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Financial Emergency Declared In State Schools


State School Superintendent Tom Torlakson has just started his term in office, and one of his first goals is to sound the alarm. He wants Californians to understand just how badly schools have been affected by three years of deep budget cuts, with possibly more cuts to come. Tom Torlakson will join us in studio and take your calls.

After a recent meeting with education leaders in Sacramento, new state school Superintendent, Tom Torlakson said if he could, he'd like to call out the national guard...because California is in an education funding crisis.

After three consecutive years of state budget cuts, to the tune of 18 billion dollars, school districts around the state, including here in San Diego have resorted to shorter school years, program cutbacks, school closures and teacher layoffs. And, more budget cutbacks are expected this year.

In the meantime, a national education report has just given California's once unsurpassed school system...a C-grade, with a D-minus in K-12 achievement.


California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. After eye receipt meeting with education leaders in Sacramento, new state school superintendent, Tom Torlakson, said if he could he'd like to call out the national guard because California is in an education funding crisis. After three consecutive years of state budget cuts to the tune of $18 billion, school districts around the state, including here in San Diego, have resorted to cost cutting measures such as shorter school years, program cut back, school closures, and teacher layoffs. And more budget cut backs are expected this year. In the mean time, the national education report has just given California's once unsurpassed school system a C grade with a D minus in K312 achievement. It's quite a daunting way to begin a term as state school chief, I'd like to welcome my guest, California superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson. Tom, good morning.

TORLAKSON: Good morning, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And we'd like to invite our listeners to join this conversation. How have state budget cuts affected your child's education here in San Diego? What do you think the public can do to help restore California's education system? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Of our number here is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. I'm wondering, it the financial picture for California's schools even worse than you expected when you were running for this office?

TORLAKSON: It's about where I thought it would be. Unfortunately, the economy's taken more time to recover than we would hope so that the treasuries of our governments at all levels, school boards, school districts, and the state treasury are low from where they should be. But it's also a question of priorities. And I'm hopeful that this new governor is telling the public very candidly here are our choices, and we have say chance to invest in the future and invest in education or not. And so those are some improvements offer where we were a year ago.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When you met with those education leaders in Sacramento earlier this month. And as you any around the state and you meet with education leaders in the various counties of California. What are you hearing?

TORLAKSON: Well, the cuts have been devastating. On the one hand, teachers are working valiantly every day, and the superintendents and principals are helping our kids learn. So that's been progress amidst these devastating cuts. But I think we're starting to see the system to the point of crisis strain. We're seeing school closures, we're seeing the most crowded classrooms in the nation. We have one of the shortest School years to begin with in California of it's supposed to be a 180s in the modern economy. Yet now we're at 175 days. There's talks of districts going to a 165 days, 160 days. Cutting further, 30,000 teachers laid of, classified employees, 10 to 15,000, a number of school districts on the edge of fiscal insolvency.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what about the morale of the people that you've been speaking with in the face of years of these budget cuts?

TORLAKSON: You know, it's really painful for the new teachers, whether they're fresh out of college with the aspirations in idealism to let our kids learn, or whether they're career changers teachers that are coming in, they the pink slips, they get the notice that there may not be a budget for you, there may not be a budget for you as much as the kids in the classrooms need those teachers. So that part of the morale is pretty horrible throughout the state. I'm hearing that. We're hopeful again with the new governor that we're gonna have a candid California discussion about the budget and how we need to invest.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with California superintendent of public instruction, Tom Torlakson. And we are taking your calls. You're invited to join this conversation at 1-888-895-5727. So were you trying to sound the alarm after your meeting with education leaders, basically to let people know that there is something, you know, there is I real crisis going on?

TORLAKSON: It is an emergency. It is not where California has been in the past. We were leading the nation in having the finest schools and the finest investment, and the finest priority about education. And now we're down near the very bottom 678 we're something like 45th to 46th in the nation in per pupil spending of our test scores on math and language arts and science are near the very bottom. Only 1 or 2 states worse than California of that's not the California we grew up in. That's not the California people moved here to enjoy. That's not the land of promise that we should have. So I do believe it's truly a financial emergency. $18 billion have been cut out of K12 schools in the last thee years 67 that's 1-third of the total funding of education. That's more money taken out of the schools than during the great depression.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And are you surprised or does it surprise you that there isn't perhaps more public out rage about this?

