School & District Management

California Rivals Clash on Vision for K-12 Leadership

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 21, 2014 9 min read
California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson meets with parents about the commoncore standards earlier this year in Sacramento. Mr. Torlakson, who is running for re-election, has said California is on the right track in its implementation of the standards.

The race between incumbent California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and challenger Marshall Tuck for the state’s top schools spot centers largely on one policy debate: Is the state with the nation’s biggest K-12 enrollment reinventing its public schools the right way and through the right power brokers?

The officially nonpartisan contest is between two self-declared Democrats, and Mr. Torlakson and Mr. Tuck represent divisions within the Democratic Party over the right labor protections for teachers, the political power of teachers’ unions, and the proper relationship between more money for schools and certain forms of accountability.

The former president of the Green Dot Public Schools network of charter schools in Los Angeles, Mr. Tuck says he would fight for individual schools seeking freedom from portions of state education law. He says such a shift would improve achievement and eliminate what he sees as the dead weight of the state’s traditional K-12 political power structure.

“We have a status quo that has been broken for kids for a long time, that’s failing kids,” Mr. Tuck said in an interview this month, citing the state’s relatively low rankings on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. “And you have consistent leadership in Sacramento that isn’t driving change,” he said.

But Mr. Torlakson, a former teacher and state legislator who is endorsed by the state teachers’ unions, argues that California’s K-12 leadership has overseen dramatic improvements. He highlighted California 8th graders’ significantly higher scores on the NAEP reading test in 2013, a record-high graduation rate of 80 percent for the class of 2013, and a new funding formula intended to provide more resources and power to school districts.

“Yes, we have a long way to go,” Mr. Torlakson said in an interview. “But we are at the forefront, I think, not only of historic change; ... we have some unity in California because I worked hard, we worked together.”

In some ways, Mr. Tuck, the 41-year-old challenger, represents the Silicon Valley viewpoint that emphasizes disruption as an important means for needed policy changes, while Mr. Torlakson, 65, is banking on the state’s traditional political machinery and mindset to win, said David Menefee-Libey, a professor of politics at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

“Each of them is riding that system of assumptions,” said Mr. Menefee-Libey, who also contributes to a blog about California education for Education Week. “They are really averse to stepping outside of that.”

Marshall Tuck, a former charter schools executive who is running for the state school chief’s job, has vowed to shake up what he sees as the status quo on issues such as charters and teacher tenure.

Impact of Vergara Case

There are some kinks in the forces driving the candidates’ campaigns.

Despite common policy ground with Mr. Torlakson, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown hasn’t explicitly endorsed the incumbent state schools chief, even though other statewide officials have.

And Mr. Tuck, who also ran the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which works to improve 16 schools in the Los Angeles Unified district, has tried to buck his image as the anti-union candidate by stressing that he shares the unions’ desire for higher teacher pay and more hours for professional development.

But those features of the race are largely being overshadowed by hot-button issues such as the Vergara v. California court case, a challenge to the state’s laws granting teachers tenure after two years and requiring teachers with less seniority to be laid off first during staffing cuts, among other provisions. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu struck down the portions of the state education code challenged by the plaintiffs in Vergara, but the decision is being appealed by Mr. Torlakson, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, and Gov. Brown.

Mr. Tuck, who supports the student plaintiffs in the case, said, “It’s not the details that have captured everyone’s imagination,” but rather how state and union officials have uniformly lined up against the students in Vergara, that has energized his campaign. (The plaintiffs are also supported through a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, David Welch, through the Students Matter advocacy group.)

Addressing students in a political science class at the University of California, Berkeley, this month, Mr. Tuck voiced a related criticism about how his opponents have attacked his stint as a Wall Street investment banker and portrayed him as intent on privatizing public schools. “That’s how a broken status quo keeps power—trying to distract voters,” he said.

Asked about union support for his campaign with Vergara as a backdrop, Mr. Torlakson stressed that “tenure does not mean a job for life.”

State Chief Contests

Seven states will pick chief state school officials in the Nov. 4 election, with California’s superintendent the only incumbent on the ballot.

