Rivals Vie for Job of California Schools Chief

By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 30, 2010 7 min read

Three Democrats—state Sen. Gloria Romero, assemblyman Tom Torlakson, and retired superintendent Larry Aceves—are emerging as the front-runners in a field of 12 candidates vying to become the next schools chief in California.

But the campaign for state superintendent of public instruction, officially a nonpartisan office, is just as much a three-way fight entangling the teachers’ unions, an education reform group backed by billionaires, and the organization that represents school administrators.

Each group has a stake in a contest that showcases contentious issues such as how the state will fix hundreds of chronically underperforming school; how—or if— California will move to tie teachers’ evaluations, pay, and job security to how well their students perform; and whether the state will free up, or restrict, charter schools and other forms of school choice.

With a total of 12 candidates for the chief’s position, none of the three leading candidates is expected to emerge with enough votes to win the post outright in the June 8 primary, which will mean a November runoff between the top two vote-getters. Jack O’Connell, the current state superintendent, must leave the post after serving two four-year terms because of term limits.

The current contest touches on a range of education issues being debated nationally, as the Obama administration funnels billions of dollars to states and school districts that agree to its priorities for educational improvement. Central to its agenda: adopting more rigorous academic standards and assessments, improving student-data systems, producing more effective teachers and principals, and turning around low-performing schools.

Range of Issues

So far, the campaign rhetoric appears to reflect both national themes and statewide issues, such as California’s continuing budget crisis.

“This is going to be a referendum on how we move forward when it comes to reforming public education,” said Ms. Romero, a Los Angeles-area lawmaker who chairs the education committee in the Senate and whose candidacy is supported by EdVoice, a Sacramento-based advocacy group that is backed by major education philanthropists such as Eli Broad and the family of the late Gap Inc. founder, Donald Fisher.

“This is about the forces of the status quo versus the forces of change,” she said.

Tom Torlakson

Mr. Torlakson, who was a science and mathematics teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area before running for public office, has the backing of both of the statewide teachers’ unions, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers. He has made California’s continuing wave of K-12 budget cuts a key campaign theme.

“Teachers are doing a fantastic job, but they are not being given the resources they need to do their jobs,” Mr. Torlakson said. “I had more resources in the 1970s when I was teaching at a Title I school.”

Mr. Aceves, who was superintendent in three California school districts, casts the race as offering a choice of two career politicians beholden to the groups that are backing them and a veteran educator who will stay above the political fray.

Tom Torlakson

“Given all that our schools are facing, we really need someone who understands how things work in districts,” said Mr. Aceves, who was recruited to run a year ago by the 15,000-member Association of California School Administrators. “What we have to do is work really, really hard, but we can’t just blow everything up and start over, either.”

Bidding for Attention

Even those three candidates, who are considered most viable and have attracted the most financial backing, will find it challenging to draw attention to their campaigns and their issues.

The run-up to the June 8 balloting is dominated by the Republican primary for governor. The two leading candidates in that race, former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, are spending tens of millions of dollars to keep their television advertisements running in California’s expensive media markets.

Larry Aceves

Still, for those voters who do their homework, the three leading candidates for schools chief offer distinct choices. Sen. Romero, a professor of psychology on leave from California State University, Los Angeles, has cast herself as the champion of reforms backed by President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

She supports opening more charter schools and favors other programs offering choice, including the option for parents to transfer their children to other districts if they are enrolled in low-performing schools. Ms. Romero also has been an aggressive advocate for the state to overhaul its education laws and policies to compete in the $4 billion federal Race to the Top grant contest. She authored legislation late last year that now allows parents to force districts to intervene in their children’s low-performing schools, a measure that was hotly opposed by the teachers’ unions and other education groups.

Those stances won Ms. Romero critical support from EdVoice, which has contributed several thousand dollars to her campaign. Individuals who serve on EdVoice’s board have made the maximum allowable contributions to the state senator’s campaign, said Bill Lucia, the chief executive officer of EdVoice. The family of the late Mr. Fisher has collectively given Ms. Romero more than $50,000, campaign-finance records filed with the California secretary of state’s office show.

Assemblyman Torlakson was the author of CTA-backed legislation four years ago that set aside money for a state program to intervene in low-performing schools. He was also an architect of a 1998 bond measure that raised billions of dollars for school facilities.

Mr. Torlakson argues that until California reverses its pattern of funding cuts for K-12, no one can expect achievement, especially among students in poverty, to improve on any scale.

Mr. Torlakson, who coached high school athletes in cross country and track in addition to working as a classroom teacher, also is skeptical that charter schools offer a viable solution to lagging student achievement in low-income communities.

“We have such mixed results from charters,” he said. “They are an important part of our education system’s spectrum of choices, but they are not a panacea. I think our focus has really got to be on fortifying our neighborhood schools and making them the best they can be.”

The 120,000-member California Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, was the first of the two statewide teachers’ unions to endorse Mr. Torlakson. The CFT has already put close to $13,000 into his campaign, and the union’s political action committee, spent $132,000 on a mailer promoting the candidate, according to campaign finance reports.

The California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, has also spent just under $13,000 on Mr. Torlakson’s campaign, but union officials declined to disclose how much they might spend on the race through independent expenditures by their political action committee. Mike Myslinski, a spokesman for the 325,000-member union, said that “this race is critical to California teachers, and we anticipate using a number of strategies to support Tom.” Both unions can provide an army of precinct walkers on the assemblyman’s behalf.

David A. Sanchez, the president of the CTA, which has endorsed Mr. Torlakson for the job, puts it this way: “Tom Torlakson is a former classroom teacher who believes in the due process rights of all teachers. And he believes that all students are entitled to the best possible education that the state can provide for them.”

Mr. Aceves, the veteran district-level chief, sees himself as a state chief who would be able to bring together players in California’s education community, even on issues that remain fraught with discord, such as crafting new teacher-evaluation systems.

With a far lower statewide profile than the two legislators, he won a big boost this week when the state’s largest newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, endorsed him.

“My concern is that my opponents are on one side of the table or the other,” Mr. Aceves said. “If either side was going to be able to solve all of our problems, I wouldn’t be in this race.”

The state school administrators’ group recruited Mr. Aceves to run specifically as an alternative to the other two front-runners and through its independent expenditure committee has already spent more than $250,000 on the campaign. Mr. Aceves served as the ACSA’s president eight years ago.

To Bob Wells, the executive director of the ACSA, neither Mr. Torlakson nor Ms. Romero can lay legitimate claim to defending resources for K-12.

“Education has lost $18 billion over the last two years and both of them voted for the state budgets that made those cuts,” said Mr. Wells. “We take great exception to them voting for decimating school programs and then applying for the job to lead that same system.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as Fierce Contest Emerging for Job of California Schools Chief


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