School chief candidates diverge on key issues

October 29, 2014

Marshall Tuck, left, and Tom Torlakson pause in between questions at their last debate, in Burlingame on Sept. 27, 2014.

In the race that will determine who gets the biggest megaphone on education issues in California, the two candidates for state superintendent of public instruction are entangled in perhaps the highest profile and most contested race on the ballot. Tom Torlakson, the incumbent and a veteran legislator seeking his second term, and Marshall Tuck, who has managed charter and district schools in Los Angeles, agree on some key policies, like the Common Core State Standards, but disagree on some hot-button political issues, including whether teachers unions wield too much power.

Here’s a summary of where the two candidates stand on key issues based on separate interviews of each this month at EdSource’s office in Oakland and public statements they have made.

The state of education: Torlakson said, “California is making real progress” and takes part of the credit for it. Schools are recovering from the worst recession in decades due in part to the passage of Proposition 30, which implemented temporary taxes. The state has embarked on landmark reforms – the Common Core State Standards and the Local Control Funding Formula – that shift decision-making to districts and provide extra funding for English learners, foster children and low-income students.

Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/ EdSource Today

Tom Torlakson during an interview at EdSource in October 2014.

Torlakson said high school graduation rates are at an all-time high of 80 percent, and California made the biggest jump in 8th grade test scores in reading last year in the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, a periodic test given to a sample of students in every state. “Now is not the time to risk turning back,” he said.

Tuck said “there is a need for fundamental change,” and “our kids are not getting the education they deserve.” The state isn’t doing enough to turn around failing schools, he said. In 2013, California again ranked near the bottom in NAEP scores among states (47th in both 4th grade math and reading, 42nd in reading for 8th grade despite the progress that Torlakson cites). Torlakson, he said, embodies the “status quo” and is under the sway of the California Teachers Association, which has contributed heavily to his campaign. Tuck said he would press the Legislature to rip up the 2,000-page Education Code in order to give traditional public schools the same flexibility that charter schools have. Torlakson said he supported freeing up billions of dollars in restricted funding as a legislator but warns that the Education Code also includes important regulations on bullying, after-school programs, building safety and other student protections worth preserving.

Role of the state superintendent: The State Board of Education and the Legislature set policy, not the state superintendent, who runs the state Department of Education.

Torlakson often describes himself as a coach, a reference to his previous career as a high school track coach and teacher, and as a team player who works well with Gov. Jerry Brown and the state board. He has appointed several large task forces, with a broad spectrum of members, that have issued reports like his 2011 Blueprint for Great Schools. “I know how to bring people together – parents, business leaders, teachers,” he said.

Tuck said he would bring “more focus and urgency” to the job, which has been “underutilized” under Torlakson even with the superintendent’s weak statutory authority. Tuck uses the language of an activist and organizer. As he did when he ran Green Dot charter schools and the Los Angeles Unified “Partnership Schools,” he said, he would elevate parents’ voices at the state level to balance out the power of the California Teachers Association. Tuck said he would organize superintendents to pressure the state board to grant waivers from the Education Code. An example, he said, was San Jose Unified and its teachers union’s request to wait for a third year on the job before granting tenure in some cases; the state board turned it down.

Vergara lawsuit: In June, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge issued a ruling in Vergara v. California that overturned five state laws that require establishing teacher tenure after two years; layoffs based on seniority, not merit; and setting up a dismissal process with extensive due process protections. The lawsuit, filed by nine students who asserted the laws protected the worst-performing teachers, has become a flashpoint of the election.

Torlakson, a defendant in the lawsuit, has joined Gov. Brown and the California Teachers Association in appealing the decision. He said that “Vergara was wrong on the facts and on the law.” He defends existing due-process rights that he said the lawsuit attacks. “Teachers need a fair hearing when their job is on the line,” he said. The case is focusing on the wrong issues, he said: “The way to solve problems in schools is not to blame teachers but to invest in our schools.”

Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/ EdSource Today

Marshall Tuck during an interview at EdSource in October 2014.

Tuck said if elected, he would withdraw the superintendent’s appeal of the ruling on his first day on the job and submit a brief explaining why. “I am a Democrat who has worked in the toughest schools and am comfortable saying two-year tenure and seniority-based layoffs do not work for kids,” he said.

The case “is symbolic of what is wrong with the status quo” in Sacramento, Tuck said. “A judge rules that the current laws ‘shock the conscience’ but not one statewide elected official said that, yes, the judge might be right,” he said. He acknowledged that Vergara doesn’t address the challenging issues affecting the “vast, vast majority of teachers” – how to draw teachers into the profession and better train, pay and retain them. But the lawsuit is important nonetheless because lawmakers “can change those laws (challenged in the lawsuit) overnight.” Legislators, not teachers, are to blame for laws saddling schools serving the poorest students with the highest proportion of the worst teachers, he said.

