Gov. Jerry Brown was late, and the children in the audience were not the only ones growing restless.
In the back of the room, Paul Hefner, campaign manager for Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, paced nervously. After the appearance with Brown at San Jose’s Katherine Smith Elementary School, Torlakson had a tight schedule to uphold: An interview with a journalist from Education Week, who had flown across country to cover his closely contested re-election race. Then, a drive down to Bakersfield for an evening town hall.
“27 days,” Hefner said, ticking off another notch on his countdown to Election Day. “The Chilean miners were trapped for 69… If they had enough air, then we’ll be fine.”
Welcome to the intensifying battle for the state’s top schools official, the hottest statewide race in California this fall.
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It’s an unusual development for the low-key office of state superintendent, a down-ballot, nonpartisan position that rarely inspires the fervor of voters, if they’ve even heard of it. Torlakson’s predecessor, Jack O’Connell, quietly won a second term in 2006 when he garnered more than 50 percent of the primary vote.
But this year’s race surfaces issues at the center of a national conflict over the direction of public education. Promising an overhaul to California’s low-ranked school system, Marshall Tuck, a former schools executive from Los Angeles challenging Torlakson, galvanized support over a June court ruling declaring California’s teacher tenure and dismissal laws unconstitutional.
His aggressive attacks have put Torlakson on the defensive. In the only public poll of the race last month, Tuck led slightly, with the largest chunk of voters still undecided. Now millions of dollars from outside groups – wealthy businessmen and teachers unions alike – are rapidly pouring in.
Torlakson is counting on his years of experience and support from Democratic Party leaders to persuade voters to give him four more years at the helm of California schools. He says passage of Proposition 30, the tax measure that he joined Brown to campaign for across the state in 2012, pushed California back onto a path of academic progress.
“I have a track record they can look at and say, through thick and thin, I stayed with my goals and my goals are (to) improve education for our kids,” he said over coffee on a recent afternoon. “I think the public trusts someone who has that real experience. The other is a big risk.”
Democrats nationwide have clashed for years over new educational proposals, such as incorporating test scores into teacher evaluations, that teachers unions strongly oppose. A Democratic establishment traditionally aligned with organized labor now faces political newcomers like Tuck who want to overhaul school management and change long-standing personnel policies.
“It’s a new day within the Democratic Party,” said Michelle Rhee, founder and CEO of the education advocacy group Students First, which seeks to create more school choice for parents and accountability for teachers.
“The new generation of Democrats believe very strongly in the big Democratic ideals of social justice,” she said, and they aren’t satisfied with the progress for minorities and low-income kids since Brown v. Board of Education.
California has been slow to adopt those policies because, she said, “folks are more embedded in the old-school politics. They’ve been around for a long time.”
But “the shift is already happening” at the ballot box, she added, among groups like Latinos who are tired of “having their kids trapped in failing schools. They’re understanding a little bit more how the policies politicians are putting in place are having a detrimental effect.”
Lawsuit elevates debate
That tension crystallized in the Vergara v. California case, a lawsuit brought by a group of students that argued the state’s two-year teacher tenure system, seniority-based layoffs and rigorous dismissal procedures protected ineffective teachers, with a disproportionately adverse effect on low-income and minority students. In June, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu agreed and ruled the practices unconstitutional.
It’s a topic Torlakson has since been unable to avoid, even as he initially tried to downplay its significance. At a recent mock press conference with Sacramento high school students, questions about school lunches and bullying eventually turned to the decision and Torlakson’s support for a state appeal.
Tuck, who built much of his campaign around the case, has repeatedly criticized Torlakson for his position, decrying it as a political move to assuage the California Teachers Association, a powerful political force in Sacramento and the biggest financial backer of Torlakson’s campaign.
Supporters of Tuck, including Randy Ward, superintendent of the San Diego County Office of Education, have labeled Torlakson a “wholly owned subsidiary of the CTA.”
Ward said he is disappointed by what he considers a lack of leadership by Torlakson – not only in addressing the issues raised by the Vergara suit, but also on smaller problems.
He pointed to a package of anti-truancy data collection and reporting bills that state Attorney General Kamala Harris promoted this past legislative session. “That is something that is so basic when it comes to public education,” Ward said. “It can’t just be constantly jumping on the leadership of others.”
Torlakson is “a status quo kind of guy,” he said. “We don’t really need to change much; we just plod along, we get our incremental gains and be satisfied.”
Torlakson would disagree that schools are at a standstill. While he acknowledges there is much work to be done, he said the temporary taxes passed by voters are having a positive effect.
“We’ve seen class sizes starting to get smaller again already,” he said. He noted that graduation rates recently topped 80 percent for the first time in California history. Since 2011, eighth-grade reading scores have improved more than for any other state in the country.
Renewing that source of revenue is one of his priorities for a second term. While other Democratic leaders have been more reluctant to talk about extending what was pitched as a temporary tax hike, Torlakson said he wants “all options on the table,” especially if the economic need is still there.
“We know the states that invest have much better results,” he said. “I’ve been a strong supporter” of increasing school funding, “unwavering in support, as I was in my first term when I ran.”
Clash over testing
He is also proud of leading California’s transition to Common Core, a sometimes controversial national standards initiative that supporters like Torlakson praise for “getting away from rote memorization and getting deeper into analysis of why things happen.”
The transition included a showdown with the Obama administration last summer over California’s testing regimen. The state sought to suspend its standardized tests for one year while moving over to the new curriculum and computer-adaptive exams of Common Core. The U.S. Department of Education objected to the plan because it violated federal law mandating annual testing for accountability purposes.
