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Can Another Task Force Lead Us to Education Reform?

by Sigrid Bathen published November 22, 1998

The day after Lt. Gov. Gray Davis’ gubernatorial victory, Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni (D-San Rafael), a former school-board member and current chair of the Assembly Education Committee, made a telling observation. “The voters have thrown us the ball,” she said. “We’d better not drop it.”

Not only had voters elected as governor a candidate whose No. 1 issue was education, they had passed a whopping $9.2-billion statewide school bond and numerous local bonds and sent a strong message that the state’s crumbling education system must be fixed. Mindful of this, Davis moved swiftly to appoint a 13-member task force on education, naming Barry Munitz, the former California State University chancellor and current president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, to head it. The team is charged with making immediate recommendations on how to fix California’s education network.

Yet another study group to ponder the state’s ailing education system, with its complex and special mix of problems, is hardly a new idea, though Davis’ task force is something of a precedent. The difference now is the extraordinary attention and money being focused on the schools, at all levels, and the pressing sense of urgency that reforms must come before yet another crop of ill-educated students graduate.

What is especially striking about Davis’ education task force is the influence of higher education on the panel (six of the 13 members are connected with the state college and university systems), which partly reflects the growing concern over the sorry state of teacher training, the main duty of the state’s colleges, and the heavy demands being placed on the system by unprepared high-school graduates who require intensive remedial education in college. California also needs to train considerably more, better-prepared teachers for schools facing huge population increases, as well as to meet the demands of class-size reduction.

Although the panel represents a broad spectrum of the education community–teachers’ union representatives, a pioneering elementary-school principal, the superintendent of a large district (San Diego), and charter-school advocates–it also includes business leaders and pointedly excludes the heads of several major statewide education groups routinely named to such study groups in the past. “Everyone wanted a seat,” Munitz says, “but this is not like a two-year study commission to look at the root causes of problems in K-12. We have key deadlines to meet, and we have to move quickly. . . . Our single most important deadline is to call a concurrent special session [on education].”

Among the notably absent are the state’s overburdened community colleges, with their maze of locally elected boards and a statewide governance system with limited authority. Nor are the state’s plethora of local school boards represented–some 1,000, all elected, with wide variations in district size and, many critics say, general competence–or the obscure county boards of education, one for each of California’s 58 counties, all elected, except for L.A. County’s, which is appointed by the Board of Supervisors. Perhaps the most daunting task of the education panel will be what, if any, recommendations it makes about this unwieldy system of governance, a subject hardly mentioned in any of the quick-fix political-reform proposals but at the heart of the state’s education quagmire. “It’s got to be streamlined,” Munitz says. At some point, he added, “we have to take a look at this massive truckload of an education code.”

Not only does California have a constitutionally mandated state superintendent–Delaine Eastin, elected to a second term–who has little real power over either the state education budget or local schools, but policy authority is vested in an 11-member state Board of Education appointed by outgoing Gov. Pete Wilson. Since Davis will have at least five–six by this summer–appointments to the board, the currently divisive relationship between the board and Eastin will doubtless change. It is unclear what, if anything, Davis will do about the “education secretary” position created by Wilson, the latter’s attempt to create a Cabinet-level education post that was repeatedly rebuffed by the Legislature.

While Eastin and Davis reportedly have dealt with the fallout from Eastin’s decision in the primary to do a TV ad extolling then-Democratic candidate Al Checchi for supporting her education-funding proposals, she will be expected to toe the line and defer to the governor-elect on education. Munitz puts it bluntly: “[Davis] is the sole, senior intellectual leader, and she is a member of that team.”

A key member of the Davis task force is Gary K. Hart, a former state senator and Santa Barbara high school teacher who is codirector of California State University’s Institute for Education Reform. Former chair of the Senate Education Committee, Hart says the diverse backgrounds of task-force members represent both “its strength and its challenge” in reaching consensus on such issues as teacher preparation, early reading instruction and the twin reform buzzwords of “accountability” and “excellence.” A school-accountability measure, which would have held local school-site officials responsible for student performance, was vetoed by Wilson last session. Some type of accountability proposal–“one with teeth,” Munitz says–will probably be a centerpiece of the education package Davis submits to the Legislature. “We have to explore many options,” says Hart. “No one has a corner on this market. If you want to put together a package that is credible, and will get through the Legislature, all sides have to come to the table. Everyone, including the employee groups [the teachers’ unions] will have to give up something.”

