Budget & Finance Opinion

State Superintendent Tom Torlakson on the Record

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — May 27, 2014 14 min read
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I interviewed State Superintendent Tom Torlakson by telephone on May 15. First, I asked him why voters should give him a second term based on his record. Excerpts from the Q and A follow. (A full transcript is available by email request.)

Tom Torlakson: Well the good news is we are moving forward. California students are experiencing greater success. We know obviously we have a long way to go. When I ran for the office, I ran as a teacher. I ran as a teacher who chose to teach in the most challenging communities, in Title I communities, in order to help close the achievement gap and give all students their shot at success and doing well later in life based on a good education. And so the direction it’s so positive.

My first priority was and still is to deal with the budgets; and with the fiscal crisis we faced three-and-a-half, four years ago; it was enormous. It was not about the pace of policy change but whether we were keeping the lights on.

We had 188 districts in financial trouble; a couple million California students attending school in those districts that were in deep financial trouble. And so my first priority was utilizing the budget and bringing more certainly to the budget process so we could build new programs and rebuild ones that were proven to work to the benefit of our students. So we’ve moving forward. This is not the time to take a step backwards. A couple of benchmarks: One is we’re now at all-time high in graduation rates, 80 percent--so we’re at high. We are now with our eighth grade in reading scores advancing and improving faster than any other state in the country. And so the momentum is in the right direction. And we’ve built a team. Working with the governor, with [board president] Mike Kirst, we have built a strong team with the [State] Board of Education and the governor to move forward historic reforms to improve education in California, and working to continue that process and fulfill the goals of those initiatives. For instance, Local Control Funding Formula, a local accountability, shifting responsibility and power to local school boards and communities and parents and teachers; not following the dictates from Washington or Sacramento but training priorities locally. That’s a key part of my agenda to keep moving forward on these reforms.

Charles Kerchner: Can you expand on that a little bit how California is starting to look different than other parts of the country that are relying primarily on teacher test scores and that kind of thing?

Tom Torlakson: Well I base my decisions first on what I believe is best for kids. But then I want to back it up: Well what’s the research tell us? What’s working? And in the team of experts I put together to create the Blueprint for Great Schools--that was the work we did in the first few months that I took office. Linda Darling-Hammond co-chaired that effort; [Long Beach superintendent] Chris Steinhauser was the other co-chair of that effort. And we looked at what was working. What’s working in Long Beach that could be replicated and scaled in other areas of the state? Linda brings a great depth of knowledge in terms of what works in the research behind those programs that are working to close the achievement gap; to help English learners to learn English, to help kids without a literacy tradition at home to be able to read by third grade. So what I think we decided was we’re just going to look at not some arbitrary dictates from Washington but we’re going to look at what works in California. And we are a big, a huge, diverse state. That has its challenges in and of itself. One size doesn’t fit all. How can we put more power in local hands so parents and teachers and community leaders can work with their school board to hammer out the priorities that make sense locally?

Charles Kerchner: What’s your take on LCFF so far? What does the ground tell you is happening in this first few months?

Tom Torlakson: It’s very positive. Up and down the state I’ve been meeting with teachers, I’ve been meeting with administrators. I just came back today from Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland, meeting with students, meeting with teachers, administrators. They’ve just gone through the Smarter Balanced assessment, that part. They’re testing it out. They’re testing out Common Core. And there’s excitement both through those reforms through the Common Core of recreating a sense of possibility and tapping teachers’ creativity in developing the curriculums to meet the new standards. And this couples very nicely with the Local Control Funding Formula; because we recognize both the justice of shifting dollars to where the need is greatest but also the efficacy of helping students who are behind because of poverty, because of language barriers; [inaudible] helping them with extra resources makes so much sense. And I’ve witnessed great collaboration taking place in major districts. I sat in in San Diego with Cindy Martin and her administrators and her parents and her teachers. And after many town halls they actually had a draft budget; and they were going through it line by line. Parent leaders were there at the side of administrators defining budget priorities. And so I think the general idea of the eight areas of measurement of success, which includes parent involvement, this is key; and it’s empowering for again our parents and teachers to be able to be part of a process that is locally controlled.

Charles Kerchner: How is that different than the budget process you would have seen two years ago?

