California’s public education system is based on a foundation of state direction and local control. Laws spelled out in the state Education Code are created by the Legislature and approved by the governor. Schools and districts must follow these laws, but otherwise they operate independently under their locally elected school boards and superintendents. Let’s start there.

School districts

For students and families, local school districts are by far the most important agency for policies and decisions impacting a child’s education. Each of Orange County’s 28 school districts serves as an independent local education agency — or LEA — run by school board members who are elected by voters. Local school boards have broad power to approve and create budgets, hire district superintendents and set district policies for instruction aligned with state standards, facilities, and health and safety. They can also approve and support local charter schools.

County offices and boards

There are 58 counties in California, and each has a county office of education that provides regional support. We’ll focus here on Orange County.

The Orange County Department of Education has two primary functions: First, it provides direct instruction to the county’s most vulnerable student populations through its alternative and special education divisions. Second, OCDE supports local school districts with services that are necessary for their operations, including professional development, high-speed internet access and security, legal and fiscal guidance, payroll systems, Local Control and Accountability Plan assistance and approval, and student enrichment. Orange County’s superintendent of schools serves as OCDE’s chief employer and oversees day-to-day operations.

Below is a quick video primer on county offices of education. There’s also an accompanying flip book, courtesy of our friends with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools.

The Orange County Board of Education comprises five trustees who are elected by voters to four-year terms. The county board has its own set of responsibilities, including approving charter schools and hearing inter-district transfer and expulsion appeals. The board also receives and approves OCDE’s annual budget, and it approves the purchase of property for department programs.

The California Department of Education

At the state level, the California Department of Education is run by the state superintendent of public instruction, who oversees funding, testing and accountability for all school districts and county offices.

There’s also an 11-member California Board of Education that’s appointed by the governor. This body sets the state’s education standards, reviews and adopts instructional materials — including textbooks — and creates regulations to implement education legislation.

The U.S. Department of Education

Finally, there’s the U.S. Department of Education, which was established in 1980. While this agency has a lesser impact on local education decisions, it sets policies on federal funding, collects data on America’s schools, promotes equal access to education and brings national attention to key educational issues.