California State Board of Education, is widely viewed as a lead architect of this remodel, which involved hard-fought changes in standards, curriculum, assessment, finance and more. He explained the vision for "alignment" in this short video: (click to view in new window)

At the end of 2018, virtually all of the people who held the key state leadership positions for California's education system simultaneously left office, were termed out, or retired. In February of 2019, Governor Newsom appointed Linda Darling-Hammond, an experienced education leader, to replace Kirst as president of the State Board of Education. The test of the state's strategic alignment over education will be how well it survives the recovery from the Pandemic.

But wait, you ask, isn't the federal government also critically involved in education? Ah, yes. That is the subject of the next lesson.

Updated August 2017
September 2018
December 2018
December 2020
May 2023


Which entity in California has the power to waive education laws?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp December 14, 2018 at 2:44 pm
The Legislature and Governor play big roles in policy and budget choices in California. How does that actually work? The California Budget and Policy Center has a wonderful primer that explains the two major paths that education bills must take to be made law.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 23, 2016 at 4:42 pm
The Education Commission of the States provides an overview of the constitutional language for each state and how the individual constitutions address public schools. This language has consequences for how our schools are financed.
Find out more....
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