After initially threatening to withhold some of the approximately $1.5 billion in federal Title I funding for disadvantaged students that California receives annually, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ultimately backed down.
“Spending another minute or dime on the old standards made no sense,” Torlakson said. “Is the federal government going to steal … money from low-income kids to make a stand over forcing a state to take a test that made no sense to take? … I was convinced that we were right.”
The incident showcased Torlakson’s collaborative management style, according to David Rattray, who oversees the education and workforce development department of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and served on Torlakson’s advisory team.
“To his credit, Tom persuaded the governor” to get on board with his testing plan, Rattray said. “The partnership that this governor and this superintendent have had, we haven’t seen in decades. They have amplified each other’s leadership.”
As a former track coach, “Tom is a team player,” he added. “He’s not an egomaniac. He doesn’t try to attract a lot of attention to himself.”
Brown has not endorsed Torlakson, nor any other candidate for statewide office, this year.
Barbara Nemko, the superintendent of the Napa County Office of Education, said she appreciates that Torlakson “looks at the whole child” – not just academic performance, but also nutrition, health and wellness, and physical education.
“There are salad bars in schools now. It’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen,” she said.
Nemko worked with Torlakson on his No Child Left Offline initiative to expand Internet connectivity in the classroom, increase the use of technology in teaching and better prepare students for the modern workforce. Examples include e-books that change instructional level depending on who reads them, allowing teachers to meet students at their level.
She recalled a visit to one Napa elementary school where “kids were working in groups using their digital devices to research questions, and he got down on the floor with them to figure out what they were doing.”
Torlakson is “good at being curious, going out to see things that are working well and bringing them back to the Department of Education,” Nemko said.
Too cozy with teachers?
His performance has not impressed everyone, especially those who regard him as too close to teachers unions.
Joe Bowers, an educational activist in southwestern Los Angeles, accused Torlakson of protecting teacher pay since the state took over the Inglewood Unified School District two years ago after declining enrollment and mismanagement put the district into fiscal distress. The first major decision the state-appointed administrator made was to rescind a 15 percent cut to employee salaries the local school board approved to balance the budget, he said, and subsequent negotiations have produced no real changes.
Meanwhile, managers have covered continued deficit spending by borrowing from a $55 million emergency appropriation made available by the state, he added, creating additional payments that will take Inglewood Unified many years to pay off. A request for a state audit was squashed by Democratic lawmakers in July.
Torlakson is “not listening to the people in the district, and on top of that, he’s not doing his job,” Bowers said. “There’s very few oversight options that you can go to to have your concerns heard.”
Torlakson disputes the characterizations that he is too intimately tied to the unions.
“They’re just not founded. (It’s a) check-the-facts kind of thing,” he said. “I get up every day … thinking, how can I improve education for kids?”
Torlakson said he disagreed with teachers unions several times during his first term. He supported the effort of eight school districts last year to get a special waiver from federal standards allowing them to establish their own accountability systems and Title I spending decisions. He also promoted legislation that CTA opposed to make career education courses a graduation requirement.
The state addressed the deficit in Inglewood Unified, he said, by canceling consultant contracts that were draining money out of the district and thinning out the central office with administrative layoffs. They pulled from the loan, he added, to keep classroom staffing levels up, address facilities needs and “begin to bring back some stronger academics.”
“Another year, we should be balanced,” Torlakson said. “I’m confident Inglewood is moving in the right direction.”
Torlakson sees his close relationship with teachers as an asset, and said their support for his campaign is only natural given his own early career as a teacher. Those seven years teaching high school science in Contra Costa County also inform his views on the Vergara decision, which he believes “over-focuses on blaming teachers, and looking for bad teachers.”
“Experienced teachers need a fair hearing if their job is on the line,” he said. “Taking away job protections or bashing teachers is not the way to solve our school problems.”
From his own dealings with school administrators, both in the classroom and as state superintendent, Torlakson has the sense that they know how to evaluate teachers and either help coach them up to par or move them out of the profession.
“They pretty much know within a year who will make it as a good teacher and who won’t,” he said. “Certainly by a year-and-a-half, they can make that decision. They don’t appoint anyone into permanent status unless there’s no risk and there’s high quality there.”
The court decision throwing out those protections “fundamentally is flawed in the law and in the facts, and the conclusions weren’t supported by the evidence,” he added.
But while the tools are already there to get high-quality teachers in front of every student, Torlakson said, California is “moving forward aggressively” on fine-tuning them. He supported a bill this year to speed up the process for firing abusive teachers, and he has been working to increase the amount of hands-on experience in teacher training programs, raise standards for entry into the profession, and create low-interest and forgivable loans for students who go into teaching.
“My opponent has chosen to sort of single-focus on this” teacher tenure ruling, he said. “I have a much broader agenda, and I think it shows a difference of my years of experience as a classroom teacher.
“Reform is in the eye of the beholder.”
Call The Bee’s Alexei Koseff, (916) 321-5236. Follow him on Twitter @akoseff.
TOM TORLAKSON BIO
Residence: Pittsburg, Calif.
Education: Master’s degree, education, UC Berkeley, 1977; bachelor’s degree, history, UC Berkeley, 1971.
Experience: Superintendent of public instruction, 2010-present; Assembly, 2008-10 and 1996-2000; state Senate, 2000-08; Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, 1980-1996; Antioch City Council, 1978-1980; Mt. Diablo Unified School District teacher, 1972-1981.
Supporters: California Democratic Party, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Kamala Harris, California Teachers Association, California Federation of Teachers