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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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What is the education system, and how does it 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. Let's start with the basics: Who's in charge here?

The US Constitution assigns ultimate responsibility for education to the states. The constitution of California directs 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…” (In 1992, a case before the California Supreme Court affirmed the state's primary role, no ifs, ands or Butts.)

State Responsibility for Education

Although California vests most authority in school districts, the state government still exerts considerable power over education directly because, well, it controls the money. (See Chapter 8 for more on that.) Through laws and regulations, state policy touches nearly every facet of school operations. Those laws are reflected in the state’s voluminous Education Code (click on Education Code on the list of government codes).

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

For your bedtime reading pleasure, California School Law provides a straightforward summary of the state’s education laws in a comparatively svelte 500 pages. (You're welcome.) If the size of the Ed Code seems daunting, remember that it's all online and searchable.

What Does the State Board of Education Do?

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

If you are trying to help your district get something done and some part of the Ed Code is standing in the way, you may be able to do something about it. The Ed Code is “permissive,” meaning that school districts are free to take any action not specifically prohibited. Districts may also apply to the State Board of Education (SBE) for waivers from many Ed Code provisions. If you need a change, you have the power to be as informed as anyone else about what the law says.

The governor wields power in the education system partly by appointing members to the 11-member State Board of Education (SBE). 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.

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 an advocate for policy changes, for example through education reform "blueprints". (Learn much more about the role of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in our blog.)

What Does the California Department of Education Do?

The state Department of Education (CDE) administers and enforces both 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, in comparison to other states California's department of education is quite small, which has left it with "limited in-house subject-matter expertise."

The CDE also 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 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 constitution makes it clear that the state is ultimately responsible for providing students with an education, but it 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, since 2010 has seemed to tame the beast. 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 explains 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 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
Updated September 2018, December 2018
Updated December 2020
This lesson is the first in a series about the structure of the education system.


California's education laws (the "Ed Code") are complex. If your school district wants to do something out of the ordinary (like increasing class sizes above certain levels, or changing special education requirements) it may need a "waiver" or other official permission. In most cases, which entity reviews waiver requests?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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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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