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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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This is the first lesson in a series that will discuss "the system" that provides California's young people with their education.

Both the U.S. and California constitutions place ultimate responsibility for public K-12 education at the state level. The California constitution 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 the California Supreme Court clarified the state's primary role, no ifs, ands or Butts.) The state constitution also requires that school districts have elected boards and gives some powers to county superintendents of schools.

The State bears ultimate responsibility for education

Although California vests considerable authority in school districts, the state government also exerts a lot of power over education directly, in large part because, well, it controls the funding. (See Chapter 8 for more on that.) Beyond the budget, the governor and legislature have made laws touching 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 funding.

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.

The State Board of Education (SBE)

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 have the power to be as informed as anyone else about what the law says - and you may be able to do something about it. The law says that the Ed Code is “permissive,” meaning that school districts are free to take any action not specifically prohibited. They are also free to apply to the State Board of Education (SBE) for waivers from many Ed Code provisions.

The governor wields power in the education system partly through 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 implementing the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula. That included adopting a template districts must use to report on their strategy for addressing a set of eight state priorities for school improvement. (For more on these Local Control Accountability Plans, or LCAPs, see lesson 7.10)

The Superintendent of Public Instruction

The appointed State Board of Education is the governing body for the California Department of Education (CDE), but the publicly elected Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) oversees the department’s day-to-day operations. The CDE administers and enforces both state and federal education laws; provides technical assistance to school districts; and collects, analyzes, and disseminates data about the school system. (Although the CDE website is a bit challenging to navigate it offers a wealth of raw information for the determined sleuth.) The SPI has limited authority to set policy, but often serves as an advocate for policy changes, for example through education reform "blueprints".

The Commission on Teacher Credentialing

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

In the past, when the governor, legislature, and Superintendent of Public Instruction disagreed about many aspects of education policy, concerns were often raised about the “many headed beast” of state education governance. (Prior to the Brown administration, the beast had yet one more head, a governor-appointed "Secretary of Education.") The dominance of Democratic leaders in California since 2010 has made the state leadership structure less problematic, at least for the time being.

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


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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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.
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