Marshall Tuck picked up the California School Code, 2,300 pages of small type, and said, “I think that we need fundamental change in our schools.” “It starts with us substantially decreasing the size of that book and start focusing on how do you give much more control to local communities, to principals and parents and teachers, to do what’s better for kids.”
Tuck is running for California State Superintendent of Public Instruction in the June 3 primary against incumbent Tom Torlakson. If any candidate wins a majority, they are elected. Otherwise, there will be a runoff in November.
I started our interview, which took place May 12 in his Los Angeles campaign office, by asking: what are the first two or three things you’d do if you found yourself sitting in Sacramento next year? Attacking the school code was the first thing on his agenda. Excerpts from the Q and A follow. (A full transcript is available by email request.)
Charles Kerchner: Decreasing the size of the school code is a monumental task. Usually when that has happened, it has been a function of a constitutional challenge to the code--that the code itself prevents the state from carrying forward its constitutional duties to provide an adequate education. That’s what happened in Kentucky, for instance. Is that what you would anticipate?
Marshall Tuck: Having to use the legal system to do that?
Charles Kerchner: Yes.
Marshall Tuck: Well, to me, I think that ultimately the legislature can change that code. So from my perspective, we should use every means possible to drive as much change as we need for our kids in California. ....
Charles Kerchner: Do you have a list of things that you would change in the school code? This education code is full of chapters and verses. Have you got a list of chapters and verses?
Marshall Tuck: Well, we had done some analysis when I was in the Partnership. We actually did an extensive analysis of all the areas in the ed code that we didn’t have flexibility from in order--that we wanted to get more flexibility from to run our schools more successfully. So that’s actually something we put together back in 2008, in the early years of running the Partnership, and also--and it was a pretty extensive document, frankly, because you look at flexibilities you want around budget, flexibilities you want around staffing, and the ability to kind of make sure you have the right people in the right classrooms in the right schools. ....
Charles Kerchner: Let me go to the curriculum question, because the California School Board has already provided much more flexibility in that regard. Are you kicking a door that’s already open?
Marshall Tuck: Well, we’re getting there. So I think we’re getting there. I think it’s [not] completely open--right? We’re just definitely opening--I agree with that.....
Charles Kerchner: There are two signature pieces of Gov. Jerry Brown’s agenda--also that of [State Superintendent] Tom Torlakson: the Common Core and local control financing--which is probably the most radical school finance change in the last 40 years--what about these things would you change?
Marshall Tuck: Common Core, I’m a supporter that we adopted it. I think if you look at how we’ve implemented it, I think it’s indicative of where the state is in terms of not implementing things highly effectively, right?
Charles Kerchner: Tell me about what you think about that.
Marshall Tuck: So, if you look--so if you rewind the clock to last year around this time--let’s take last year at this time, a month earlier. So last year in April, when schools are developing their schedule for their master programs for the following year, when they’re developing their budget for the following year, when they’re developing their summer schedule for the following year, even though we had adopted--we said we were moving to Common Core in 2010.
As of spring of 2013, they still didn’t have guidance at the school level on what kind of additional funding was there going to be--so the billion dollars got passed in late June, right? So what additional dollars were going to be for summer planning, for teacher professional development and the following school year came late. They didn’t get guidance on whether or not we were going to actually be doing any testing. AB 484 got passed I think in late August, if I remember correctly. So even though, when you think about, again, kind of the overall shift of a CDE being focused on how do you serve schools--like I believe the state’s job, the state superintendent’s job, the CDE’s job, is how do you create conditions for school success locally, where the policy-making is not being done on a schedule that makes sense for kids and, most importantly, for the teachers and the principals that have to actually support kids.
So even though we knew we were moving since 2010, we literally did not allocate the funding until after schools had already been through their budgeting and master program process, which was June for the dollars, and it wasn’t even until August for whether or not we’re going to test or not. That to me just doesn’t make sense. So that’s step one in terms of ineffective Common Core--very, very late, and again, I think not really practitioner-focused. Second thing is when you look at the testing, it’s showing it’s good that we suspended the test for accountability purposes. It’s a--
Charles Kerchner: So you’re in favor--
Marshall Tuck: I support--for this year. Yeah, it’s a brand new test. That makes sense. But I don’t think it makes sense at all to not give the results to students, parents and teachers. ...
Charles Kerchner: One of the other things that was a constant in the newspaper endorsements was that you were considered to be substantially more independent from the two big teachers’ unions, particularly the CTA. There are big hot-button issues--one is time to tenure; the second is the business of tying teacher evaluations to test scores. And the third is using seniority as a means to layoff. How are you going to go about getting a handle on those three things?
Marshall Tuck: I kind of think--I always think of “Educate and Organize,” right? So educate, step one, is ultimately the legislature has the ability to make changes in each of those areas by changing the ed code and by changing state law. And I believe--again, I think about kind of “Educate, organize, and use all means appropriate that make sense for kids.” So educate is--it’s about getting the legislature--and I don’t think this is happening. .... And then the second part of the equation is to organize.
