Race For California School Chief A Referendum On Change
Thursday, May 29, 2014
Tom Torlakson, the veteran lawmaker seeking a second term as California’s elected superintendent of schools, and Marshall Tuck, a former charter school executive hoping to unseat him, are both Democrats.
The two agree the state spends too little on education, favor giving local districts more discretion about how to use their funding and share support for the Common Core State Standards, the national learning benchmarks that have generated a backlash over whether they undermine states’ rights.
As they prepare to compete along with a Republican candidate in the June primary, however, Tuck and Torlakson’s backgrounds and perspectives on a handful of hot-button issues are making the nonpartisan race a referendum on whether change is coming quickly enough in a state where the traditional might of labor unions is being challenged by increasingly restive education reformers.
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Tuck, 40, who has never held elected office, counts himself among the latter. A graduate of Harvard’s business school, he spent five years leading Green Dot Public Schools, a Los Angeles charter school operator, and six years as CEO of a nonprofit founded by former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that took control of 17 poorly performing public schools.
He says his experience running schools that were staffed with unionized teachers but given flexibility in terms of recruiting, setting curriculum and measuring results persuaded him that state government stifles innovation in education more than promotes it.
“Is Sacramento creating the conditions for superintendents, principals and teachers locally to be most successful? The reality is they are not right now, and I don’t think the current people leading are capable of leading in that area,” he said.
Unlike Torlakson, who has been endorsed by California’s two main teachers unions and the state Democratic Party, Tuck opposes California’s generous teacher tenure system, has challenged the law that bases teacher layoffs on seniority and believes strongly that student’s standardized test scores should be a factor in teacher evaluations.
He also supports California’s pioneering “parent trigger” law, which Torlakson voted against when he was a member of the state Assembly. The 2010 law allows parents at low-performing schools to petition for a takeover that can include installing new leadership, closure or conversion to a charter school.
These positions don’t make him anti-union, just impatient with the status quo, Tuck said. He has secured endorsements from the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Hey, why wouldn’t you just wait until 2018 versus going up against an incumbent?” he said. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding? We have 2.5 million kids who can’t read or write at grade level.’”
Torlakson, 64, spent eight years as a high school science teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area before entering politics full-time in 1980. He said he has earned the chance to follow through on the major policy shifts upon which California has embarked since he was elected as superintendent of public instruction in 2010.
During a second term, Torlakson said he would prioritize additional funding for implementing Common Core, ensure an effective transition to the new school funding formula that directs more money to schools with the most disadvantaged students, and continue championing programs that meld academics with career preparation.
Torlakson also touts his productive relationships with the unions, with Gov. Jerry Brown, with the Brown-appointed state Board of Education and with former colleagues in the Legislature, where he served for 14 years. All played a role in securing passage of Proposition 30, the temporary tax increases that helped restore school funding cuts made during the recession, he said.
“I’m a great advocate for kids. People believe me, they trust me because I’m a teacher, and as a coach I know all about creating teams,” he said. “So I have the experience, we are living up to all of the promises we made when I ran and more, and we are continuing the momentum.”
He said he is open to revising the law that grants teachers tenure after two years and including student test scores as “a tool in the toolbox of teacher evaluation.” But such changes should be made as part of a comprehensive teacher preparation initiative that seeks to cultivate good teachers as well as get rid of bad ones and only with “buy-in from everyone involved,” he said.
Silicon Valley Education Foundation Chief Executive Officer Muhammed Chaudry agrees with Torlakson that California already has adopted an ambitious agenda for reforming its public schools and said he thinks Tuck’s candidacy is premature.
“Changing courses right now would be disastrous,” Chaudry said. “It’s no longer about policy. It’s about execution now.”
Former state. Sen. Gloria Romero, who sponsored the parent-trigger law and ran for state schools chief four years ago, said that while she disapproves of Torlakson’s allegiance to the California Teachers Association, she has more faith in him at this point than the untested Tuck.
“Unless I’m willing to vote against Brown and (Attorney General) Kamala Harris, which I’m not, I can’t vote against Torlakson. They are all part of the same sauce,” said Romero, who does not plan to endorse either candidate in the primary.
A third candidate seeking the superintendent’s post is Long Beach educator Lydia Gutierrez, a Republican who also ran four years ago and has expressed doubts about California’s embrace of Common Core. Under California’s new primary system, the top two vote-getters in the June 3 primary advance to the November general election, regardless of party affiliation.
While Gutierrez does not have the money her two opponents do, it would be a mistake to count her out because “opponents of Common Core, who are not numerous in California, are highly mobilized and motivated,” said Stanford University professor David Plank, who directs the nonpartisan Policy Analysis for California Education research center.
“Tuck will have financial support from the reform community, the people who are frustrated with the current regime. Torlakson will have support from the education establishment and the unions. Gutierrez is a wild card,” Plank said. “So it’s really anyone’s guess how this is going to go.”
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