Task-force members are moving through some uncharted territory in devising legislation for a special session. The announcement Thursday by the state legislative analyst that a $1-billion budget deficit may be looming for the 1999-2000 fiscal year puts a damper on new spending proposals. But the legislative proposals will probably target teacher preparation and training, school accountability and early reading proficiency, to name a few.

The California Teachers Assn. was a major Davis contributor and will certainly influence the content of the task force’s recommendations, though Munitz says “no constituency owns this governor.” The task force’s staff director, named two weeks ago, is Rick Simpson, a former teachers association lobbyist and longtime legislative staffer who is education advisor to Assembly Speaker Antonio R. Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles). He takes on the staff role, he says, “with the speaker’s” blessing.

Simpson concedes that the accountability or “rewards and consequences” aspect, clearly one of the most difficult legislative elements of the education-policy stew, will present the most formidable challenge for the panel. What rewards? What consequences? At the individual, school or district level? What about factors such as poverty and language differences? “It is fraught with political land mines,” he says, “and some technical land mines, as well. . . . You need to do it carefully, and not punish them for factors that are not in their control.”

Sigrid Bathen, a longtime education writer, is senior editor of California Journal, an independent monthly magazine that covers state government and politics.

Whose Test Is It, Anyway?

by Sigrid Bathen published July 12, 1998

As director of research and evaluation for the state Department of Education for 12 years, Alexander Law was responsible for the statewide testing of students under the California Assessment Program, or CAP. In retirement, he has continued to observe the twisted history of the state’s efforts to measure student achievement, including the furor surrounding the STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) program, which utilized the Stanford 9 as the test. Alarmingly, it is a tale increasingly political, with worrisome consequences for education. It also raises the question of whether a standardized, statewide test can truly tell us anything meaningful about the academic progress of California’s diverse student population.

Law was both a designer and an overseer of CAP, which replaced the standardized tests of the 1950s and ’60s. “The early standardized tests were fairly straightforward, but they took several class periods, which in modern times does not seem inordinate, but then was,” recalls Law. “So we had to develop a test that took a class period or less and was broad enough to assess a variety of commonly taught skills.” The result was a “matrix” system that tested a student’s mastery of subject matter, with students getting different sets of questions from the matrix.

CAP only produced scores in various subject areas. It did not individualize results, although it did offer comparisons among districts and groups of students. “The best part of CAP was that it was tailored to the state’s curriculum,” says David W. Gordon, who worked under Law and is now superintendent of the Elk Grove Unified School District near Sacramento. “We were always confident that we were testing what people expected to be taught. With a national standardized test [like the Stanford 9], by definition, you’ll never get that.”

CAP chiefly fell victim to the political wrangling between then-Gov. George Deukmejian and then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig. It also lost out to a growing testing movement that favored more subjective, essay-type questions, which were thought to measure student achievement more accurately. The resulting test, called the California Learning Assessment System (CLAS), debuted in 1992-’93 and was quickly dumped, criticized for, among other things, being too subjective.

California’s latest entry into statewide testing, the STAR program, has been no less controversial than its predecessor. From the outset, the use of a $35-million, “off-the-shelf,” standardized test was opposed by virtually every major education group, in part because of Gov. Pete Wilson’s insistence that the test be administered only in English and in part because state educators have been laboring to devise academic standards that would serve as a basis for a California-specific test. In the absence of such standards and corresponding curricula, the Stanford 9 results are all the more ambiguous, because any relationship the test may have with current curricula is coincidental.

An 11th-hour court ruling blocked release of some district scores, but test results have dribbled out, and reactions to them have ranged from outrage to disbelief, from resignation to disgust, all in an atmosphere of utter confusion. For example, when the Los Angeles Unified School District first released test results, it cheerfully reported that the district’s overall scores, year-to-year, had improved. On second look, however, it soberly announced that the improvement was not as great as previously announced, because the results of limited-English-proficient students had not been included. (Interestingly, in some school districts, scores of bilingual students who have mastered English were higher than their English-speaking counterparts).

Not surprisingly, Stanford 9 scores in well-heeled districts were generally high, while in poverty-stricken ones low. The belief that education in California is patently unequal is nowhere borne out more starkly, and with less explanation of variables, than in standardized testing.

Educators caution that the first test period is a foundation year and that results, accordingly, should not be given too much weight. They shouldn’t be dismissed, either. “It’s important that people ask questions–what is working, what isn’t?–as we begin to change the test, augment it, make it more aligned to the standards,” says Robert L. Trigg, a member of the state Board of Education and former district superintendent.