And to me, I break that down on two fronts. One is parents are more organized than they’ve ever been before in 2014, and that’s only going to continue, because with technology, the ability for parents to be efficiently organized is significant.... And as state superintendent, what I plan to do is communicate very actively and regularly with the heads of those parent groups--not every day, not consuming people, because it’s a busy world and you got to recognize that--but in a very simple, tangible, user-friendly way, so that when they know there’s one or two big policy issues that are coming up on an annual basis, that they’re active, focused, and organized on those issues. And I believe strongly--I don’t even necessarily need to try to kind of express--I’m not saying get behind my opinion; it’s actually, “This is the policy coming up. It impacts your kids. You need to get aware of it.” And I think if you have active leadership in the state superintendent, who’s bringing transparency and openness to very organized parent groups that are--again, electronically--you can put pressure on a legislature in a way you just couldn’t in the past, but getting thousands and thousands and thousands of parents more active on issues that they’re not, I think that’s how you start to shift the powerbase of policy-making in Sacramento; which, right now, CTA has too much influence over education policy. They need to have influence--I mean, they represent teachers, which are the most important part of running schools--but their influence is too large and parents don’t have enough.
And with a focused state superintendent that really is prioritizing engaging parents in policy-making, and making sure the legislator hears what parents’ opinions are, and making sure parents know that the legislature is making these decisions, and activates those parents, I think that creates a real--you can see a scenario in kind of two, three, four--maybe four or five years--where part of the rhythm of being a parent is you know that you have to get involved in a couple issues in Sacramento every year, and part of the rhythm of legislature is to realize that they’ve got tens of thousands of parents in each district that are focused on these big issues. I think if that happens, then you never have a situation like SB 1530, where that bill that was going to make it easier to remove people who had physically or sexually abused kids--that bill got killed in the legislature quietly two years ago. That would just never happen if you actually had parents more actively involved in schools, and I think it would actually have a real impact. And then the second part of organize, as you mentioned, as people are pursuing legal channels that are against--that are saying that there are real violations of kids’ constitutional right to education--again, as I experienced directly. In 2009, when Markham lost almost half its teachers--well, got RIF notices--not lost but got RIF notices--I picked up the phone and called the ACLU, invited them into our school, and helped launch that lawsuit against seniority-based layoffs. And so as state superintendent, I think that there is a lot an active official can do to help push and support legal challenges as well. You don’t want it to get to legal; you’d like the legislature to get there. But I think in parallel, if people are doing legal challenges, then--like the Vergara case. I mean, I would have been a witness for the plaintiff, if legally I could. I mean, I haven’t dug into those aspects of it.
Charles Kerchner: I hear what you’re saying. What seems to me to be unrecognized in this is that what’s come from Sacramento in the last year is probably the biggest opening for parents to participate in the political process that’s happened in four decades--this Local Control Funding Formula--is what makes the parent organizations have something to say. And I agree with you: they seem to be organizing with great rapidity and great zeal, and educating themselves about the budget. But what I’m having a little trouble is this sort of hanging the bureaucratic noose around Torlakson and Brown and the legislature in the wake of local control funding.
Marshall Tuck: I give Brown credit for local control funding. I think it’s a good piece of policy. I’m a supporter of it, and I think it is going to help. But I also don’t think that--I think that what I’m talking about in terms of shifting the policy-making environment in Sacramento so that parent voice is more active and engaged--I think that those are related, but certainly not the same issue.... So, local control funding is one piece of policy of many that needs to be changed to improve our schools. Right? So you think about running a school, it’s about dollars, it’s about the people in a school site.... That doesn’t ... change the influence of politics on many education issues in Sacramento in terms of the influence of what I would define as people who are more insiders today, with parents not being the most active voice. ....
Charles Kerchner: You called out Tom Torlakson as being against the agenda that President Obama and Secretary Duncan have created. Specifically where would you take California that’s substantially different than where Torlakson is taking it, if you agree with the Common Core, and you agree with local control funding, and you agree with the suspension of statewide testing this year? Those were the three go-to-the-mat issues between California and Duncan that got worked out this spring.
Marshall Tuck: ... I think what we called out is California’s one of the few states in the nation that doesn’t have flexibility for No Child Left Behind right now, and the main reason was because we refused to say that our school districts would use student achievement data as some portion of teacher evaluation.
Charles Kerchner: So you’re absolutely committed to the notion of using student data for teacher evaluation?
Marshall Tuck: For some portion of it. Some portion of it. Growth data. And I think if you look at what the CORE district [a group of prominent California districts that obtained a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Law] is passing, it’s very instructive that the feds agreed to--because our state, under the current leadership, did not get the waivers, we had the CORE districts get the waivers and it’s interesting you look at what Long Beach does versus L.A. They are very different and I think that’s good. Locally, they are still deciding how to actually use that data. L.A. has a straight 20 percent is what they’re focused on. Long Beach actually doesn’t give any sort of percentage at all. It just basically says that they will utilize when a teacher is struggling and student achievement data is a portion of that evaluation. There’s flexibility for the principal and the system in terms of how to utilize that and what that looks like. So, to me, I think leaving it locally for different school districts and schools to decide makes a lot of sense. ....
