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Definition of a School

Provides definition information to California Department of Education staff for purposes of managing school and program information.

The purpose of providing this information is to ensure consistency among divisions of the California Department of Education (CDE) regarding department identification and management of school and program information.

In providing this information, the CDE hopes to accomplish the following:

  1. List the essential attributes that define a school such that it is possible to distinguish schools from non-school entities.
  2. Assist in resolving difficulties associated with reporting information on schools.
  3. Provide definitions that anticipate future changes in institutions for education and learning.

Definition of a School

The term "school" is used to refer to all educational institutions that have the following characteristics:

  • Have one or more teachers to give instruction
  • Have an assigned administrator
  • Are based in one or more buildings
  • Contain enrolled or prospectively enrolled students

Definition of a Public School

The CDE further defines a public school as a kindergarten through grade twelve and/or adult educational institution that:

  • Is supported with public funds.
  • Is authorized by action of and operated under the oversight of a publicly constituted local or state educational agency.
  • Provides educational services to all students who are enrolled.
  • Has an appropriately credentialed teacher (or teachers) who provides instruction.
  • Has at least one appropriately credentialed administrator, usually a principal, who is responsible for all aspects of school administration including supervision and evaluation of staff, fiscal responsibility, student discipline and safety, supervision and evaluation of curriculum, and assessment of academic achievement and school accountability.
  • Administers California statewide assessments to its students at the required grade levels.
  • Has an administrator, usually a principal, with access to and responsibility for maintaining official student records for all enrolled students.
  • With the exception of charter schools: Implements a curriculum that fully meets state requirements as specified in the California Education Code relating to required courses of study.
  • Is non-sectarian.
  • With the exception of charter schools: Contains a budget structure that is consistent with the budget structure of schools operated by the authorizing agency.
  • Is based in one or more buildings that are "Field Act" compliant,* unless exempt.

*Earthquake resistant construction. The Field Act was one of the first pieces of legislation that mandated earthquake resistant construction (specifically for schools in California) in the United States.

Definition of a Private School

A private school is a school, as defined, that is owned or operated by a private person, firm, association, organization, or corporation, rather than by a public agency.

Is it a Program, or is it a School?

In determining whether a given entity is a school or a program, consider the following questions:

  • Is the educational component of the entity secondary to its primary purpose, which is other than education?
  • Do students, who are enrolled in the entity, remain members of the school that referred them?
  • Do all students enroll on a part-time basis?

If the answer to any of those three questions is yes: This entity is not a school, and it may be a program.

Next, consider these questions:

  • Except for State Special Schools, can the entity, if it accommodates grade twelve students, grant a diploma to its graduates?
  • Do the students have full access to all of the facilities and amenities of the entity?

If the answer to either of those two questions is no: This entity is not a school, and it may be a program.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does "based in one or more buildings" mean?

Although most schools are located within a building or buildings, some educational institutions are able to deliver education via electronic means (e.g., computer-based training or Internet courses). As such, although it is not essential that the education be delivered to students within a building, it is expected that a school be based in a building. For example, a school that uses the Internet to deliver education would still have a place where it would receive mail; the school would also have a computer located in a building.

Does an administrator have to be full-time and solely devoted to one school?

There are geographical areas where the population of people is very small and is geographically dispersed. As such, it may be necessary to establish several small entities to make education and instruction accessible to a small number of students. It would not be economically practical to require a separate administrator for each school. There are also instances where a few students must be separated from other students for disciplinary reasons. In any case, in order for each of those educational institutions to be designated a "school," each would need to have all of the characteristics of a school.

Additionally, in order to determine whether two educational institutions occupying the same physical location are separate schools, one would expect to see: Either a separate administrator associated with each educational institution, or that each institution is established under separate statutory authority; and that the entities have different staffing structures, schedules, and a separate physical entrance.

What type of student records is the educational institution’s administrator(s) required to maintain?

Administrators of educational institutions shall have access to (and shall be responsible for maintaining) each enrolled student's pupil record as defined by the California Code of Regulations, Title 5, sections 430, et seqExternal link opens in new window or tab.. Note that charter schools are not governed by these regulations; however, it is reasonable to expect that the school’s administrator would maintain student records for all students enrolled in the charter school.

If it is a charter school owned by a firm, is it then a private, not public, school?

Because they are "established by action of and operated under the jurisdiction of a publicly constituted local or state educational agency," even those charter schools that are owned by a firm are considered to be public schools.

Are virtual schools considered schools?

Virtual schools that are intended to be permanent and otherwise meet the definition of a school as described above may meet the criteria for being a school. However, if the establishment of the new virtual entity is intended to be temporary, the CDE recommends that you establish the virtual entity as a program, whereby the students remain enrolled in their home school and participate in the program via their home school.

Local educational agencies considering the establishment of virtual schools, shall also review the 'Virtual Schools' section of the Distance Learning Frequently Asked Questions to ensure the virtual school can meet the attendance accounting and instructional time requirements.

For additional questions or concerns related to instructional time requirements, please contact School Fiscal Services at

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Questions:   CDS Administration | | 916-327-4014
Last Reviewed: Thursday, April 1, 2021