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State Superintendent Visits Patrick Henry High, Touts Prop 30

Tom Torlakson on Prop 30
State Superintendent Visits Patrick Henry HS And Touts Prop 30
GUESTSTom Torlakson, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Barerra, Trustee, San Diego Unified School District Board of Education

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition state student of public instruction Tom Torlakson has seen California schools deal with unprecedented economic challenges since he took office last year. He is touring schools in advance of the election for a twofold purpose: To promote a new emphasis on technical education, and the other to encourage state public funding. Welcome. TORLAKSON: Great to be here. CAVANAUGH: And Richard Barrera, a member of the School Board. BARRERA: Hey, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: Superintendent, you visited Patrick Henry high school this morning to tour the school's technical programs. What did you see? TORLAKSON: Well, it was fabulous, it was awesome. It's a shining example of education at its best. Fully engaged, excited students. One student said this isn't even like coming to class! This is so fun! I love to come here. And Patrick Henry has a focus on engineering, so students have a course of studies that actually earn them college credits while they're also in high school and earn their eligibility to get into the cal state university San Diego. So they have a math away to automatically -- pathway to automatically come into the yesterday. They have another pathway to learn about human development, and choose careers, everything from being a teacher. CAVANAUGH: And it seems the push in recent years has been to prepare high school students to go to college and it's all been academics. There hasn't been any hands-on kind of -- the kind of vocational training, at least that's what we used to call it. Is this a change in emphasis? TORLAKSON: Well, I bring with my office, I want to see more practical applications of our studies, more career orientated courses of study. And students get excited, they stay on with it, the graduation rates are 96%, 98%. Our economy needs strong schools. And our students see the relevancy of the work. They know why they have to do the math and why they need to know the science and why they need to communicate well in training and verbally. So it's a fantastic way, and it is exciting to busy leaders of our state. CAVANAUGH: Is this geared toward perhaps tracking some students away from going to college or if they can't quite go to college just after high school that at bottom level when they graduate from high school, they'll have a trade? TORLAKSON: Well, this isn't tracking. This is opening doors and looking at all possibilities. So what I say, our goal is to have students be career and college ready. Some will go on to be engineers and architects. We saw students today who I be will be great engineers and architects. And others will be plumbers, carpenter, earning money in an apprenticeship program right away, they'll be out there building and fixes things that we pay a lot of money for because we need the plumbing fixd when it breaks down on Sunday, right? CAVANAUGH: Indeed. How are schools rolling out this program? BARRERA: We've made an emphasis over the last few years on what we call college and career technical education. A couple years back, I was talking to a group of students at UCSD, and a sophomore in engineering major came up to me afterwards and said I'm a graduate of Kearney High's construction tech academy. And I guarantee I would have dropped out of high school if it hadn't been for the hands-on career-oriented education, but now I'm a sophomore at UCSD majoring in engineering. It kept me in school and made college relevant. So we be that we've got to offer choices to students upon graduation that leads them in one path toward success and that doesn't close off options. So we've invested a lot of support, our bond measures have put a lot of emphasis into upgrading facilities so students have state of the art equipment so they're prepared to go right into a career or college education. And superintendent Torlakson came down a few months ago to recognize that San Diego unified has the lowest dropout rate of any large urban school district in California, and we think a lot of that is because we've made high school very relevant to students who are both looking at college, career, or some combination right after graduation. CAVANAUGH: I think a lot of people, when they remember back to their own high school experiences might remember auto shop class and working -- that kind of vocational training being part of their experience in high school. It wasn't necessarily -- it was a little bit more tracked than what you're talking about. Either you went on that track or you went on the academic track. But what do schools have to do now differently in terms of this kind of training to get someone workforce ready for the 21st century? TORLAKSON: Well, the needs are different. We still need the people competent in plumbing and woodshop. But the career courses we're talking about involve science labs where they're studying DNA and doing different experiments in that order. They're building things. They're in a more hands-on kind of career pathway that's rich and needs academics. It needs the understanding of math. And you can't be a carpenter or plumber or architect or engineer without understanding the math. So it's a different kind of career approach, but it is now oriented to the jobs of the future. And the skills, teamwork, critical thinking, hands-on problem involving, these are skills that employers are looking for in all kinds of careers. CAVANAUGH: You talked about remodel this education system, keeping what's best, replacing what's out of date. What are we doing in California that's out of date? TORLAKSON: Well, I think frankly the testing system we have is sort of an out of date way to measure school success. So yes, it's important to look at math scores of students and language arts scores, but that's not the whole picture of what defines a capable student or a successful school. So I think we're going to move away. The legislature just passed a bill authorizing me to look at other ingredients. Shouldn't we have arts and music and drama in the school? And the new approach is interdisciplinary, so music and math, a lot of it goes together. We're going to look at ways to integrate these subjects in a new and meaningful way. CAVANAUGH: But those are the very things that a lot of school districts have had to cut in recent years because of the cuts from Sacramento. TORLAKSON: Absolutely. It's the wrong direction. The retreat from prioritizing education has been extremely harmful. Our schools have lost 25% of their funding, and too often because art, music, and science aren't measured very frequently they're not taught. And the courses are cut back, and the opportunities are cut back. CAVANAUGH: I know you're here for a twofold purpose. And I don't want to miss out on a discussion that you want to bring us about proposition 30. But I do have a couple more questions about this technical education and how it's being applied here in San Diego. Richard, I understand there may be some high schools in this district