TORLAKSON: And that's another reason, Maureen, why I sounded the alarm in that way. A large portion of Californians don't have children in school themselves right at this moment. And then those parents who are busy working, commuting, making ends meet themselves, they drop their kids off at school, or the bus picks the kids up, or the school doors are open, they don't see the crowded classrooms, they don't see textbooks that are outdated they're ten years behind the reality of the word we're in today. They don't see the lack of science equipment or computers. They drop the kids off, and they think things are okay, but they're not. And they're deteriorating pretty rapidly, and the budget in front of us offers major threats to the quality of education in California.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So you think it's because people just don't realize how bad things have gotten?

TORLAKSON: The realization hasn't hit to mobilize the kind of priority, the kind of out rage there really should be in my mind.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with California superintendent of public instruction, Tom Torlakson, taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Fran is calling us from La Jolla. Good morning, Fran, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you. I just had a quick question how doctor Torlakson felt about lessening the categorical restrictions that the state hands down to the district. Hopefully the district and in turn the school sites can actually decide how the money they're getting should be spent.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Fran. And first you'll have to tell us what the categorical restrictions are.

TORLAKSON: There are certain categories of funding that are locked into being spent for school meal, for transportation, for English learners, for a variety of very important programs. I have been in favor of the flexibility to give local School Boards more discretion over where they put the money. I am in favor of additional flexibility if we can have the school districts prove to us, and I believe they can do this that they can meet targets, they can meet outcomes, goals, and so if they spend the money in the way that they think is best to get to the goals and they can meet the goals, the state should not be worried about boxing in the money with lots of red tape and auditing around each different category of spending.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As I said in my open, there's the publication education journal ranked schools across the nation gave California schools a C grade in national ranking. Sort of right smack in the middle. What do you make of that grade?

TORLAKSON: That's terrible compared to where we've been and where we should be, where we must go to be competitive in the global economy, our communities are falling behind just in the area of technology, math, engineering. We're not producing the skilled graduates from high school that will go on to become the skilled graduates from college to build our future economy, whether it's in the medical sciences, genetics or whether it's in computers. We're falling behind in producing our on or about strength as we have in the past. Actually, there are other rankings that show us lower, for instance, in technology where we have led the world in the invention and use of technology, we're 47th in the nation in the use of technology in our classrooms. Our students have the gadgets and gizmos and wonderful access if their families are affluent enough, they have those devices at home, but they do not have them in our schools.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What do you think despite the budget cuts are still California public schools' strengths?

TORLAKSON: First of all, I believe we have a hard working, dedicated, valiant teacher work force that are truly dedicated to helping kids succeed. And despite all these cuts, and despite some of the finger pointing and blame gaming that's going on out there, they're doing their job every day, coming to work and helping our kids succeed. And test scores are inched up in many respects, despite again these cut backs. We also are a creative people. We're resilient. And California's a place of big dreams and opportunities that people come here to build and take advantage of and look to the future in a positive way. So I believe we're gonna bounce back from this economic downturn, and the public will be supporting investing in education.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with California superintendent of public instruction, Tom Torlakson. And before we go on, what does the superintendent of public instruction actually do, Tom?

TORLAKSON: Well, we over see about $80 billion of federal and state money that goes to the schools. The funding does come in boxes or categories as we talked about. Some money comes from discretionary form that districts can spend. We have about 2500 employees, about a thousand of them are the staff and teachers for the schools of the Deaf, and the schools of the blind, and about 1500 of the employees, which is far down from where it was, there's been a 30 percent cut in the State Department of education. But those individuals are helping gather best practices in English learning, promoting career technical education, looking at literacy, looking at a number of program areas, and we're doing -- as you ask this question, it's a timely one, we're doing a functional audit of the department to see how we can be more responsive to school districts, more helpful, use the 1,500 employees that are overseeing the expenditure and transmittal of billions of dollars, how can we be more effective and helpful to school districts in getting that money to them and having less red tape and bureaucracy in the way.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you're stepping into the position formerly occupied by jack O'Connell for many years as state superintendent, state school superintendent. Did you get any advice from him.

TORLAKSON: Well, absolutely. Jack's a good friend. And we served together in the senate. And I watched his hard work and his focus and his focus on the achievement gap and the drop out rate were a tremendous benefit to California to look ourselves square in the face and look at the problems that we needed to tackle. And so he was extremely helpful in the transition and is a close friend and advisor.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Some education watchers here in California have said that there's not much different in approach between you and former superintendent jack O'Connell. What will you do differently?