ARIZONA

> Diane Douglas (R)
> David Garcia (D)
Ms. Douglas defeated current state Superintendent John Huppenthal in the GOP primary and has based her candidacy on opposition to the Common Core State Standards. Mr. Garcia is a supporter of the standards, but wants to alter accountability to focus less on testing.

CALIFORNIA (nonpartisan race)

> Tom Torlakson (Incumbent)
> Marshall Tuck
Supported by the state’s teachers’ unions, Mr. Torlakson is highlighting his work to increase school funding and to give districts more power over their budgets. Mr. Tuck, a former leader of the Green Dot Public Schools charter network, wants the state’s teacher-tenure law changed and more flexibility for schools from state education law.

GEORGIA

> Valarie Wilson (D)
> Richard Woods (R)
Ms. Wilson, the former head of the state school boards association, supports the common core and is critical of the state’s changes to teacher evaluations under its federal Race to the Top grant. A former teacher and administrator, Mr. Woods also is critical of Race to the Top, but opposes the common core.

IDAHO

> Jana Jones (D)
> Sherri Ybarra (R)
A former teacher who also worked for former state superintendent Marilyn Howard, Ms. Jones supports increased funding for schools and expanded early-learning programs. Ms. Ybarra is a school administrator who supports the common core.

OKLAHOMA

> John Cox (D)
> Joy Hofmeister (R)
A school administrator and an adjunct professor at Northeastern State University, Mr. Cox wants to reduce high-stakes testing in the state and opposes the common core. Ms. Hofmeister, who used to serve on the state school board, opposes the state’s current A-F system of school accountability and wants to make teacher pay and benefits more attractive.

SOUTH CAROLINA

> Ed Murray (I)
> Molly Spearman (R)
> Tom Thompson (D)
Mr. Murray, who has been a teacher and is currently a school administrator, is a supporter of public school choice, in addition to term limits for state politicians. Ms. Spearman, a former member of the state legislature who leads the state’s school administrator association, is a proponent of school choice and wants to expand the creation of career education centers in the state. Mr. Thompson, who has worked as a teacher and administrator, wants to increase teacher pay and reward teachers who work in high-poverty schools with extra credit toward retirement benefits.

WYOMING

> Jillian Balow (R)
> Mike Ceballos (D)
A former teacher who has also worked as an adviser to Republican Gov. Matt Mead, Ms. Balow opposes the common core and says that strong teaching means more to students than standards, curriculum, or accountability. Mr. Ceballos, a former business executive, supports the common core but wants testing scaled back in the state.

Source: Education Week

“It’s sort of natural that teachers would support the only teacher in the race and trust me, because I’ve been in their shoes,” he said of his endorsements by teachers’ unions.

That point of view resonates with Aaron Hall, a teacher in San Francisco who also does political advocacy for the city teachers’ union, the United Educators of San Francisco.

“It’s been misconstrued purposefully in the media to make it like somehow a teacher can’t be fired,” Mr. Hall said of tenure. “And I think Torlakson strongly has shown his opposition and his push to be on the side of our educators.”

The Vergara decision provided a chance for Mr. Tuck to specify his vision for what new policies on teacher tenure and seniority would look like, Mr. Menefee-Libey said, as well as an opportunity for Mr. Torlakson to discuss possible revisions with union representatives in light of the June 10 ruling. But the candidates, in his view, haven’t seized the opening.

Vergara created a huge opportunity for both of them, and they decided to let that go,” he said.

Money and Polls

Well-heeled outside financial backers of the candidates are helping to ratchet up the campaign’s intensity.

For example, a single independent committee supporting Mr. Torlakson and largely funded by the California Teachers Association had spent $2.4 million this year as of Sept. 30, although the CTA has also spent millions of dollars on separate efforts to support the incumbent.

An independent committee backing Mr. Tuck that was formed only at the start of this month had already received $4.2 million in contributions as of mid-October, including a $1 million donation from the philanthropist Eli Broad, the head of the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Mr. Tuck is a graduate of the foundation’s Residency Program, which trains education leaders. (The foundation also helps support Education Week‘s coverage of personalized learning and systems leadership.)