Yet, does a standardized test, given only in English, make any sense in a state whose student population is as ethnically and culturally diverse as California’s? Law thinks that testing non-English-speaking students in English is “absurd on its face.” Instead, he says, California needs two types of testing. “Level A are tests selected by the individual districts and schools to assess their programs. And you need state-level oversight–a temperature-taking, if you will–not of all grades, not every year, but a consistent, coherent program that would give you state-level information like CAP [did].” Where language differences are great, as in L.A. Unified, he says, the problem “is close to insoluble” using traditional testing methods. “You should not include scores into your aggregate of students who, by definition, cannot take the test.”

Regardless of the bilingual issue, the point is that California’s kids should be able to compete with children across the nation. Ultimately, that may mean dual testing. “We want individual results,” says Trigg, “and we want programmatic results. . . . You need both sets of information.”

Of course, you need a curriculum first, and California’s educators are working to develop one. Meantime, the STAR program is a poor substitute. “There are 5 million kids in California, and 4 million were tested,” says Education Department testing administrator Richard Diaz. “A lot of problems can occur. It was a compressed time period. There may have been some misunderstandings about what was to be tested. All these things are playing into this.”

Testing, moreover, has become an especially potent political tool in the education wars. Beginning with Deukmejian and CAP on down through Wilson’s demand last year that California’s schoolchildren be tested only in English, the issue polarizes to the point that “nobody trusts anybody else to do a plan,” said one prominent state educator. “In the ’70s and ’80s, people pretty much trusted [the state Department of Education] and, as a consequence, they had the space to do some logical planning. Now, there is such polarization between [state Supt. Delaine] Eastin and the board and the governor that everyone is scrambling for political advantage rather than doing what is logical.”

Because of California’s fractured system of education governance, Eastin, who is running for reelection, has no real policy-making power. That authority falls to the state board. Although Eastin ostensibly heads the bureaucracy in the Department of Education, she has virtually no control over the education budget and almost no rapport with the governor and the board he appoints.

Such fragmentation is exacerbated by the fact that individual districts, not the state Department of Education, legally hold the contracts with Harcourt Brace, publisher of the Stanford 9. When problems– including reports of defective magnetic tapes containing thousands of test scores and student scores being posted in the wrong district–arise, there is no central clearing house to vet technical glitches and quality control. As one frustrated superintendent put it: “For what we’re paying Harcourt Brace, we ought to just do our own test, absolutely tailored to our own curriculum. We should have a statewide test, but there is no spirit of cooperation [at the state level]. Nobody is blameable or blameless, really. But it’s a system with a lot of rancor and animosity.”

Sigrid Bathen is senior editor of the California Journal, a monthly magazine about politics and government.

Three Education Initiatives Make for Odd Bedfellows

by Sigrid Bathen published May 31, 1998

When Kevin Gordon, governmental affairs director for the California School Boards Assn., showed up in mid-May for a scheduled cable-TV debate on Proposition 223, which would limit school-district spending on administration, the “pro” side didn’t send a representative. A few weeks earlier, at a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Gordon again appeared as scheduled. Again, the “pro” side didn’t show. “There have been many events where we’ve done it by ourselves,” Gordon says.

The lopsided debates over 223, known as “95-5,” are just one slightly bizarre turn in California’s continuing obsession with government by initiative. The fact that educators are at the epicenter of this season’s initiative wars, sometimes on different sides, underscores how intense is the debate, and how high the stakes, in the public demand for education reform. Indeed, two other initiatives, directly or indirectly, affect education, and the state’s powerful education lobby finds parts of itself moving in opposite directions and in a quandary over where to put its limited resources.

Proposition 223 pits school administrators, board members, nonteaching employees and many teachers against the 37,000-member United Teachers of Los Angeles. (The California Teachers Assn. and the California Federation of Teachers are neutral.) Proposition 227, which would end bilingual education, has drawn the ire of organized education groups but enjoys substantial voter support. Proposition 226, which would force unions to seek permission to spend dues on political campaigns, is opposed by the California Teachers Assn., which expects to spend at least $3 million to help defeat it.

