Two years ago, I had the honor of being named the California Teacher of the Year by Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction. A few months later, we stood together in the East Room of the White House as I was named the 2012 National Teacher of the Year by President Barack Obama. A proud moment, not just for me or for Superintendent Torlakson, but for the California public schools I had attended, the California public colleges from which I had received my degrees and teaching certification, and the public schools that nurtured my ability as a teacher.
In the year that followed, I began a year of travel and speaking that brought me to 30 states and nine nations across the globe representing all 3.2 million American public school teachers. Torlakson and I met several times during the year and I came to understand why it is he is such a strong leader for our public school system (“Tuck has the energy and vision to revive public schools”; Endorsements, May 4).
Torlakson has worked tirelessly during his tenure to fend off the damage that a near decade of financial free-fall has had on our state. He sponsored initiatives to improve literacy programs in the neediest schools, increased funding for vocational education and workforce readiness and increased the number of green and healthy schools initiatives. He prepared and unveiled new standards for the teaching profession that would train and retain highly effective teachers, all while creating the conditions that would increase our state’s graduation rates to 80 percent.
When you meet Torlakson, the first thing you realize about him is that he’s a teacher. Having taught himself, he understands the needs of our system better than most. He knows not only what our state’s children need, but how their teachers can best do their work, how schools can be wonderful hubs for their communities, and how our state’s education agency can pave the way for schools to fuel the rapid pace of change, innovation and growth our state needs. He is, more than anyone else, a true public servant who has devoted his life’s work to making our schools and the people who work in them the very best they can be.
Providing a free public education to every child in this country is one of our nation’s most noble and audacious ideals. Our public schools serve as a testament to that ideal and must continue to exist and operate as a common good we bestow upon all of our children.
K-12 education is not a commodity or a consumer good to be bought and sold. Public schools are not ours to be privatized or given away to the highest bidder. The gift of education is for all of us. It strengthens our nation and knits together our values so strongly they can never be torn apart.
It fuels our growth, it prepares us for the future, and it protects us in a time of need. We deserve a state superintendent who knows this, who believes this in his heart, and who does the unending work of protecting it for the ages. Torlakson is that man.
Rebecca Mieliwocki was California’s Teacher of the Year and the National Teacher of the Year for 2012. She teaches seventh-grade English in Burbank.