Credit: Video of the event by Educate Our State.State superintendent candidates Marshall Tuck, left, and Tom Torlakson shake hands at the end of the debate co-sponsored by Educate Our State and the Santa Clara County Office of Education.
The two candidates for state superintendent of public instruction disagreed on the condition of K-12 education in California, the influence of teachers unions and which of them is best qualified for the job at a forum Saturday in Burlingame, the last scheduled joint appearance before the Nov. 4 election.
Incumbent Tom Torlakson cited “real progress” in restoring money to schools, shifting to new academic standards and increasing high school graduation rates to a record level as indications that schools are headed in the right direction. “This is not the time to put progress at risk,” he said at an hour-long head-to-head debate.
His challenger, Marshall Tuck, cited the need for “fundamental, comprehensive change” to improve academic performance that he said has been stagnant for 20 years – a reference to the state’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – and has left 2.5 million students failing to read and write at grade level. He cast blame on “the same Sacramento leadership” of “insiders, politicians and business as usual” that he identified with Torlakson.
As he has done throughout his campaign, Tuck condemned Torlakson’s appeal of a Superior Court judge’s ruling in Vergara v. the State of California, overturning laws creating tenure in two years, governing dismissals and requiring layoffs by seniority. Those laws, he said, “have led us to a situation where we can’t have an effective teacher in the classroom” and are “crushing the hopes” of the state’s most challenged students. He cited personal frustration in having to tell a great teacher that he would be laid off, while a less effective teacher with more seniority would stay. He said he would drop the Vergara appeal if he were elected. (The case would still proceed, since Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Teachers Association have also filed an appeal.)
Torlakson agreed that when “teachers are not up to it, move them out” and said that he wrote and helped pass a law this year making it easier to fire “ineffective and abusive teachers.” The bill, AB 215, by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, dealt primarily with teachers charged with abuse, not poor performance. But Torlakson also said, “Teachers need a fair hearing when their job is on the line” and dismissed the Vergara lawsuit as blaming teachers for problems facing schools. The way to improve the workforce, he said, is “investing in teachers, giving them the resources they need.” He pointed to his Blueprint for Great Schools, the product of a task force he created, which makes recommendations for attracting teachers, then training and retaining them throughout their careers.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan parents group Educate Our State and the Santa Clara County Office of Education co-sponsored the event, moderated by this reporter. It was the second forum between the two candidates. Torlakson and Tuck are both Democrats, although state superintendent is a nonpartisan office.
Torlakson, 65, who is seeking his second term as state superintendent, was a high school teacher for seven years before going into Contra Costa County and state politics. He served two terms in the state Assembly and Senate. Tuck, 41, has been a school administrator for a dozen years. He was president of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school organization in Los Angeles, and then served as CEO of Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit organization created by then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that runs 17 schools serving 15,000 students within the Los Angeles Unified School District.
A Field Poll earlier this month showed Tuck ahead of Torlakson 31 to 28 percent, with 40 percent of voters saying they hadn’t made up their minds.
Torlakson and Tuck agreed Saturday on a number of key directions and state policies. Both said they agreed that K-12 schools need more money for operations and to build or restore facilities; both support the Common Core State Standards, and both favor the shift of authority away from Sacramento under the Local Control Funding Formula. But there were caveats and subtle and significant disagreements on details and on the degree of progress that the state has made.
On school funding: Tuck said it’s essential to persuade Californians to believe again in their schools; “it’s not simply about asking them for more money.” The first step would be to “decrease the bureaucracy” and eliminate sections of the state Education Code that “tell principals and teachers what to do and how to do it, so they can’t be most effective for kids even with additional dollars.” Principals need more power to assemble teams of effective teachers, he said, and district schools need the same flexibility that charter schools have. Step two would be to use “sharp elbows and get aggressive in Sacramento to reallocate dollars in other areas” – he singled out prisons – “to our schools.”
Step three would be to raise spending to at least the national average, he said. “I do not waver in any way, shape or form about the need for more revenue,” he said, disputing Torlakson’s claim that he has been ambivalent on that point. But he said Californians will embrace our schools only if they believe “decisions are prioritizing children and not the status quo.”
Torlakson called the move from “bubble testing and rote memorization” to “critical thinking and problem solving” under Common Core a “great change” that California is adopting “with less contention than in other states” … But Tuck disputed Torlakson’s assertion that “California is leading the nation in terms of being prepared” for the new standards.