TORLAKSON: Well, it's a fresh start whenever someone new comes in, and I am looking at a number of initiatives. I am gonna focus quite a bit in student health. Getting our young people educated early, as early as possible 678 so while continuing the work on closing the achievement gap, working deal with this dreadful, wasteful dropout rate, I believe we need to work on getting preschool for California students, most of the advanced economies in the world have preschool, 0 to 5, well, let's start with three-year-olds and four-year-olds and make sure they're ready for school. If their parents don't speak English, we can get a head start and those children can get a good education so the time they come to kindergarten from preschool, they're ready to learn and not fall mind, and not become a drop out statistic. I am also very big on children's health, and we'll be having a healthy kids campaign throughout the state to have schools and communities work together, the cities, the recreation departments to help keep our kids fit, active, eating well, and they'll learn better, their brains will grow better, and they'll be alert and not having in middle school and high school sugar highs and lows which block your ability to really learn the way you should be.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with state I school superintendent, Tom Torlakson, and we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let's take ape short break right now, and when we return, we'll continue this conversation and take some of your calls. I know some people want to get into this conversation. The numb once again is 1-888-895-5727.

Welcome back, I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. And my guest is California superintendent of probable instruction, Tom Torlakson. And we are talking about budget cuts and how they've affected school districts across the state, and what we collectively can do about that. Taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Chris is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Chris, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, how are you? Thank you for taking my call you're welcome. I just wanted to ask one question, it's a little bit based on my experience. How they were planning on protecting funding for safety issues. You know, academically, you know, we're all concerned about the materials that they're dealing with are outdated and so on. But some of that can be creatively supplemented with the teacher working a little harder with the parents and so on. But when you come down to safety issues on the playground and how many supervisors, specifically how many supervisors do you have watching your children, it gets concerning. And my experience was, we had moved to a top ten school in San Diego, a really good school, had a testing score of 1915. And my daughter was sitting through recess and lunch recess with only two supervisors supervising a hundred and 80 kids which is ridiculous.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. Chris, thank you, let me get a response to that. Are cutbacks across the state on education funding affecting security at schools?

TORLAKSON: It's affected security less than some of the other areas that we were talking about, the learning and teaching. Safety is of paramount concern. So I agree with you, Chris, that is what parents want, that is what we must provide in our schools of we have to have a safe environment, a safe coming to school, a safe coming home from school. Of the influence of environment and gangs in certain neighborhoods. We have to be able to guarantee the safety of children while they're in school, we have issues of bullying and other issues of safety where students can't learn if they're worried about their personal safety. So I would recommend this and throughout the state, it's one of my very, very top priorities. You can't compromise on safety, that parents such as yourself some talk to administration of the school, organize with other parents, get a letter, get a petition, go to the School Board meeting. But express that, if you feel it's not being addressed adequately in your own school district.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Shawn is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Shawn, welcome to These Days. Of.

NEW SPEAKER: Yeah, good morning, I'm a teacher at a charter school in San Diego. And we have a lot of amazing innovative ideas dealing with technology and using it in the classroom to similarity academic achievement. But we have to buy the content over and over again every year. And isn't there a way that the state itself can attend, and then, like, schools can have access to that content in and the content is up indicated regularly as opposed to I test book, which we have to constantly buy over and over again? But if the state pays all these wonderful employees to develop the content, the state would own the content, and then all schools can have access to this.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you, Shawn, for that question. What about that, Tom?

TORLAKSON: Well, a couple of things, Shawn, you're right that a lot of the material that hour students are learning from in our classrooms is outdated. A couple of things, I have talked to the textbook publishers and the publishers and insisted that we move towards the digital age and towards being able to have updated curriculum as we go so that people would know there was a war in Afghanistan, there's a war in Iraq. We have president Obama and Pluto still a dog in Disney movies or a planet somewhere. But seriously, we need to look at ways to have a better and quicker update. We don't unfortunately have the staff to develop the curriculum ourselves in the State Department of education. But what we are gonna promote on line access to best lesson plans, best practices, and a number of school districts have found ways where their teachers working with the administration have done professional development working got the best of astronomy teachers together, the best of literature teachers together, and they've put their lesson plans together, film then, test them out in the classroom, and then make them available on line so all teachers can advice those best lesson plans and we need to do more of that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with state schools chief Tom Torlakson know. At the top of the hour, we heard that the UC system is looking at an effective billion dollar cut in this coming semester, $500 million from the budget itself. Of what is K-12 looking at in this up coming budget?