“We’ve never had so many mega-issues [on the ballot],” says Davis Campbell, executive director of the California School Boards Assn. and a longtime deputy superintendent of the state Department of Education under then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Wilson C. Riles. “There are multiple issues in the Legislature as well–the school facilities battle, academic standards.” Unfortunately, says Campbell and other state education leaders, there is something of a “reform du jour” mentality in the rush to improve California schools.

Regardless of their views on the ballot measures, educators bemoan the huge expenditures necessitated by big-issue campaigns–money that is not going to the classroom, or to improve teacher training at a time when California is facing a huge teacher shortage, or to repair aging schools and build new ones. “I hate to be trite,” says Campbell, “but the devil is in the details. . . . They take our time and energy away from real solutions.”

Leading state educators dispute the perception that the education community–never a monolith on issues, but never so visible as it is now with public attention focused so intensely on the schools–is fractured and divided on the details of reform. Some blame Gov. Pete Wilson for creating this impression. He is clearly intent on being remembered as California’s “education governor” for his class-size reduction and other reform proposals while, to the angst of educators, vetoing bipartisan bilingual-reform legislation, sponsoring 226, supporting 227 and insisting all California students be tested in English whether or not they are proficient or even vaguely schooled in the language.

Although slightly leading in the polls, Proposition 223 seems to have no clear public presence as the primary draws near. Seemingly based on a simple premise–who among us with any knowledge of the state’s crumbling education system would not favor, at least in principle, the notion that less could be spent on administration of the schools, more on “direct services” to students?–it is facing heavy opposition. Opponents, including the school-boards association, the Assn. of California School Administrators, the state PTA and several major business groups, were expected to spend upward of $2.5 million in the homestretch on TV ads and phone banks to influence public opinion. It’s working. The most recent Los Angeles Times Poll found support for the initiative had dwindled from 55%, in April, to 40%, with an almost equal percentage opposed (38%), up substantially from 26% in April.

Admitting there are disagreements among teachers on 223, which would levy major fines on school districts spending more than the 5% permitted on “administration,” the initiative’s backers at UTLA say they cannot afford to spend heavily on 223. Privately, critics of 223 say UTLA leadership realizes the initiative, which is confusing on the key element of what constitutes administrative expenses, enjoys waning support and decided to put their remaining resources elsewhere.

UTLA leadership is unfazed by its lone-wolf image on 223. “We knew that CTA was going to be neutral, just as the CFT (California Federation of Teachers) was,” says Michael Cherry, UTLA-AFT vice president. “It’s a misunderstanding, a fear of the unknown. . . .” Cherry insists many smaller districts support 223, though opponents say they stand to be big losers if it passes. As the state’s largest school district, L.A. Unified would be the big winner, according to the opposition campaign.

Gordon insists the “split” among educators over 223 is “really not a split, but a splinter–a split assumes there is an equal number on both sides. Not one statewide group supports it. There is not one issue in the 10 years that I have been representing public schools that we have been on the same side as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., and this one we are.”

Perhaps the most worrisome initiative for the education lobby, principally the teachers’ unions, is Prop. 226, which does not, on its face, affect education. Yet, the initiative is seen by teachers as a slam at the power of their union to block vouchers. “The people who are behind this are the same people who want to privatize public education,” claims the CTA’s principal lobbyist, John Hein.

While many teachers are dissatisfied with the glacial pace of “transitioning” non-English-speaking students to “regular” classes, they generally oppose Proposition 227, although individual teachers support it. There are an estimated 1.4 million children in California, nearly one-fourth of them in L.A. Unified alone, who are not proficient in English. Most educators believe that while bilingual education can be vastly streamlined, abruptly dumping immigrant kids from many cultures into English-only classes would be disastrous.

Yet, solid opposition to Propositions 226 and 227 in no way means educators are agreed on how to reform the state’s education system. Educators are notoriously fractious and argumentative. They seem even more so now because their disputes are fully exposed to public view under the unforgiving microscope of political notoriety and expediency.

The spate of education initiatives and legislative wrangling over reform offer some indication of the intractable nature of the problem. But if there is one thing upon which educators agree, the initiative process is not the way to accomplish substantive change. It surely isn’t the least expensive, or the quickest–drawn-out court fights after passage are the rule rather than the exception.

Marion Joseph, a battle-scarred veteran of California’s education wars, longtime top administrator in the state Department of Education, now a member of the state Board of Education, says Californians have “this whole notion of systemic reform” that will somehow, magically, change the schools, preferably overnight. “I feel like a keeper of the history. I keep thinking, we did that, we didn’t get that done, why?”

