In preparation for the upcoming Primary Election on June 5, we are releasing a quick background of each of the Constitutional Officers and what they actually do in the California government.

Today, we are reviewing the State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI).

The SPI oversees the California Department of Education (CDE) and, by extension, all of the state of California’s public schools. The superintendent also manages the operational side of the school system such as overseeing the licensing of teachers, maintaining school property, and fulfilling other administrative duties. This authority is given by the California Constitution as well as the California Education Code.

The current State Superintendent is Tom Torlakson who was elected in 2010, and is termed out this year. SPI is the only non-partisan Constitutional Officer. She or he is also the executive officer and Secretary for the State Board of Education. The SPI’s position requires that they execute, under direction of the State Board of Education, the policies which have been decided upon by the board. The SPI also prescribes regulations under which arrangements with federal government for funds made available to schools. The SPI is the only officer with the authority to direct those regulations.


The SPI’s other duties include:

  • Prepare and furnish to teachers and to all officers charged with the administration of the laws relating to the public schools the blank forms and books necessary to the discharge of their duties.
  • Authenticate with his or her official seal all drafts or orders and all papers and writings issued from his or her office.
  • Bind all valuable school reports, journals, and documents in his or her office, or received by him or her.
  • Designate and appoint, or terminate the designation and appointment of, any officer or employee of the department to have the powers and liabilities of a deputy.
  • Annually inform the governing boards of school districts of the provisions of Section 60510.5 regulating donation of obsolete materials.

While the Superintendent has many duties, the State Board of Education directs the implementation of policies that directly affect the education system within California.

The State Board of Education’s (SBE) President is Dr. Michael Kirst, who was appointed in 2011 by Governor Brown. By statute, the SBE is the governing and policy-making body of the CDE. Under the California Education Code, the SBE adopts rules and regulations in regards to primary and secondary schools as well as Universities and Colleges within the state. The Board also determines various needs within the education system and suggests resolutions in regards to those needs. As stated earlier, the Superintendent must execute these policies and regulations to the Department of Education and the California Public School system.

The Superintendent has the implied power of the bully pulpit. So while the official duties of the SPI are limited to executing policies set by the SBE, the SPI can use their position as a statewide elected official to argue for their preferred education policies. For example, Torlakson pushed for Common Core standards across California, resulting in its implementation. Another example is Torlakson’s predecessor, Jack O’Connell, who focused on closing the achievement gap in California’s public schools.

Molly Alcorn contributed to this post.