that have not embraced the concept of technical education? BARRERA: Well, no. I think throughout our high schools, we have 18 major high schools in the district, I think they all have some component of college, career, technical education. And even in the high schools with the more traditional curricula, we've tried to integrating the more traditional academics with careers. And we have several small high school academics like the one Tom visited. My son graduated from high school a couple of years ago at a district-run school called the Met, which is a school on the Mesa College campus where the student goes to school three days a week, then they do an internship. And in their junior year of high school, they can start taking community college classes. That I really think -- we want to expand that kind of effort, because it engages the students so directly while they're in high school, and nothing prepares them better for graduation than being out in the real world and taking college classes while they're in high school. So we're very much looking to expand those kinds of ideas. CAVANAUGH: Superintendant Torlakson, you just talked about the whole idea of perhaps changing the way students are tested. You're talking about this new educational program, an emphasis at least, that's being rolled out in different schools. All this takes I would imagine some money for education, and that's been in very short supply lately in California. TORLAKSON: That's absolutely correct. And we're falling behind the rest of the nation. It's a disgrace that California is 47th out of 50 states in what we invest per child. San Diego is about $6,000 per school. Massachusetts, New Jersey, they're putting in $15,000 per student. So to have the new robotics equipment for kids to study robotics or do solar and green energy and have CAD, computer aided drawing systems, it takes money. And the schools have lost 25% of their funding, if prop 30 does not pass they face another $5 billion or 10% cut. A shorter school year, it's unthinkable but they're talking about knocking off three and four weeks of instruction when we already have one of the shortest school years in the global economy. CAVANAUGH: I want to play something that one of our guests who is opposed to prop 30 said. KPBS interviewed Chris Kate of the San Diego County taxpayers association. He told us why his group is against prop 30. Here's what he said. NEW SPEAKER: We already have the second highest income tax rate in the country, the highest sales tax rate in the country. If education prioritization focused on that rather than wasting time, energy, and money on things like high-speed rail or other pet projects that they want to get done. CAVANAUGH: Mr. Torlakson, that argument about California having high taxes, and the governor's push to go ahead with that high-speed rail project has been used frequently as arguments against the need for Proposition 30. What is your response? TORLAKSON: Well, whatever you think of how Sacramento has handled the budget, it's not about Sacramento and politicians there. It's about our kids. And we know San Diego schools and schools across California face devastating cut, dismantling academies and programs where teachers have learned to work as a team and have a structured, tiered set of courses along a career path. We are going to lose that if we have another round of these cuts. This is not the top taxing state. California is sort of in the middle of the pack, frankly. And we're only asking Californians to invest what we were paying about a year and a half ago. We were paying another $6 billion a year in taxes, and that sunset. Most people don't even realize they were paying it, and it sunset. We want to reinvest. We want to restore money that the schools used to enjoy, and the Prop 30 mechanism gets the money back in the schools. It helps higher Ed too! We mentioned cal state San Diego and UC San Diego, they will also face devastating cuts, and students either won't be able to get in or it'll take them 5.5 years to graduate. That costs people money. It costs students more money, they graduate with more debt, and it costs families more money. CAVANAUGH: Another argument against Prop 30, a lot of people are not happy as you mention body how money is actually spent in Sacramento. What they say is that teachers in particular are more interested in preserving their pensions than seeing money spent on education. TORLAKSON: Well, I disagree with that. That's not what I see up and down the state. I see teachers working valiantly, with passion, skill, exciting the students. They're there, and they're being asked to take forced school closure day. They're taking pay cuts. That I have not had pay increases. And a teacher's retirement, and most of our teacher workforce is women, and when is they retire it's not living in luxury. It's very tight. And when you have to then pay your own medical after age 65, it's a very tight retirement. While they're in their professional careers, their hearts are just working overtime for the kids. BARRERA: And specifically on that issue, here in San Diego, we have had for two years, and now for another two years going forward, our teachers, our bus drivers, our custodians, our principles, our school police officers have all agreed to take roughly a 3% annual pay cut and will continue to going forward. And they've done that in order to preserve low class sizes for students. What does Prop 30 ask? It asks that for instance somebody who makes more than a million dollars a year would contribute 3% of their income for the next three years to preserve education. If our teachers and school police officers and the people who educate our kids every day are already contributing 3% of their income to keep our schools in good shape, we think it's fair to ask the same of the very wealthiest people in the state. CAVANAUGH: I have one last question, I think it's curious. I know that the supporters of proposition 30 do not like proposition 38. That's sort of a competing education funding measure that's on the ballot. They want people to vote for prop 30 and against prop 38. But the San Diego unified district wants people to vote for both of them! BARRERA: Absolutely. And I think the superintendent has taken the same position. We think it's vitally important right now that people who want to support schools, and we think that's the overwhelming majority of Californians, should vote yes on 30, yes on 38. Here in San Diego, they should also vote yes on prop Z, our school bond measure. We know that there are some people who are fans of 38, some people are fans of 30, and that's great. What's too risky is to allow both of those measures to fail because we vote yes on one and no on the other. So it's very important that supporters of education vote yes on both. TORLAKSON: And I totally agree with what was just said. And just to remind our listeners, it's not double taxing. If both pass, you won't be double taxed. The one with the highest votes, their scheme of collecting the money and investing in the schools will prevail. But it's just simpler to think yes, yes. Vote yes for the future of our students. And both 30 and 38 get you to a solution that will really help our higher Ed and K12 schools. CAVANAUGH: Thank you both so much. BARRERA: Thank you, Maureen. TORLAKSON: Thank you, Maureen.