“The problem,” she adds, “is that the systemic reform has often stopped at the classroom door.”


Sigrid Bathen is senior editor of The California Journal, a monthly magazine about politics and government.

Democrats divided: The race for state schools superintendent

By Sigrid Bathen posted September 23, 2014


For an obscure elective office that is often ignored, unknown or regarded as superfluous in California’s convoluted education bureaucracy, the November election for state Superintendent of Public Instruction is shaping up as one of the most contentious — and costly — races among statewide candidates.

The superintendency typically is viewed as a down-ticket backwater – a nonpartisan office with limited power that some say should be abolished.

Superintendent Tom Torlakson, 65, a mild-mannered former state legislator, Contra Costa County supervisor and high school science teacher, against charter-school administrator Marshall Tuck, 41, a Harvard Business School graduate who worked for several years in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street.

But this year, it has become a lightning rod for widespread dissatisfaction with schools in California, which have consistently been ranked among the lowest-performing and poorly funded in the nation.

At the center of the campaign battle is a Superior Court judge’s blistering decision favoring the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California, a closely watched lawsuit challenging the state’s cumbersome, expensive, teacher-tenure and dismissal system. And while ostensibly nonpartisan, the race between two Democratic candidates in a heavily Democratic state has revealed long-standing divisions among Democrats over education reform.

“This is a battle that has been raging [within] the Democratic Party for about 20 years, but it has become quite fierce,” Dr. Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute at California State University, Los Angeles, recently told the education news service, Cabinet Report. “In California, with Democrats so dominant, you look for issues that are going to divide the majority party, and I think this one is pretty close to the top.”

The election pits an embattled but well-funded incumbent Superintendent Tom Torlakson, 65, a mild-mannered former state legislator, Contra Costa County supervisor and high school science teacher, against charter-school administrator Marshall Tuck, 41, a Harvard Business School graduate who worked for several years in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street before founding the highly regarded Green Dot Charter Schools. Later, he was CEO of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for L.A. Schools.

Another round of independent expenditures – which by law cannot be coordinated with the candidates’ campaigns – is expected in the general election season.

While outspent in the primary by Torlakson supporters – primarily massive spending by the California Teachers Association and other unions — Tuck has major support from several wealthy pro-charter donors, including philanthropist Eli Broad and businessman William Bloomfield. Tuck’s campaign benefited from some $1.4 million in independent expenditures, including several large contributions from the California Senior Advocates League PAC, a group funded primarily by Broad and Bloomfield.

Tuck was been endorsed over Torlakson – in the primary — by all major California newspapers, which is unusual so early in the election season.

The CTA and other unions spent $2.6 million in the primary for broadcast and print ads for Torlakson, and another $2 million for “issue ads,” which featured Torlakson but don’t expressly advocate for the candidate.

Another round of independent expenditures – which by law cannot be coordinated with the candidates’ campaigns – is expected in the general election season, although both candidates and their handlers are understandably vague about when or how much. A recent spate of independent expenditures on Torlakson’s behalf came from the CTA, the state and national Federation of Teachers and other labor unions – some $450,000 as of Sept. 19, according to Election Track and the Secretary of State’s office.

According to state financial disclosure records, both candidates reported less than $200,000 cash on hand as of June 30 – $194,550 for Torlakson and $179, 913 for Tuck. Total reported expenditures by each candidate from Jan. 1 through June 30 were very close – more than $1.14 million for Torlakson and just over $1 million for Tuck. But as of mid-September, a sharp uptick in candidate contributions favored Tuck, with $381,000 for Torlakson and $448,000 for Tuck.

Consultant: “There was a horrible turnout in the primary and [likely to be] horrible in the general. It’s very hard to get anybody’s attention — unless you have money.”

“There is a ton of money involved,” said Kim Alexander of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit which monitors campaign spending and elections. “The unions appear to be stepping up for Torlakson because he has an opponent who has demonstrated he can raise significant amounts of money.”

Getting the Word Out. . .
A veteran campaign consultant knowledgeable about the election said funding for the schools is improving with the economy and strong public support for school funding, but getting the word out is difficult, and running for a little-known state schools office requires campaign cash.

“Unfortunately for a lot of us who care deeply about these issues,” said the consultant, who asked not to be identified, “this is the most difficult time to run for statewide office. There was a horrible turnout in the primary and [likely to be] horrible in the general. It’s very hard to get anybody’s attention — unless you have money. . .

