Torlakson victory ensures continuity in reforms

November 5, 2014

Torlakson contrasts his views with Tuck's during a debate in September.

One immediate consequence of  State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s rebuff of challenger Marshall Tuck is to ensure the continuance of the cohesion in state education policy that has been forged since Gov. Jerry Brown returned to Sacramento four years ago.

“Who is in charge?” is a question that hovered for decades over what State Board of Education President Michael Kirst has described as an inherently “fractured and fractious” education governing structure.  But the last several years have demonstrated that, under the right conditions, dysfunction is not necessarily a constant condition of California politics.

Torlakson’s victory guarantees that there will be continuity on the key reforms underway in California schools, most notably the Common Core State Standards, the new Smarter Balanced assessments to be administered to 3 million California children in the spring, and the dramatic revision of  school funding, including  targeting funds at low-income students, English learners and foster children.

It is impossible to know the extent to which a Tuck victory would have had on these reforms or the reform landscape generally.  But what is clear is that with Brown, Torlakson, and Attorney General Kamala Harris winning reelection, the state’s decision to appeal the  Vergara v. California lawsuit intended to undo teacher tenure and other laws governing teacher employment will go forward.  Tuck had made support for the lawsuit a central issue in his campaign.

In an interview yesterday, Torlakson referred to the “huge positive transformations” that are underway in education in the state, but said they were the result of a “team effort.”  “We have had a State Board of Education, the governor, and myself not always agreeing, but we worked together on different iterations and coming up with a consensus,” Torlakson said.

That has not always been the case in California. Under the U.S. system of education, local school boards are supposed to be the primary decision makers. But over the years their powers have been diminished as a result of changes in how public schools are financed, and multiple mandates emanating from Sacramento and from Washington.

Instead, policy making has been divided among state-level and local elected office holders, an appointed state board of education, and local and county boards, resulting too often in what Kirst calls “policy ping-ponging around.”

California is one of 12 states to have an elected state school superintendent (In most other states, they are appointed by the governor). The superintendent heads up the California Department of Education, but has few actual powers to frame policy. However, he or she does have a big impact on how those policies are implemented. To complicate matters, for more than two decades the governor has appointed a secretary of education or an education advisor to his cabinet. The governor also appoints an 11-member State Board of Education, while the Legislature is the body that actually passes education laws.

Whenever the governor and superintendent of public instruction are from different parties or have different views on education policies – or the Legislature has been controlled by a party different from the governor’s – there have been inevitable tensions and conflict. And that has occurred many times over the past several decades.

Adding to this volatile mix is the outsized influence of the California Teachers Association, representing nearly 300,000 teachers, and the smaller California Federation of Teachers, which are also major players on the policy landscape.

Ever since 1970, when Wilson Riles Sr. defeated conservative icon Max Rafferty in an upset victory that drew national headlines, the superintendent of public instruction post has been occupied by liberal Democrats. Riles served for 12 years, Bill Honig for 10, Delaine Eastin and Jack O’Connell for eight each, and Torlakson for four so far.

During the years when there were Republican governors, the state school superintendent has often been at odds with the governor, as well as his appointed State Board of Education. Relations reached their lowest point during the administration of Gov. Pete Wilson, when the board actually took then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig to court to dilute his powers.

When Brown took office in 2011, he appointed Kirst, a Stanford University professor who has been a close ally on education policy since Brown’s first term as governor in the 1970s, to be president of  the State Board of Education.   Since then Brown has worked unusually closely with the board, touching base with individual board members in late-night telephone conversations. He even attended a board meeting during his first few weeks in office to outline his education philosophy – the first such appearance by a governor in memory.

He also eliminated one potential point of friction – the secretary of education post in his cabinet, along with several staff positions in the governor’s office. Instead, he appointed the same person, Sue Burr, to be executive director of the State Board of Education and act as his chief education policy advisor.

There have been vigorous debates about a range of policies, most notably about the Local Control Funding Formula championed by Gov. Brown. But with the governor and Torlakson both Democrats, and the Legislature controlled by Democrats, it has been possible to resolve differences and enact a range of reforms. A major additional contributor to this consensus has been the fact that the state’s teachers unions have been close allies and supporters of Brown and Torlakson.

As a result, everyone is “reading from the same hymnal,”said Jack O’Connell, who preceded Torlakson in the superintendent’s post, and was a strong Torlakson supporter in the just-completed campaign.

Does any of this make a difference for what actually happens in schools? Former superintendent Honig, who was appointed chairman of the Instructional Quality Commission by the State Board of Education, thinks so.

“It is crucially important for people in the schools that the people in Sacramento work together, that there is a common policy from the governor, the superintendent, and the board,” Honig told California Watch when Gov. Brown took office four years ago. “If there is conflict over all these issues, no one knows what to do. Schools don’t work well with conflict at the top.”


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