TORLAKSON: Well, the billion dollars is a serious issue for UC and CSU is facing a similar challenge. I speak yesterday at the regents. I'm I regent in my role as superintendent for the university of California, and we're all suffering. To answer your question, Maureen, the K 12 schools have lost 1-third of their funding in the last three budget years. They've taken a disproportional hit over other state programs, including higher education. And yet, this year, they're facing hundreds of millions of dollars of direct cuts, and then indirectly, there's a couple billion dollars of deferrals, meaning the money will be budgeted as being owed to the schools, but the cash won't be there for another year or two. And so that means a number of districts, and yesterday, I spoke with Randy ward, the county superintendent here in San Diego, and with about ten other superintendents, they're gonna struggle to -- how to borrow money, how to exist in their budget through the period of time when the state won't be able to fully pay that $2 billion that they're talking about rolling over into a future year. So that costs lots of money to borrow. And in districts now have become so on edge, financially, their instability is so great, that they're not gonna be able to borrow. So I think we're facing a really rugged year. Of course, the budget of the governor is dependent on continuing a certain level of revenues in taxes which were put in place as an emergency stopgap to keep our schools whole, and keep other programs whole. So that must pass, in my opinion, if that does not pass, we face true devastation in terms of a lot more school closures, much shortened school year, tens of thousands of more layoffs.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And that will be on the ballot, as I understand, this June, in a special election.

TORLAKSON: That's the hope.


TORLAKSON: It's not yet guaranteed how to get it to the ballot, and those are ongoing.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another phone call. Jane is calling from San Diego. Gorge, Jane, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you, good morning, Maureen, good morning, Mr. Torque lack son. I'm very interested in this conversation because I have school aged children, and as Mr. Torlakson mentioned, parents that have kids are usually the ones that are supposed to be the most involved in schools, whereas everybody else doesn't give that much importance. Although all of this is going to reflect on us when our kids grow up, and the future of our country. I have -- I was very involved in a charter school, and I did notice -- and also in a regular public school, so I was able to see both sides. And I was very concerned on how in public schools the books are outdated, the curriculum is not updated issue it's not up to par, especially with -- in comparison to other countries of how parents are just -- just really uninformed, and they're just -- as Mr. Torlakson said, they just go to working they drop off their kids and they're just content that a lot of the kids are happy or whatever. I just don't understand, I'm very concerned about this. That's why I put my kids in a private school because I'm very, very concerned how our education system is going. Anyway, but my question, I'm kind of going off.


NEW SPEAKER: My question is, I did care that Mr. Torlakson said that, I guess you're considering giving School Boards more power with how they spend their money. Since I was very involved in the school program and everything, I did come to know that in School Boards, is there a lot of expenses that are just completely unnecessary. For example, trips to conventions that are unfruitful and extensive. So if you were planning to do something like that, how will it be over seed?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How will it be over seen? Thank you, thank you very much for that phone call. How will it be over seen if indeed you get -- if the individual School Boards get more discretion in how they can actually use the money that comes from the state?

TORLAKSON: Well, for instance, Maureen on the issue we spoke about earlier in terms of increasing some flexibility, there would also be an audit to make sure that the targets were met. So far if it's transporting a certain number of students to get them to school, if it's providing a certain number of meals, if it's providing a certain purchase and supply of new curricular materials, then there would be an audit to make sure that that money was spent and that the result came about that way. I'll have to say that a vigilant citizenry, involved parents is critical to school districts operating well. I am seeing valiant efforts up and down the state where school districts, their teachers, their principals are innovating and doing many money saving -- very innovating ways of screeching every dime out of every dollar. Of and we need to see more of that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In that vain of stretching every dime out of every dollar and trying to come up with creative collaborations, I'm wondering, if you given any thought to how schools and public libraries can work together to bolster public education.

TORLAKSON: Absolutely, that's a great expect, Maureen. When I was a county supervisor, I was in charge of our library system, and I noticed the school where I used to teach high school in a title one community, 20000 people had no libraries. So I had asked the school library, would you allow the county librarians to come in at 3 o'clock and keep the library open? And yes, now they do that, are and they have computer access, they have adult literacy classes, the library's open here on Saturday. Here's a $15 million facility and resource of curricular information that's locked up in many places at 3 o'clock when the school closes. Well, now it's open. And so we need to do a lot more joint use. The public think that's smart. Because it is smart. I'm seeing school districts do join vehicle maintenance here in San Diego, they do a number of things together jointly. The 42 districts sharing administrators, less bureaucracy, more money for the classroom. And another thing is I'm promoting energy efficiency. There are tens of millions of dollars we can save by solarizing our campuses, some of that's going on right now here in San Diego. But we can do a lot more of these innovative, money saving ideas.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take another phone call. Sherry is calling in San Diego. Gorge, sherry, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. My question has to do with the ways in which cuts are being done for special education programs. I understand that those programs are required to be provided by federal law. But it appears to me that the cuts to those programs are not necessarily effective. And I wonder whether the state or the local districts are asking economists or somebody to evaluate whether or not they're actually saving money or in the long run those cuts are actually costing money because students are not meeting their goals and families are then seeking nonpublic education options or other alternatives. It appears.


