A History of California’s Public School System
1849: A schoolhouse opens in San Francisco under church auspices, free to poor students, and becomes the forerunner of the city’s school system – and the first free California public school.
1849: California’s Constitution sets aside land to fund education, establishes superintendent of public instruction. The first school years run three months.
1867: California schools become free for all children.
1874: Attendance becomes compulsory for children ages 8 to 14. State aid is guaranteed based on the number of children living in the district.
1902: State aid OK’d for high schools.
1911: State aid switches to an enrollment base.
1917: P.E. becomes compulsory.
1921: The State Department of Education is established. Local school boards given the task of setting their own budgets and taxes.
1927: After a series of incarnations, the State Board of Education is reorganized into its current format.
1929: Depression requires drastic cuts in school funding, prompting worries the school system will need to be shut.
1933: Long Beach earthquake prompts state supervision of school construction.
1944: Special reports on schools urge equalization of school funding, noting the disparity between districts in poor communities with low property values and those in wealthy, high-property value communities.
1946: Mendez v. Westminster anti-segregation lawsuit sets precedent for end of segregation across U.S.
1968: Serrano v. Priest case argues that California’s system of funding schools through local property taxes is unfair to children from poor communities.
1971: First in a series of rulings in the Serrano case that stretch to 1983; state begins equalizing funding.
1978: Voters pass Prop. 13, which rolls back property taxes, sets a single statewide standard for the taxes and places control of the taxes in the hands of the state. The proposition and its enabling legislation cement state control of school operating funds.
1988: Voters pass Prop. 98 to set a minimum state funding level for California K-14 schools. The bond measures that school boards create School Accountability Report Cards for each campus. The requirements for the report cards have been adjusted more than 10 times.
1996: California adopts funding incentives for schools reducing class sizes to 20-to-1 or smaller in kindergarten through grade three. It is one of the most expensive and extensive school reforms ever enacted to date, according to a 2005 analysis by Princeton doctoral student Fatih Unlu.
1997: California adopts statewide standards in English language arts and math.
2004: The Williams case leads to rules requiring districts to provide information on the availability of adequate standards-aligned instructional material, any repairs needed to ensure school facilities remain in good condition, whether teaching posts are vacant and if teachers are working outside the subject areas for which they are credentialed.
2007: Great Recession begins, prompting cuts in school funding, forcing layoffs of teachers and support staff.
2009: State makes key changes in school funding to soften the blow of recession-forced cuts. It lifts spending restrictions for about 40 categorical programs, enabling schools to use money formerly limited to specific programs for basic operating costs. Changes also allow schools that enroll more than 20 students in grades K-3 to receive partial payments. The state allows schools to roll back the instructional days from 180 to 175 and, in some cases, to 170. Permission for shorter years, which begins in 2009-10, is eventually extended to 2014-15. In 2011-12, schools are allowed to drop seven more days, dropping the number allowed that year only down to 163 in some cases.
2010: California adopts Common Core State Standards, replacing the earlier state standards with a set eventually adopted by 42 other states. The standards emphasize critical thinking over memorization and strive to create consistency in education nationwide.
January 2012: Gov. Jerry Brown proposes eliminating California’s byzantine school financing system. The system has been so frequently modified by lawsuit settlements and legislation that it has become hard to understand even for experts. Funding differences between districts don’t always make sense. A huge chunk of state funding is divided into highly restrictive, narrowly focused categorical programs. The new system, called a weighted student funding formula, is greeted with criticism on all sides; Brown pulls it from his budget plan.
November 2012: Prop. 30 raises income taxes on those earning $250,000 or more for seven years, and raises sales taxes by a quarter-cent for four years. The temporary taxes are expected to generate $6 billion a year, with 89 percent going to K-12 schools and 11 percent to community colleges. Without the tax, schools would have lost $6 billion to state cuts.
November 2012: Brown reaches out to child advocates, state leaders and legislators to gather ideas on revising his weighted funding formula.
January 2013: Brown unveils what he now calls the Local Control Funding Formula, which breaks school funding into two broad categories: A basic grant for each student, with different amounts based on grade level and a pair of grants for high-needs students – those in poverty, English learners and foster children. Instead of following prescribed rules for spending funds allocated by dozens of individual categories, districts need only show how their investments will increase or improve services for all students and for high-needs students.
July 2013: The state enacts the new funding system. Districts launch outreach efforts as required by under the system, seeking advice from parent groups and other stakeholders on district needs.
January 2014: California’s State Board of Education adopts emergency rules for how districts spend funds under the Local Control Funding Formula and crafts a template for Local Control and Accountability Plans, the primary report for documenting student needs and tracking spending to increase or improve services. The LCAP spans three years, with required annual updates.
July 2014: Local Control and Accountability Plans submitted to county offices of education for review.
August 2014: LCAP approval deadline for counties. Technically, the deadline is in October, but a conflicting rule requires counties to OK the documents before they OK school budgets, which must be done by Aug. 15.
November 2014: State board expected to OK permanent LCFF rules, which include tighter accountability rules for spending money on the state’s neediest students. State also to finalize changes to LCAP template for use in 2014-15.
Spring 2015: Students to take their first standardized tests under the Common Core State Standards. Called the Smarter Balanced Assessment, the tests will provide key data for districts in determining baselines for student performance to be used as one in a series of measures for school progress.
July 2015: School districts required to submit their first annual LCAPs.
Summer 2015: School districts expect to receive data from the state’s first administration of Common Core-aligned student tests.
October 2015: State expected to finalize rubric for evaluating LCAPs.
California Public School Governance
California’s K-12 schools are run by independent government special districts, called local education agencies in government parlance and school districts by the rest of us.
They are separate from cities, but do report on some matters to county Offices of Education. The state has final authority over how schools are run. An appointed State Board of Education sets key policy. A Department of Education, under the direction of an elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, executes those policies.
The federal government also plays a role in providing financial aid, especially for low-income students; federal funds come with mandates to follow specific federal rules, including annual testing of students at specific grade levels in English and math.
School districts typically are overseen by elected boards of trustees that set policy and hire a chief executive, called a superintendent. Boards usually have five to seven members, sometimes chosen at large from across a district and sometimes drawn from candidates who live in a specific region of the district.
In addition to administrators, who typically make up 5 percent or less of a school district’s staffing, schools employ certificated staff – primarily teachers – and classified staff – primarily support workers such as groundskeepers and janitors. A small number of employees is categorized as student services workers. The precise definition of who belongs to which group varies from district to district. In all, teachers typically make up about half a school district’s employees, though they have a much bigger profile than the support staff or administrators.
Staff members work varying lengths of the year.
Teachers typically work a few days more than a 180-instructional year – the extra time used in professional development or to prepare for instruction. Some staff work 10 months out of the year and some, including administrators, works 12 months. Additionally, some districts operate as year-round schools, in which staggered cohorts of students are educated with small breaks as opposed to taking one longer, shared summer break.
Schools are run by principals under the direction of the district administration. Some school districts give principals wide latitude to shape campus programs. School site councils provide parents with avenues to share perspectives on how their local schools are run. Parent teacher groups often provide financial support and funnel volunteer help to districts.
School funding breaks into several major pieces. Operating funds are administered by the state and include state dollars, local property taxes and federal money. In some cases, schools benefit from local parcel taxes and other local funding streams.
School facilities are funded separately; schools regularly seek local voter approval of bond measures to build or repair buildings; many times, the state matches dollars raised through statewide bond measures.