Torlakson said that after becoming superintendent amid the state’s financial crisis, he declared a financial emergency and worked hard to restore stability through the passage of Proposition 30, temporarily raising state taxes. He said Tuck was “missing in action” in the campaign for Prop. 30 – a charge Tuck denied.
Torlakson took credit for the $1.25 billion in additional funding to districts to implement Common Core and the $500 million in new career and college readiness programs creating internships in nearly 1,000 businesses. Parents and business leaders value these programs, Torlakson said, and he has been “making the case up and down the state” that schools are producing results.
On Common Core: Torlakson called the move from “bubble testing and rote memorization” to “critical thinking and problem solving” under Common Core a “great change” that California is adopting “with less contention than in other states” because political leaders, businesses, teachers and parents – once they learn about the new standards – are embracing them.
But Tuck disputed Torlakson’s assertion that “California is leading the nation in terms of being prepared” for the new standards.
“The state has not been effective in implementing Common Core,” Tuck said, doing nothing between 2010, when the State Board adopted the new standards, and 2013, when the state budget included money for districts to implement Common Core. He said parents are “uninformed,” teachers feel “undersupported,” and there has been no professional development for principals.
Torlakson said he took on federal officials by suspending state standardized tests while insisting that school districts be able to give all students the field or practice test in the new standards last spring – an action he said Tuck opposed. But Tuck said he supported the moratorium; what he opposed was the decision by the state not to give parents and teachers the results of the practice test. Parents must be trusted with information, Tuck said.
On the influence of teachers unions: The CTA has spent millions of dollars in independent advertising to support Torlakson and criticize Tuck. Torlakson said he is “proud to be backed by teachers and to be a teacher.” Tuck referred to a Los Angeles Times article in which Torlakson said he has had no major policy differences with the CTA. But Torlakson said, “Sometimes I’ll agree with the union and sometimes I won’t, but I’ll always agree with the kids and always agree with teachers on the front line.” And he added, “My classroom experience guides me every day in making decisions on improving conditions for students.”
Tuck has worked with unionized teachers: at Green Dot, the state’s first unionized charter school organization, and in Los Angeles Unified. But in Sacramento, he said, the “CTA has too much influence.” Teachers unions should have a seat at the table, he said, but “parent and voter voices should be the anchor driver” on education policies and decisions. Passage of the laws challenged in the Vergara lawsuit “shows you how disproportionate that influence is,” he said. “You have basically every politician in Sacramento lining up behind the CTA, and the state superintendent whose job it is to prioritize kids appealing the case.”
On school accountability and standardized tests: Both Torlakson and Tuck supported the move toward a school accountability system that includes multiple factors beyond test scores, including, they said, attendance and graduation rates and measures of college and career readiness. But they differed in emphasis.
Torlakson, who authored AB 484, laying out the transition to new standardized tests, said there had been an overemphasis, even an “obsession,” in the past decade on math and reading scores. As a result, schools that did great work in motivating kids at risk of dropping out, for example, didn’t get credit for keeping them in school, because they might temporarily lower test scores. So it’s important to define the targets differently, he said, and recognize programs that excite students to pursue career options. Data is important, he said, and teachers use it daily to zero in on helping students improve.
Tuck said standardized tests are important to measure students’ knowledge and to learn from schools that are excelling in certain areas. Data on student achievement should be an important part of measuring a school’s performance, as well as a teacher’s performance, though not the majority factor, he said. The primary goal is to use data to improve instruction; the secondary goal is to provide information to parents and the community so that they can determine, “Is our school truly serving our kids?”
On who’s more qualified: Frequently referring to himself as a teacher and a coach, Torlakson contrasted his “different mindset and background” in education with Tuck, whom Torlakson said entered education as a chief financial officer. Disputing Tuck’s claim that he represents the status quo, Torlakson said, “I have been at the forefront of change,” and that he has done so by being “a team builder,” bringing together teachers, parents and business leaders, as well as legislators. He said he, Gov. Brown and the State Board of Education are united in ways to move the state forward.
Tuck cited his experience in “turning around low-performing schools serving the neediest students in Los Angeles,” significantly raising graduation rates and test scores compared with surrounding district schools. He did so by hiring effective principals and great teachers, he said, and he praised the Saturday morning Parent College that the Partnership Schools created to teach parents their rights and encourage them to become involved with their children’s education. He said he took offense that Torlakson and the CTA continue to call him a Wall Street investment banker – referring to his first job out of college when he was 22 and 23.
Torlakson cited the lengthy list of endorsements of state leaders, legislators, members of Congress, public and private employee unions, superintendents and school board members. Tuck cited the endorsements of all of the state’s major newspapers.
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