School & District Management Opinion

Previewing the Torlakson and Tuck Interviews

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — May 23, 2014 3 min read
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It’s being said that the only thing Tom Torlakson and Marshall Tuck have in common is the party label “Democrat” as they run in a non-partisan election for California state superintendent. Actually, they agree on a lot of the issues. They disagree on who belongs in the education policy coalition, and who should lead it.

Torlakson and Tuck are battling in the June 3 primary, which unlike other primary elections becomes definitive if either candidate wins a majority.

Both Tuck and Torlakson favor California’s adoption of the Common Core of State Standards and its support of the Smarter/Balanced testing program. They agree about the suspension of the old tests during the pilot test phase of the new exams. (Tuck, however, would release test scores from the pilots.)

They agree with the signature legislation of Gov. Jerry Brown’s education coalition: the Local Control Financing Formula, which is eliminating many categorical programs and weighting funds toward children in poverty, English language learners, and foster youth.

They agree that parents should have a more direct say in financial and educational policy. (And Torlakson points to the new funding formula as a prime instrument of parent power.)

They agree on giving schools and districts more flexibility in curriculum and that the California Department of Education should morph from a compliance and regulation agency to one that builds the capacity school districts. (Tuck thinks this process should go faster, farther.)

They agree that the current law that awards teachers tenure after two years is suspect. (Torlakson wants to approach changes in the context of better induction and training policies and programs.)

So, where’s the rub? It’s about who’s in and who’s out of the education policy loop, not just who is state superintendent.

It is abundantly clear who would not be in a Tuck coalition: California Teacher’s Association, the smaller California Federation of Teachers, and the rest of organized labor. Tuck is campaigning on the phrase “right now, CTA has too much influence over education policy,” and one can reasonably assume something between frosty relationships and trench warfare would continue. But who would Tuck’s allies be?

Tuck says he does not want to repeal collective bargaining but that he hopes to challenge the unions by building a new coalition of parents he could mobilize to press the legislature for more local flexibility. And he brings with him both the mindset and the money of the corporate reformer coalition, which spans political parties.

Torlakson wants to build on what his coalition has created, and he wants to keep the members working together. His coalition includes governor Brown, the California School Board and its influential chair Michael Kirst, the legislative leaders, substantial business community support, most of the school superintendents in the state, and organized labor. Of these, Brown holds most of the political and fiscal cards. The state school superintendent may be a constitutionally mandated elected officer, but Brown holds the power of agenda setting, the budget, and the veto pen.

If Tuck were elected, he would have to ingratiate himself with the coalition he has been running against even as he worked to develop his own, alternative coalition to challenge them. None of the other members is going away, unless Brown is defeated in his reelection campaign, in which case all bets are off. If Tuck and the governor didn’t get along, then education policy making would circumvent him. The superintendency might be a decent bully pulpit, but that’s all it would be. This has happened to state superintendents before.

What would they do in office, and how would they put together and use political power? The answers are partly contained in interviews I conducted with Tuck and Torlakson, which will be posted here next week. The ‘On California’ posts will contain excerpts, and there will be links to the full transcripts. Read and interpret for yourself.

The third state superintendent candidate, Lydia Gutierrez, initially agreed to an interview, but she has been unresponsive to repeated requests to schedule one.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.