Those independent expenditures on the campaigns are set to far outstrip the level of independent expenditures in the 2010 superintendent’s race, when such spending reached about $7 million, according to California Common Sense, a Mountain View, Calif.-based think tank.

A poll by the San Francisco-based Field Research Corp. released last month showed a statistical tie in the race, with Mr. Tuck getting support from 31 percent of likely voters, compared with Mr. Torlakson’s 28 percent, although a plurality—41 percent—said they were undecided.

The campaign is taking place as California, with 6.2 million students, undergoes what some have described as its biggest shift in how state money is spent on public schools in 40 years.

The new “local-control funding formula” distributes additional money to districts over a seven-year period. But through accompanying “local-control accountability plans,” districts must also demonstrate how additional funds will be directed to—and improve the performance of—their low-income students, English-language learners, and children in foster care.

Mr. Torlakson said in the interview that he is optimistic about the direction in which the formula and accountability plans are taking districts: “A vigilant constituency, a vigilant school body and school community, will be your biggest accountability control factor.”

But Mr. Tuck takes a different position. He likes the additional funds provided under the new formula and its emphasis on needy populations, but says too many of the plans have been rubber-stamped for approval. Nothing in the new system, he says, addresses the urgent need for the state to do a better job of collecting more data and using data more frequently to share how high-performing districts are succeeding.

“All the focus is on the front-end plan and nothing on what actually happened,” Mr. Tuck said in the interview.

The Federal Role

The two candidates also sharply disagree about how federal policy should influence California.

Mr. Tuck said that, if elected, he would garner support from hundreds of district superintendents to push the state into obtaining a waiver from provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, by requiring that test scores be used in teacher evaluations. There is a moratorium on using test scores to evaluate teachers in California until the 2016-17 school year, while using test scores to evaluate teachers has been a key requirement in waivers.

Asked about the feasibility of obtaining a waiver, Mr. Tuck said the state should simply add districts to the NCLB waiver obtained by several large urban districts that make up the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE.

“This isn’t just a Marshall Tuck political agenda. This is, education leaders throughout our state think this will help kids. District superintendents are not utilized enough,” he said.

But California has refused to agree to such deals coming out of Washington, Mr. Torlakson argues, because they aren’t right for the state’s schools. He highlighted the state’s refusal to accede to the federal requirements in waivers, as well as the state’s fight with Washington over how students were tested in 2013-14.

California’s progress on implementing the Common Core State Standards proves, Mr. Torlakson says, that additional resources for teachers, not tying test scores to evaluations prematurely, is the right approach.

“We’re not going to follow New York. We’re not going to trip and stumble,” he said, alluding to political and policy difficulties surrounding that state’s shift to the new standards and tests. “I think we’ve set the right pace.”

Charters and Teaching

Despite the campaign rhetoric, there could be room for unexpected cooperation and less prominent issues to emerge for the next state chief.

Gary Borden, the executive director of California Charter Schools Association Advocates and a supporter of Mr. Tuck, believes the challenger can work well on several issues with other key state leaders.

“I would hope that Marshall, once he’s elected, ends up being fairly similar to the governor and his point of view on charter schools specifically,” Mr. Borden said, referring to Gov. Brown’s support for charters.

But other long-term issues are developing that could also confront the winner of the Nov. 4 election.

Michael W. Kirst, the chairman of the California state board of education, said in an interview in San Jose that, for example, “nobody thinks that all teachers are prepared to teach the Common Core State Standards.”

He also pointed to a looming teacher shortage: From the 2008-09 to the 2012-13 school years, enrollment in state teacher-preparation programs fell by 53 percent, from 42,200 to 19,900, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. The state superintendent, Mr. Kirst said, can be “a powerful force for recruitment” of new teachers.

Vergara did not address, whatever you think of it, the full panoply of improving teacher quality,” Mr. Kirst said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as Conflicting Visions Fuel Furious Battle for California Chief

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