Education Opinion

California’s Education Progress Depends on Torlakson

By David B. Cohen — October 30, 2014 5 min read
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In this political season in California, the race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction presents an expensive proxy battle for some familiar individuals and groups in education policy debates. As the incumbent, Tom Torlakson has offered strong leadership during trying times, given the parameters of his office and the constraints of the annual state budget. His campaign has the support of most of the state’s teachers, our unions, and other unions as well. As a challenger without a significant record of his own, Marshall Tuck has to run against Torlakson’s record and continue to invoke the problems of the “status quo” - despite the fact that the most damaging elements of the status quo are under the control of the legislature, and ultimately, voters. Tuck’s campaign is pulling in millions of dollars from extremely wealthy individuals, from California and beyond, with familiar interests in education “reform” - for lack of a better word.

Tuck and his supporters offer the usual market-based solutions for school improvement: more competition, high stakes testing as the main measure of accountability, weakened unions, and no particular commitment to addressing the underlying funding and equity issues that undermine public education and society in general. What is their evidence that their approaches will work? Charter schools serving similar populations of students haven’t proven overall to be superior to traditional schools, though they do increase segregation. High stakes testing hasn’t improved schools, (and now even ardent testing supporters are recognizing that they’ve gone too far, alienated too many people). Weak or absent unions only pave the way for weaker investment in schools overall, and lowering the status and viability of teaching as a career at a time when we need to attract more potential teachers into the profession. Meanwhile, with California education funding trailing far behind the rest of the nation, Tuck can’t even offer an unequivocal statement in favor of getting more money into cash-strapped schools.

Meanwhile, Torlakson’s support comes largely comes from unions, portrayed by Tuck as defenders the status quo. It’s not quite valid to accuse people who are striving for and achieving positive changes of defending the status quo: Torlakson has led successful efforts to improve education funding and local control of funding, with new accountability systems as well. (And beyond the scope of this blog post, it’s worth noting that Torlakson has been an advocate for an improved teaching career pathway, for career tech ed., arts education, STEM education, after-school programs, early-childhood education, and school infrastructure improvements).

The state’s new Local Control Funding Formula takes small steps in the right direction to address funding inequties in California, sending addition money to districts serving students with greater needs. The policy also calls for local stakeholders to devise plans for holding districts accountable for results, through a mechanism called the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP). This shift in policy takes California several steps away from the ubiquitous and deeply flawed notion that test scores should serve as the main accountability measure for schools, adding in many other imporant measures of school quality. In some of my work and travel around California, I’ve had a chance to hear from union leaders and administrators about this new policy, and the results are mixed after one year, but suggesting great potential. At the Fall meeting of the California Teacher Union Reform Network (CalTURN), nearly a dozen labor-management teams shared their LCAP successes and goals for improvement as the program enters its second year; I think every district represented was looking to improve stakeholder communication around school improvement generally, and parent and student engagement in particular. (Disclosure: I’m on the CalTURN steering committee and serve as the network’s virtual community organizer). A couple weeks later, I had conversations with several local union leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area, fellow members of a think tank group in the CTA-sponsored Institute for Teaching (IFT). There, our focus was not on the LCAP so I didn’t learn as much, but enough to know that in some districts the LCAP needs greater attention to reach its potential.

However, the IFT’s influence in California overall is decidedly positive, as I observed firsthand earlier this week at Fortuna HS (Fortuna, CA), where a pair of IFT grants have directly supported innovative programs that aim to improve student health, expand community service, and foster school-community partnerships. The grant-making program will disperse nearly $400,000 this year to help local teachers and unions to strengthen schools and communities.

So, returning to the election, Tuck would like to just keep mentioning the Vergara trial and hope that people will take his word for it that teachers unions stand in opposition to children’s needs, when the opposite is the case. Meanwhile, Tuck and his allies are touting policy ideas and priorities that have failed elsewhere, and bringing in millions of dollars from wealthy non-Californians hoping for better results than they’ve had in trying to stack the LAUSD school board with reformers. In recent elections, L.A. voters favored a teacher, Monica Ratliff, and a seasoned administrator with longstanding ties to the community, George McKenna.

If voters place more stock in the results produced by incumbent Tom Torlakson than they do in the advertising of challenger Marshall Tuck, California has a chance to carry on as a national outlier with a promising approach to school improvement: mitigating the worst effects of American education reform, improving approaches to school accountability, and acting on a blueprint with solid proposals for California’s educational progress.

Photo: Marshall Tuck and Tom Torlakson at a Sept. 27 candidate forum organized by Educate Our State and the Santa Clara County Office of Education; by David B. Cohen.

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