NEW SPEAKER: Some of the cuts are really not very effective and I'm wondering whether that's been evaluated.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that call, sherry. So how cuts to special education in California's public schools, been evaluated?

TORLAKSON: I haven't seen any aren't reports about that. One of my jobs as coming in as a new student will be to ask those questions up and down the state for different programs. Adult ed has been cut back for art music and drama, so I'm gonna be asking for report cards for basically the status of what have the cut backs been, I think sherry's point is well taken. We should a cost benefit analysis, is a penny wise, a pound full if you cut here now, over the next five years, if that student is less able to cope in the school environment? One thing we must do, and I will lead an effort to get more of our federal money, because these are federal laws, and the special education budget has not been funded the way it should be by the federal government.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with the California superintendent of public education, Tom Torlakson. And taking your calls. Emily is calling us from Carlsbad. Good morning, Emily, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, good morning. I had just one quick question. Recently there were two movies, Waiting for Superman, and the Race to Nowhere. I'm adjustment wondering, have you thought about anything like that? Just the problem of a public school, probably not all about money. Is there anything we can do to change the system? To come up with a creative way to really teach the kids, not take test, and create a whole kid. So I'm just wondering if you have any comment on that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Emily, thank you for the call. Yeah, Waiting for Superman created a very big buzz earlier this year, and some controversial controversy, what is your take on that?

TORLAKSON: I have not seen the movie. I believe it was a Hollywood production and you know, there were extremes painted in the picture. But I would say this, that we need to look at the ingredients of success. And there are successful charter schools, there are successful -- which are public schools, that are successful magnet school, there are programs from a bill I authored called the Quality of Education Improvement Net. We actually know the ingredients of success. I am gonna be convening a symposium of these specialized public schools and ask them to put forward their best thinking on how we can scale up some of these ingredients to success to other schools. We should be educating the whole child. Life is not a multiple choice test. The bubble test that a lot of our schools are just focused -- obsessed with performing well on because of the consequences in math and in language arts, leave out a whole host of areas where we ourselves got a great education, a comprehensive education. We need to look at the whole child. So I am of the mind that we should take the best practices, all these different experiments in our schools and make sure we can scale them up and get them into the main classrooms.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So Tom Torlakson, you're sounding the alarm about the crisis in education fund funding in California and trying to make parents perhaps more aware of the situation that exists in public schools across our state. I wonder what it is that you would like people to do with that. What are some ways -- if a parent or a person is motivated to try to help our public education system, what can they do?

TORLAKSON: Well, first visit your local schools and find out where you can help. There's a great need for volunteers to help in reading programs, I'm gonna be also promoting a big literacy push in California where adults read to their kids and read to other children who may not have an adult who has the time or is available right then to read to them. But beyond that, we need to forge some partnerships. We're all a part of organizations. We're part of clubs, church groups, Quantis, Rotary, Soroptimus. How can we get our organizations involved? I'm also gonna be promoting businesses to come into our schools even more. Jack O'Connell was a great proponent of creating more of those academies, Kearney High school, Madison, have great career programs. Get involved. Of there are after school programs where kids need help. And adult talent and caring make a huge difference. And as informed citizens, then, when we have choices at the ballot box, you'll be able to persuade your friends to vote the right way and support education.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And so there is that political aspect to it of actually showing up at the ballot box and supporting education through your vote.

TORLAKSON: Yes. And you know, time and again, Maureen, I find that when you give voters a choice, usually they will vote yes to invest in education. Most of the school bonds in this state passed the last time they were in front of voters, and I'm again hopeful that this package of revenues that's currently in place will be able to be continued by a positive vote of Californians.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for giving us your time today. Thanks a lot.

TORLAKSON: Thank you Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Tom Torlakson, he's the new California superintendent of public instruction. A lot of people wanted to talk with us. We didn't get a chance to speak with everyone. If you'd like to comment on line, please do, are Days. Coming up, we welcome Tony award winning musical star, Alice Ripley. Of that's next as These Days continues here on KPBS.


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