Norbert von der Groeben / Flickr
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson reads to schoolchildren.
The article was updated June 18 to elaborate on the role of the superintendent in the section "What does the state superintendent do?"

The job of state superintendent of public instruction has been around since California itself. The position was written into the state’s 1849 constitution; four years later, Gov. John Bigler asked unsuccessfully for the Legislature to abolish it. Politicians and educators have been arguing ever since over what the state superintendent should be doing and whether the job has too much or too little power.

One of eight state offices on the ballot every four years, the state superintendent is a nonpartisan office — candidates’ party affiliations aren’t listed on the ballot — and is limited to two terms. It’s a “downballot” contest, found at the end of the ballot, yet in the 2014 election, the race attracted far more money than any other statewide contest. This Q&A explains what the state superintendent does and doesn’t do and why a job with limited policy authority periodically has been in the crosshairs of legislators and governors.

Who is the state superintendent?

Tom Torlakson, who’s finishing his second term. He started as a high school teacher who, like his two predecessors — Jack O’Connell and Delaine Eastin, a candidate for governor this year — became a legislator. The three state superintendents before them — Bill Honig, Wilson Riles, the nation’s first African-American state superintendent, and Max Rafferty — had backgrounds in education.

Who’s running in the June 5 primary?

The three candidates are Lily Ploski, an instructor for Upward Bound, a program for first-generation college students; Tony Thurmond, an Assemblyman from Richmond and a former social worker; and Marshall Tuck, who co-founded Green Dot charters in Los Angeles and administered a group of autonomous schools within Los Angeles Unified.

Do most states elect their top school official?

No. California is one of 13 states that do. In 27 states, the state board of education choose the chief school officer or superintendent; the governor appoints the superintendent in 17 states.

Thirty states also have the equivalent of a cabinet-level secretary of education. California did, too, for 20 years. But on becoming governor again in 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown abolished the position that Gov. Pete Wilson created in 1991.

What does the state superintendent do?

The 1849 state constitution didn’t say a lot about the job, so statutes have determined most responsibilities.

Arguably, though, the most significant role isn’t defined: the power of persuasion as the highest ranking K-12 official. State superintendents take positions on bills; draw attention to issues, as O’Connell did in focusing on the achievement gap; and shape conversations, as Torlakson has done by rebranding state standards and accountability measures the “California Way.” They convene leaders to set priorities, as Torlakson did with his 2011 Blueprint for Great Schools.

The state superintendent can influence policy by sitting on public bodies: as an ex officio member of the California State Teachers Retirement System, the UC Regents and the CSU Board of Trustees, as a voting member of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing and a new state agency — the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence — and as secretary of the State Board of Education.

The state superintendent runs the Department of Education. The department:

  • Monitors districts’ compliance with state and federal programs, grants and laws to ensure money is spent appropriately;
  • Collects data on district spending and student performance through sites like DataQuest and Ed-Data, and allocates money under the Local Control Funding Formula and other programs;
  • Shares responsibilities with county offices of education and the Collaborative for Educational Excellence for helping districts improve under the Local Control Funding Formula and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Starting 2020,  the state superintendent will determine which consistently low performing school districts will need tighter state oversight and control.
  • Oversees county offices of education budgets and their Local Control and Accountability Plans;
  • Executes policies adopted by the State Board of Education and provides support for the board’s small staff in drafting regulations and academic standards;
  • Runs two schools for deaf students and a state school for blind students;
  • Appoints state trustee for bankrupt districts that receive emergency state loans and monitors their recovery.

How big is the California Department of Education?

The department is funded for 2,443 positions this year. Minus workers at the three state schools and diagnostic centers for students with disabilities, 1,511 employees work at the department headquarters. That’s only 40 more at headquarters than five years ago despite a heavier workload that came with overhauling the state’s school finance system, overseeing new academic standards and meeting the demands of integrating a new school accountability system and new standardized tests.

The total current department budget is $274 million, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, with the federal government funding two-thirds, the state General Fund only about a fifth and the rest generated for and by specialized activities. In the past five years, state funding for K-12 has increased about $27 billion, or 60 percent, while Brown has increased funding to the department by $11 million, or 23 percent. A 2014 evaluation of the department by the Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded that the state had difficulty meeting all of the demands imposed on it by the Legislature. Limited state funding is one reason why.

What does the department not do?

