Which school do you want to support?
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 has to serve many competing interests. Let's start with the basics: Who's in charge here?
The constitutions of both the United States and the state of California are clear on this point: ultimate responsibility for providing public K-12 education falls 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 a case before the California Supreme Court affirmed 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.
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 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 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 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. 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), the primary policy governing how funds flow from the state to school districts. The State Board doesn't directly control a lot of funding, but it sets important rules by providing districts with guidance about how to use of funds in support of eight state priorities for school improvement. School districts document their plans for those eight priorities through a documentation and communication process known as the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). (Much more on that later, in lesson 7.10.)
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. That job falls 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".
The state Department of Education (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. The CDE website is a bit challenging to navigate, but it offers a wealth of raw information for the determined sleuth.
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 teachers and other 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 long-serving 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. The test of the state's strategic alignment over education will be how well it survives the transition to a new Governor, new Superintendent of Public Instruction, new Board of Education, and new legislative leaders.
But wait, you ask, isn't the Federal government also critically involved in education? Ah, yes. That is the subject of the next lesson.
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