“If you look at the people who fund Tuck’s campaign, they have a very different view of what is a public school, and ‘reform’ is often code for vouchers. People upset with the schools are upset with the cutbacks — no money for counselors, for nothing but the bare minimum. This was the first spring when there haven’t been pink slips. Because of Proposition 30 (Gov. Brown’s sales and income tax initiative, which was passed in 2012 and strongly supported by Torlakson), there is now some capacity to put money back into the schools.”

“I support due-process rights for teachers, but the law is broken and needs to be changed,” he said. “The tenure process is dysfunctional.” — Gary Hart

Tuck, who has never run for public office, says he decided to run after his efforts in the L.A. Partnership, aimed at turning around 17 dismally performing schools in low-income, central-city neighborhoods, were repeatedly stymied by arcane teacher hiring and dismissal rules in an entrenched education bureaucracy.

The strongly worded Vergara decision on June 10 — and reaffirmed in a final ruling on Aug. 28 — came at a fortuitous time for the upstart young candidate, galvanizing public opinion on school inequality and teacher tenure. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu said K-12 education in California “shocks the conscience” and is flatly unconstitutional for many students, particularly those in poor and minority neighborhoods – a decision which has focused unusually intense attention on the race, as well as copious amounts of campaign cash.

The decision is almost certain to be mired in a lengthy appeals process, and the issue of appealing Vergara is itself controversial.

“These court battles can go on for many years, and nothing may happen, but I hope this does help generate more attention,” says former state Sen. Gary Hart, D-Santa Barbara, a former high school teacher who chaired the Senate Education Committee for 12 years. He was education secretary to Gov. Gray Davis and is the author of many major education bills, including measures to increase school funding and create charter schools.

“I support due-process rights for teachers, but the law is broken and needs to be changed,” he said. “The tenure process is dysfunctional.”

Those with long experience in California education – some of whom do not want to be quoted by name in a contentious race – say that too often “blame the incumbent” becomes the mantra when public dissatisfaction with schools drives elections. In this election, many say, “blame the teachers” becomes an equally convenient form of scapegoating in a Byzantine state education system with plenty of blame to go around.

A recent Field Poll found Tuck leading Torlakson among likely voters by 31 percent to 28 percent – with a whopping 41 percent undecided. The Tuck campaign issued a jubilant press release about the poll in which campaign manager/communications director Cynara Lilly said “voters are ready for a change” and “when given a choice, will choose the candidate with experience turning around public schools – not the Sacramento insider.”

Gov. Brown chose not to appoint a Secretary of Education, instead focusing on the role of the state board as a policy-making body and emphasizing more local control of schools.

But early polls often do not reflect final outcomes. What does appear likely is this: The coming weeks will unleash a blizzard of campaign ads – mainly paid for by massive infusions of independent expenditures.

“This is a battle between the CTA and so-called education ‘reformers’ who hate the unions, and have their own agendas about the way the schools should be run,” said one veteran political analyst who asked not to be named. “They have a certain notoriety because of the public’s clamor about bad schools. . .Does it matter? Does it make a difference? That depends on what you think about the power of the superintendent.”

Hart and many other longtime educators involved in education politics say the superintendency is a largely ceremonial position, with few powers beyond the “bully pulpit.” Hart, who seriously considered running for the job and ultimately decided against it, has long said the office should be abolished.

The current system, critics say, too often works at cross-purposes, with an elected state superintendent, who heads the state Department of Education, as well as a state Board of Education appointed by the governor, plus hundreds of local school districts and boards, county offices of education and boards.

Gov. Brown chose not to appoint a Secretary of Education, instead focusing on the role of the state board as a policy-making body and emphasizing more local control of schools. In a recent interview with Education Week magazine, board President Michael Kirst, a veteran state and national educator and administrator, said California “for years had a fractured and fractious policymaking system,” creating confusion over “who was in charge.” He said the governor has worked closely with the board and Torlakson, “most of whose positions on education are close to his own.”

‘Blame the Teachers’
Both Torlakson and Brown took considerable heat over their recent decision to appeal the popular Vergara decision. The state’s appeal was filed Aug. 29.

“The system is so convoluted and it can take two to three years or more, costing districts $100,000 (and more). There is no reason for these cases to drag on so long,” — Joan Buchanan

Torlakson says the Superior Court decision is constitutionally flawed and unfairly blames teachers for problems in schools. “The people who dedicate their lives to the teaching profession deserve our admiration and support,” he said in a prepared statement after the August ruling. “Instead, this ruling lays the failings of our education system at their feet.”