Tom Torlakson thinks that California students should not only be ready for college when they graduate from high school, but also should be ready to go to work with the right skills for the modern economy.

The State Superintendent of Public Instruction has visited five high schools on his "Strong Schools for a Strong Economy" tour, which ends today at Patrick Henry High School in San Diego.

Torlakson said he hopes the tour will make voters realize the link between California's education system and the state's economy. The idea is that the school curriculum should connect students to careers and the "modern world of work," in which jobs increasingly call for technical, scientific and mathematical skills.

The students at Patrick Henry were a "shining example of what's best in California education," Torlakson told KPBS.

"We saw engaged students, articulate, working in teams, communicating well, hands-on, doing problem solving," he said.

The "Strong Schools for a Strong Economy" includes hands-on experience.

"This is what employers are looking for," Torlakson said.

During his visit, Torlakson also touted Proposition 30, Governor Jerry Brown's tax measure that would raise funds for schools.

He said it's a way to "reinvest in our schools."

"About a year and a half ago, Californians were paying another $5 to $6 billion in taxes, and we're just saying restore that money," he said.

He said schools have lost 25 percent of their funding and face another 10 percent that could be eliminated.

But Chris Cate with the San Diego Taxpayers Association has told KPBS in the past that rejecting the measure would send an important message that the budget should be balanced through reforms before tax increases.

“We already have the second highest income tax rate in the country, we have the highest sales tax rate in the country,” he said. “If education is their true priority, they should focus on that rather than wasting time, energy and money on things like high-speed rail or other pet projects they want to get done.”

In response, Torlakson said, "I want to say what our special project is. It's our kids."

Claire Trageser contributed to this report.