Contentious Battle Brews for California’s K-12 Chief

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 27, 2014 7 min read
California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson listens last year as the state Senate in Sacramento debates a measure that would end traditional standardized student testing. In a race for re-election for state schools chief, Mr. Torlakson is portrayed by his critics as incapable of deviating from the views of California teachers’ unions.
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The two leading candidates for California’s top K-12 spot in the June 3 primary both identify as Democrats in a technically non-partisan race. But the campaign between incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and challenger Marshall Tuck has each camp slamming the other’s candidate as a creature of competing education power blocs.

To his foes, Mr. Tuck is poised to chip away at traditional labor protections and neighborhood schools, and allow a constellation of advocacy groups and deep-pocketed philanthropists to scoop up what remains.

Mr. Torlakson, meanwhile, is portrayed by his critics as incapable of deviating from the views of California teachers’ unions, which have spent heavily to support his campaign, even as students’ relative academic performance and the state’s approach to learning stagnate.

The Vergara v. California educational-equity trial also highlights this divide. In that pending court case, the plaintiffs have argued that schools retain poor-quality teachers and grant tenure to unproven ones at the expense of students, a charge that unions in the state say ignores the importance of the current laws to a high-quality teaching workforce. Mr. Torlakson, along with the two major teachers’ unions in the state, are defendants in the case, while Mr. Tuck sides with the plaintiffs.

Marshall Tuck, a candidate for state schools chief, rose to prominence as the president of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter-school operator in Los Angeles, and then as the CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

Despite the heated campaign, the state superintendent’s post actually has somewhat limited influence compared with other leaders in state government, said David Plank, the executive director of the Policy Analysis for California Education, a research group run jointly by Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California. Several major policy changes recently have primarily been overseen by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and state Board of Education President Michael W. Kirst, according to Mr. Plank.

“There’s no lever that belongs to him,” Mr. Plank said of the superintendent’s job. “The power resides elsewhere.”

Bringing Pressure

Mr. Tuck rose to prominence first as the president of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter-school operator in Los Angeles, and then as the CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit organization that runs 17 schools in the 640,000-student school district.

If he’s elected, one of Mr. Tuck’s challenges will be carving out space for himself after four years in which Mr. Torlakson has managed to cooperate with Gov. Brown and Mr. Kirst on several issues. They include implementation of the Common Core State Standards and aligned assessments, and a major overhaul of how local schools direct resources to high-needs students, enacted in 2013. “Those are dramatic changes in California’s education system. And he [Torlakson] has been right there. And all Tuck can argue is, we should be going faster,” Mr. Plank said.

But Mr. Tuck has focused much of his campaign specifically on the need to free schools from a state education code that he says stifles what teachers, principals, and superintendents increasingly want from schools. How school days are structured and how technology is leveraged are two questions that schools deserve more freedom to answer, he said.

During his time at partnership schools, Mr. Tuck noted, he often sought the same kind of flexibility from state code he saw charter schools receiving. The new funding system, he added, doesn’t address those issues.

“There’s just too many constraints laid on local teachers, principals, and superintendents,” Mr. Tuck said. “You should let local school communities make these decisions.”

Mr. Tuck said he wanted to bring pressure from parent-centered advocacy groups (such as San Diego United Parents) and districts to bear on the state board when they are considering granting schools waivers from certain portions of the K-12 code.

Mr. Tuck’s association with the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, where he served in the residency program, has attracted attention, in part because of the foundation’s connection (through its Broad Superintendents Academy) with superintendents that have fought with teachers’ unions.

But the characterization of him as a frenzied foe of teachers’ unions who wants to privatize education in California is wrong, Mr. Tuck argued. For example, he said he’s opposed to vouchers and believes teachers should be paid more. What should be the focus instead, Mr. Tuck said, is California’s ranking of 45th on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress in 4th grade math and 47th in 4th grade reading, although there have been score gains over the past two decades.

“Our schools are not performing well, and we haven’t had urgent change in our state for a long time,” he said.

‘We Stood Up to Them’

The fact that the state chief is on the same page as other state K-12 leaders hasn’t always been a given in California. Before Gov. Brown and Mr. Torlakson were elected in 2010, for example, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, clashed with then-Superintendent Jack O’Connell over issues like the state’s student data system. To what extent Mr. Torlakson has been a driving force behind recent changes is another question.

Lydia Gutierrez, a teacher with two decades of experience, has defined herself as the candidate opposed to the Common Core State Standards in California's race for state schools chief.

“His influence is through his relationships with them, and not because of his independent stature or standing,” Mr. Plank said, referring to Mr. Torlakson.

Mr. Torlakson acknowledges that he is part of an education-governance “team” and a “bridge builder.” But he vigorously disputes the idea that he’s a policy bridesmaid. For example, he highlighted his sponsorship of a bill in 2013 that eliminated the state’s testing system under No Child Left Behind Act and replaced it with field tests aligned with the common core—with the results not being used for accountability. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan rebuked the state and Gov. Brown for approving it. (Eventually, the state settled the matter when it received a testing waiver from the NCLB law from the Education Department.)

“We stood up to them,” Mr. Torlakson said of the federal officials. “That is being cheered around the state of California to this day.”

He also highlighted his work in pushing and overseeing a $250 million Career Pathways Trust that gives grants to schools to promote connections between academic programs and “high-growth” sectors of the economy.

The California Teachers’ Association has recently paid about $2.7 million for ads supporting Mr. Torlakson and criticizing Mr. Tuck, according to a campaign-finance analysis by The Sacramento Bee. Mr. Tuck underlined this issue by filing a complaint May 20 alleging that the CTA is not following campaign-finance laws in doing so. But Mr. Torlakson said that he’s not beholden to the unions. He cited his support for a group of seven California districts that got a federal waiver to implement their own teacher-evaluation policies, among other things. The unions opposed that waiver.

A big fan of district cooperation, Mr. Torlakson said he sees part of his role as making sure that local school administrators share best practices about issues such as professional development. That strategy, and not one that de-emphasizes the education code, Mr. Torlakson said, will produce strong results.

“If you waive everything, the core laws behind those programs get compromised,” he said.

Asked about the state’s relatively low rankings on some of the 2013 NAEP tests, Mr. Torlakson said it was just one academic indicator among many, like the 80 percent graduation rate the state attained in the 2012-13 school year, the highest in state history.

And, as more financial resources become available for students, he said, there should be a concurrent improvement in results: “We definitely need to invest more in getting our English-learners and kids in poverty ready for school, ready for kindergarten.”

Resolution or Run-Off?

The June 3 primary may not signal the end of the race: A candidate will have to score 50 percent of the ballots cast, plus one more vote, in order to win the primary and avoid a run-off of the top two contenders on Nov. 4.

What may make it harder for either Mr. Torlakson or Mr. Tuck to cross that line next month is the presence of the third candidate, Lydia Gutierrez, a teacher with two decades of experience who has defined herself as the candidate opposed to the common core. That stance has gotten her attention from tea party groups in the state, although it’s not clear if she’s embracing that interest. (Ms. Gutierrez also ran in 2010, when a total of 12 candidates sought to be elected state superintendent.)

In addition to replacing the common core with “solidly proven” standards, according to her website, she wants “only credentialed teachers” in classrooms and pledges that school repairs and support staffing like librarians are priorities.

Her impact on the race is still uncertain, as is the outcome in the June primary, in Mr. Plank’s view.

“I wouldn’t go to Vegas on this ... I think it’s a toss-up,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2014 edition of Education Week


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