Charles Kerchner: If the [progress] trend line is not steep enough, and we need some breakouts, give me your thoughts about a big breakout strategy: “if we do this then we will get dramatic changes fast.”
Marshall Tuck: So, as you know, it’s a lot of things and it’s going to take time, but to me it’s step one is you have to have more flexibility locally. I just don’t think you have innovation when you have too many rules constraining with principals and teachers and counselors can actually do locally. I think that that’s the starting point.
Second, I think that we need to share what works at a much faster pace and I think the state can be the leader on that and with technology we can drive that at just a much faster pace in terms of identifying if there are individual schools and individual classrooms that are actually having breakout results because this is at a school system level, so you do see breakout results at a school level or a classroom level. How do I actually identify what they’re doing and share that across schools and school systems as fast as possible? Again I think with technology the ability to do that is very much there and the ability of the state to lead that by thinking about small learning stipends that’s given to the actual educators who are driving this work, so you can share what truly happened not in a high-level, one-page executive summary but truly if a principal of a school had unique breakout results what do they do in terms of changing the staffing on their master schedule, on additional time, on parent engagement, on the things that we know are essential in terms of improving school sites and you should as fast as possible and then third there’s a number of big issues that we have to change.
We have to, in my opinion, continue to get far more young people and career changers to come into teaching because we actually have some real challenges in terms of attracting talent in the 21st century and to teaching I think we have to modernize the work rules that are in our schools.
I think we have to get a much broader curriculum, which ultimately I think is going to lead to in many schools longer school day because you just can’t necessarily fit it all in in the current school day and you see the schools I’ve seen that are really offering kids foreign language elementary school level, offering kids more creativity in terms of the high school program or schools that are having more time for children and these are all things that have to be addressed in order to have, in my opinion, breakout results. So it’s how do you create the conditions to allow for the most creativity and innovation locally and then how do you have the assistance in place from a data perspective and transparency perspective so that when things are actually working really well, we’re identifying that quickly and sharing that and spreading that as fast as possible. I think that’s where continued investment and better data systems, tracking more data, and then also much heavier focus on best practices is the way to go. ....
Charles Kerchner: California is adjusted per cost 49th in dollars of flow into students and there are a lot of other indicators where in terms of staffing ratios where we’re also 49th. We’ve got some powerful constraints on raising money in California. Would you be in favor of either a challenge to Proposition 13 or another form of revenue enhancement to go to schools?
Marshall Tuck: I think at some point. I think we have some work to do to get there. So I believe ultimately as a state we have to get to the national average on funding per kid. To me that at least has to be the minimum focal point for the future. ....
Charles Kerchner: Going back to the campaign itself, probably the nastiest things that your opponents will say about you is that you’re a creature of what’s lovingly known as the billionaire boys club. What can you tell us about sources of funds for the campaign?
Marshall Tuck: My money is 96 percent from individuals. His is over 50 percent from PACs and corporations and unions. Our average donation is lower than his. Our median donation is lower than his. All the stuff is very public and we’re very comfortable in terms of talking about--I certainly have some donors who are billionaires. Eli Broad is a supporter. Laurene Powell Jobs is a supporter. ... They are billionaires. I have a lot of supporters who are not even in the ballpark or universe of billionaires.
I think a far greater concern than--from my perspective, a far greater concern is if we have education policy making, we have a situation where the largest political donor in the state by far, which is CTA which is given over approximately $300 million, 298 to be exact, $298 million of political donations since the year 2000, twice as much as any other group, union, or corporation in the entire state just has too much influence over public schools.
Again, they have to have a role. They have to see the table but that to me is the crux and when you look at the sheer dollars invested or donated in California politics that picture, which I’ve looked very clearly at across all the largest donors is one that needs to change, not just in political dollars, but in terms of how do we have a state superintendent that publicly elected top education official who truly is an independent advocate for kids and parents that to me is the key.
Charles Kerchner: It’s been popular, particularly in Republican run states, to drastically decrease the power of teachers’ unions by changing labor law. This certainly has happened in Wisconsin and Indiana and a number of other states. Is this something you would do?
Marshall Tuck: No. I want to change two-year tenure. To me I think labor plays an important role in our state and our schools. I’ve only worked in union schools. Green Dot, I think as you know, and this is proactively done by management. It wasn’t like our teachers were dying for a union we just believed strongly that teachers want to be unionized. ...
Teachers are the most important thing in schools and I’ve only worked in union schools and I support teachers right to organize and the policies that I want to change in our laws are things that don’t make sense for kid directly in education policy. Two-year tenure should be longer. Seniority-based layoffs as the only factor doesn’t make sense. ...
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.