Torlakson often describes himself as a coach, a reference to his previous career as a high school track coach and teacher, and as a team player. …  Tuck uses the language of an activist and organizer.

Teacher evaluations: This remains a divisive issue in California. Torlakson agreed with Gov. Brown’s decision not to pursue a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law because it would have forced the state to require that student test scores be a “significant” factor in evaluating teachers. Torlakson said each district should decide for itself how to evaluate teachers. He points to districts like Long Beach Unified and ABC Unified, near Los Angeles, which changed their process after collaborating with teachers. “Sacramento should not jam things down on local districts,” he said.

Tuck, who would have sought the waiver from the federal Department of Education, favors requiring measures of student achievement in teacher evaluations. At Green Dot Public Schools, the charter operator he ran, standardized test scores counted for 25 percent of teacher evaluations.

School revenue, Prop. 30: Both candidates agree that schools need more money. Revenue from temporary taxes from Proposition 30 begins to expire in 2016 and ends in 2018. Gov. Brown downplayed the prospect of seeking an extension in an interview this week.

Torlakson didn’t say whether he would support Prop. 30 as written. “I will look at every option that is on the table. If schools need additional resources to meet their goals, I will analyze that and take action,” he said. He accuses Tuck of wavering on extending Prop. 30; Tuck said that’s not true. Tuck argues, however, that voters “will need to see something else to pass it again.” Specifically, he said voters will need to see more transparency in how dollars are spent and fewer state regulations. Both changes are among his priorities, he said. “At the end of the day, if I am ineffective in pushing these things and Gov. Brown is going to move forward with Prop. 30 as it is, of course I am going to support it,” he said.

Common Core: Both candidates favor the new academic standards and introducing the Smarter Balanced tests on the new standards next spring. Tuck is critical of Common Core implementation, saying districts first received dollars for materials, technology and teacher training in 2013-14, three years after the state adopted the standards. He said after last spring’s Smarter Balanced pilot test, withholding student scores from parents and teachers “was a very bad idea.” He said he worries about further delaying standardized tests to measure student and school performance. He wants to see the Academic Performance Index resume – with new tests in social studies and science – in two years.

Both candidates say the state Department of Education must shift its purpose under local control. Torlakson calls it a switch from “a slapping hand to a helping hand.” …Tuck doubts that Torlakson can transform the department, having not begun to do it.

Torlakson takes credit for the decision to skip most standardized testing last spring in the old state standards so that schools could turn their attention to Common Core – a decision initially fought by the U.S. Department of Education. His sense, he said, is that implementation among districts is progressing well. While urging parents “to be patient” in the transition, he said he is confident Common Core is the right choice. “I would not spend all this time if I thought it was just another education fad,” he said.

Neither Tuck nor Torlakson called for a more expansive state role or oversight over the Common Core rollout in districts. Torlakson said the state “should consider matching local districts’ investment in Common Core in some way.”

Influence of teachers unions: Tuck said, “The CTA always needs a seat at the table but their influence is too large. The strongest influence should be parents and the community.” He points to the passage of the laws being challenged in Vergara as evidence of the union’s “disproportionate” power. If elected, he said, “I will call Dean Vogel (president of the CTA) and say, ‘We have to work together. Otherwise, it is energy wasted.’ That doesn’t mean there won’t be fights, but you have to believe you can get there collectively.”

Torlakson said he is “proud to be backed by teachers. Sometimes I agree with unions and sometimes not, but I always agree with kids and teachers on the front line.”

State’s role under local control: Both Torlakson and Tuck support directing more money to high-needs students and shifting power away from Sacramento under the Local Control Funding Formula. Tuck said, “The state should not be telling districts what to do. The Ed Code is a big problem for public schools.” However, the state should collect more data on schools’ performance and require districts to spell out in more detail how money that districts budgeted was actually spent. In lieu of micromanaging, transparency is critical, he said – especially if county boards of education act “in a rubber-stamp mode,” approving all districts’ local accountability plans.

Torlakson said he’s been impressed with the extent of parent engagement required by the local accountability plans and the requirement that those plans address a range of student issues – “the whole child,” including attendance and suspensions.

Both candidates say the state Department of Education must shift its purpose under local control from monitoring compliance of rules to helping districts to improve. Torlakson calls it a switch from “a slapping hand to a helping hand.” “We’re moving in that direction even with limited resources and staff – asking our staff to look at ways to help” and spread best practices, he said.

Tuck doubts that Torlakson can transform the Department of Education, having not begun to do it. He said he would survey superintendents on how the department can meet their needs. Through retirements and foundation money, he would hire people with different skills, he said, and open up the department to new ideas through fellowships for excellent teachers, principals and superintendents. Even with local control, there would still be need for “a strong intervention wing,” starting with identifying better-performing school districts to work with lower-performing districts.

“This is the right time to redesign the department,” he said.

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