Tom Torlakson: Generally speaking--you know, we were recognizing in the fiscal crisis--two years ago, three years ago, three-and-a-half years ago--we were recognizing that the status quo was unacceptable, both in academic results but in the way budgeting was done. So we began to look at ways to free money up so it could be prioritized locally. For instance, we had 37 different programs that were Categorical. You know about the Categorical programs? We decided to cut the red tape, eliminate the red tape and turn that 13 billion dollars that were tied into those 37 programs, turn the decision making over how that was to be spent to local school districts. And that’s just one example.

Charles Kerchner: Your opponent has run the table in terms of editorial endorsements; most of which seem to me to reflect his independence from the two teachers’ unions. Have you gotten too close to them?

Tom Torlakson: Not at all. Again I’m very proud to have teachers at my side. I’m very glad to have administrators at my side. I’m again getting up every day and looking at how can I help improve education for all kids in California and what’s best for students? And so I’m proud again to have teachers, administrators, have the majority of the county offices of education, the superintendents of 58 counties on my side. And we’re pleased to have not only 400,000 classroom teachers and school administrators but we’re very proud to have law enforcement on my side because of my record of children’s safety; the firefighters in California; nurses because of my strong record on safety and on health for kids, making sure that students are healthy so they can learn better, reaching and teaching the whole child. So I have a coalition that is strong and deep and comes from years of people working with me and trusting me and seeing that I can build teams and bring people together and get significant outcomes in that process.

Charles Kerchner: So what weren’t the folks on the editorial boards seeing?

Tom Torlakson: Well they may not have--you know, I can’t speculate on that one in terms of what they might’ve seen or not seen. I did share, and share with you--you know, in terms of examples I don’t always agree with a teachers’ union if I don’t think it’s good for students. And one of the examples of that was the core eight school districts had wanted to get a waiver so they could be more flexible and not have their money tied up in the- Title I money tied up into tutoring and other priorities that were dictated if you didn’t get a waiver. So anyway the teachers’ union did not like that waiver process and approach. I was urged to oppose it. But I supported it; in fact, Mike Kirst and I wrote a letter supporting--while I disagreed with some of the aspects of the waiver, I felt it was important for the local superintendents and local school board members to prioritize how they would like to have their budgets delivered and have some power over those dollars and not be stuck with rigid boxes defined by Washington, DC. ....

Charles Kerchner: One of the things that critics of California say over and over again is that we don’t do very well on NAEP tests. Have you got any thoughts about how our movement forward in the Common Core is going to help that; or whether we just ought to ignore the whole thing?

Tom Torlakson: Oh I think it will help. Every test has its design features and it’s looking for slightly different data to define certain strengths or weaknesses. I’ll just point out that I believe that the Local Control Funding Formula, I believe the concentration of dollars to invest in low-income students and English learners and foster kids will pay off. We’re already seeing eighth grade reading scores again rising faster than any other state. Those are NAEP scores from 2011 to 2013. And so again we’re headed in the right direction. We see the enormous potential.

In schools I visit I’m increasing seeing how students and teachers are creatively using teamwork, doing the problem-solving, critical thinking and teams; but also working on computers. One of my initiatives is No Child Left Offline and to have a one-to-one computing capacity for our students in our state in five years. But I see a number of factors coming together that will improve our standing nationally in our scoring in different tests, as well as in the NAEP. Common Core of course is deeper knowledge. And these students today, these middle school students at Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland were so articulate about how it’s a different kind of learning; but it’s fun, it’s challenging. They get to dig deeper into topics; and they understand building arguments, evidence, to make a point, evidence to prove a hypothesis. And that will improve their communication and writing skills as well.

Charles Kerchner: We were talking about California’s rank on the NAEP tests. California also ranks not well on financial support for its schools; that if you control that for the cost of living and expenses we’re down there with Mississippi. Do we need a tax increase?