In a state the size of California, a lot. As the LAO noted in its 20014 review:

  • The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing issues teacher credentials and oversees teacher preparation programs;
  • The Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team works with districts in financial distress;
  • The State Allocation Board and the Office of Public School Construction oversee school facilities;
  • The state’s 58 county offices of education approve school districts’ budgets and their LCAPs and counties provide technical services, teacher training and work with districts identified as low-performing;
  • The State Board of Education writes and submits the state’s plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act, although the department works with the board to implement the plan.

What about setting education policy?

The Legislature writes the laws that form the state Education Code, dictating how schools operate and often what they teach, like sex education and LGBT history. Governors set spending priorities and use the budget and bills to shape policies, like the Local Control Funding Formula, which Brown championed. The 11-member state board, appointed by the governor, creates policies in areas delegated to it, including setting academic standards and accountability measures.

State superintendents can influence policies — and sometimes modify those they disagree with — depending on how they draft regulations and administer the state board’s work. Superintendents also issue guidance, like Torlakson’s letter to districts on conditions for granting teacher raises under the funding formula.

For the most part, the state superintendent does not create policy, though that hasn’t stopped some from trying.

Have governors and state superintendents worked well together?

Historians may look back at the past eight years as a halcyon age, with Brown, Torlakson and Michael Kirst, president of the state board, in sync on all important decisions. If there have been disagreements among them, it’s been in private. Unity with the state superintendent made it easier to put in place, without friction, monumental changes in standards and funding and, with local control, to delegate responsibilities. The flip side has been acquiescence, without public scrutiny by Torlakson of whether the transformation is working.

Over the decades, personal and policy conflicts — between governors and state superintendents, state superintendents and state boards — have been the norm. Eastin sparred with Govs. Pete Wilson and Gray Davis; Honig called in unannounced to a radio show to debate Gov. George Deukmejian’s budget cuts; O’Connell fought with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who spoke of abolishing the state superintendency, and a pro-charter state board led by Ted Mitchell, a fellow Democrat. The state board sued Honig over a power fight, leading to a state court of appeal decision in 1993 to trim the superintendent’s authority.

In its 2014 review of the department, the legislative analyst cited “overlapping roles” and a lack of clear lines of responsibility in developing policy as well as potential conflicts of interest when the superintendent is “charged with assessing the effectiveness of the same educational system that he or she also is charged with administering.” Since the state superintendent doesn’t report directly to the governor, contrary to most state departments, holding the department accountable for performance “is relatively difficult,” the legislative analyst wrote.

How might the responsibilities be divided differently?

Three times in the past 90 years, voters have rejected constitutional amendments to make the state superintendent an appointed position, with the last vote in 1968. According to the Legislative Analyst presentation earlier this year, five major K-12 governance studies have been done over the last 25 years. Some recommended cutting back the power of the state board and others favored limiting the role of the state superintendent. In its 2002 Master Plan for Education, a joint committee of the Legislature recommended transferring the Department of Education to the governor’s office and making the state superintendent solely in charge of academic accountability — monitoring performance and intervening in persistently low-performing schools. All of the studies were largely ignored.

What will be the next superintendent’s biggest challenge?

The department will always have oversight responsibilities to see money is spent as Washington and Sacramento intended. But the federal Every Student Succeeds Act has loosened the reins on states. Brown and the Legislature, in turn, shifted power over money from Sacramento to districts and created the semi-autonomous California Collaborative for Educational Excellence to oversee school improvement.

The developments beg the question the next superintendent must answer: How can the department stay relevant and contribute to the improvement process? What’s needed will be not only more money to guide the new system, but also a new mindset where staff see themselves “more as a coach than an overseer,” said Glen Price, chief deputy state superintendent who is leading efforts to reorganize the department and train staff in collaboration. It’s not easy work; “There is a lot of inertia,” Price acknowledged. “The next superintendent needs to re-envision the department in the context of local control.”

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  1. Marcia Eichelberger 6 months ago6 months ago

    John. Thank you for the very informative article. It validates what I always suspected. Nothing good ever comes when the fox is watching the hen house. There’s got to be a better way to build in accountability. Without that our kids will continue to be the ones who end up with the short end of the stick. They deserve better.

  2. Chris Graeber 7 months ago7 months ago

    Please add that he runs Inglewood Unified School District

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 7 months ago7 months ago

      Thanks, Chris. True: the state superintendent appoints the trustee who runs a district in receivership.