Tom Torlakson: Well it’s deplorable- extremely deplorable that we are 49th in the nation still on per pupil spending. And so we need to look at different ways to accomplish that. Will the budget grow fast enough; will the economic recovery be steady enough to address that enormous shortfall? I hope so. I want to take a close look at that in my second term. As I said in my first run for this office, I would support logical plans to increase revenues; ‘cause our schools were facing disaster in terms of closures, in terms of bankruptcies. We were in just the worst of times, worst of conditions. And we don’t want to go back to that. So we need to carefully examine options. Obviously the efficiencies I mentioned, like collapsing 37 different siloed programs and saving the red tape dollars to put to local control. Other efficiencies are part of the answer. But I will continue to look very carefully at how can we provide more resources so we can truly be on a par with other states that invest far more--you know, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut, these states put much more in per student. And guess what? Their scores are much higher.

Charles Kerchner: Is there something that you’re burning to say that I haven’t covered yet?

Tom Torlakson: Yes. This again is part of the excitement I see, especially at the high school levels, this whole emphasis on career education; you know, it’s way beyond what we used to call vocational education that I remember when I was a teacher. I taught in a Title I community and many students took auto mechanics, they took drafting, they took wood shop, metal shop; and they found good jobs and good employment. Today’s career education is much richer, deeper. And so I’ve led the way, both in the legislature [and here] pushing for career partnerships.

As a superintendent we’ve implemented Linked Learning in a very creative and effective way in 20 different Linked Learning projects across the state; and we’ve continued to expand our partnership academies. And the big news of course was in last year’s budget working closely with Darell Steinberg and the governor we have $250-million that’s been given to my department to put out in grants. So that we give every student--I want to see every student in California have a taste of the working world before they graduate. We want to expand our career and technical training; so as students graduate, ready for a career as well as for college. And I see these students so excited about learning. There’s no way they’re going to drop out. They’re seeing the connection between the math and the science and some career they want to go towards; whether it’s health care, whether it’s biological sciences, whether it’s computer sciences, whether it’s construction, whether it’s the law enforcement field. These students have a purpose and they stay the course; and they’re going to be part of our strong graduates who will go out into their careers or on to college and then to the careers in a very positive way. So that’s a major emphasis I’ve have and a shift of bringing resources to bear on this very practical idea of connecting students to the real world. That’s also part of Common Core.

And of course the positive dividends of this is involving business and other employers, whether they’re public sector employers or private sector employers, in our schools. And so the students get rich opportunities as internships; but business people, engineers, accountants, they can come into schools and share what they do with their profession- in their profession and excite kids about the possibilities of what they could become.

Charles Kerchner: The Vergara lawsuit, or the claims within the lawsuit, and the claims of not a few people who call themselves reformers, would go to the notion that if you just fixed a few things, if you made the time to tenure longer, if you clipped off the due process cycle and you got rid of seniority, that most of this teacher quality stuff would be solved essentially by giving a greater latitude to school administrators to pick who they’re going to keep and who they’re going to take. How’s your approach different than that?

Tom Torlakson: Well first I take the approach of finding solutions that are big scale, putting time in to finding solutions that will work, that won’t be divisive, that won’t drive apart the different parties that have to work together. And I guess I could give one example of this. You mentioned tenure. In the report I just referenced, Linda Darling-Hammond and the others who worked this section of the report indicated an open door to considering it. I have that same openness to considering a change or a lengthening of tenure. But more important than whether it’s 18 months, two years, two-and-a-half years is what happens during that time. What is the quality of the training? What is the quality of the induction process to help those teachers succeed? We have an enormous charter. One of our bigger challenges: We lose about a quarter of our teachers every- the new teachers every four years. We have a high turnover of new teachers. So that’s one example where let’s have a discussion but try to bring things together that will really make a long-lasting difference. The layoff process; my approach there: How to stop the cuts. I don’t want layoffs. Find ways to find the resources so schools won’t have the kind of tough choices they had. And in the case of the Vergara case, seniority makes sense to me in terms of one way to go about--it’s clearly not how to do the layoffs. The districts can protect certain teachers they need or certain skills they have and keep them on their faculty. But seniority ultimately is experience. So we don’t want to set up systems where we’re keeping provisional teachers and long-term subs and then firing--you know, senior positions are laying off teachers that have experience; because all the research shows us that seniority and experience account for better results for our students. ...

I strongly believe we have a long way to go. And I wake up every day figuring out ways we can close the human gap and continue to move forward. I’m a team builder. I have a long track record of bringing people together to have successful outcomes; and I’ll keep doing that. It’s no time to take a step back.

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