“No teacher is perfect,” he added. “A very few are not worthy of the job. School districts have always had the power to dismiss those who do not measure up.” He pointed to a bill he and the governor supported, by Assembly Education Committee Chair Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, which aims to shorten the arduous hearing and appeal process.

Although critics say the measure provides only limited relief, Buchanan, who served 18 years on the San Ramon Valley school board, including four terms as president, says it is a good first step and brings opposing sides in the controversy to the table. “The system is so convoluted,” she said, “and it can take two to three years or more, costing districts $100,000 (and more). There is no reason for these cases to drag on so long,”

Colleagues and even longtime supporters of Torlakson are often torn about the election, particularly prominent Democratic educators who may be union members.

But they also know firsthand the failings of the teacher-tenure and disciplinary process, which has allowed efforts to discipline or fire clearly incompetent, even abusive, teachers to drag on for years, deterring administrators from even attempting to fire a teacher because of the time and expense of the hearing and appeal process.

“When a district goes into receivership (state takeover), it’s usually been a long way to get there, and it’s a long way to get out. We’ve made real progress, but we still have a ways to go.” — Paul Hefnerf

Also at issue in the election is the current two-year probationary period for new teachers, which critics say is actually only 16 months and is not remotely sufficient to determine a teacher’s competence. Nor, they say, does the current system provide adequate support and mentoring to a new teacher who may be having trouble in the classroom.

Dr. Barbara O’Connor, a prominent retired political communications professor at California State University, Sacramento, who founded the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media, said Torlakson “gets blamed for all the woes of education,” including the financial collapse of many school districts in California. And, while Torlakson is blamed for education’s failings, she added “he also has access to [campaign] finances, so it counter-balances.”

Torlakson campaign manager Paul Hefner says the number of districts in financial trouble has dwindled substantially since Torlakson took office in 2011. “At the height of the crisis, one of three kids attended a school [that was] in financial trouble,” Hefner said. “When a district goes into receivership (state takeover), it’s usually been a long way to get there, and it’s a long way to get out. We’ve made real progress, but we still have a ways to go.”

As a former department chair, O’Connor said she often faced personnel and tenure issues, which come with different rules at the university level, and much longer “probationary” periods. “In the universities, you have to wait seven years,” she said. “It’s an onerous process. To have collective bargaining and tenure is tough. I can’t imagine [granting tenure] after only 16 months.”

A union member (the California Faculty Association in the CSU) throughout her long career in higher education, O’Connor says, “I believe in unions.” At the same time, “I’m not always happy with them (the unions). . .I’m ready for some people who want to take some risk.” She has not taken a position in the election. She says she has visited Tuck’s Green Dot Schools and was impressed. “He’s nontraditional,” she said, “and smart.”

“And I’ve always supported Tom Torlakson, since he was in the Assembly,” O‘Connor added. “He’s a great human being, and his daughter Tamara is a friend (Tamara Torlakson is a senior associate at Dewey Square Group, a political consulting firm).”

‘Crippling Bureaucracy’
In an interview with Capitol Weekly, Tuck said the state’s education system “has been broken for a long time, and we do need real change. I’m not a politician, I’ve learned what it takes to do this work.”

But he’s vague on the specifics of how he would change a system entrenched in layers upon layers of legislative, administrative and legal requirements, both state and federal. He said he favors a collaborative approach – a position similar to Torlakson’s.

“The [state] Education Code constrains what can be done, and it’s a crippling bureaucracy,” Tuck said. “There is no individual position that is all-powerful, but this (the superintendency) is a uniquely influential position, for setting the vision, for fundamental change. It is the one position that is non-partisan, focused only on kids, with the ‘bully pulpit’ and specific assigned powers to drive unique change and move the work forward. But it has to be a collective effort.”

As for teacher discipline, he favors major changes in the process, one in which “you touch a kid, and you’re gone.” Working in challenging L.A. schools as part of the partnership with Villaraigosa and L.A. Unified, Tuck said, “We had teachers who literally hit kids and pushed them around, but we were told we couldn’t fire them.”

At the same time, he said, the increasingly controversial “last-hired-first-fired” system of union-backed hiring meant that many excellent teachers were regularly facing pink slips every spring – a particularly serious issue in low-performing schools in poor areas with high teacher turnover. “We had to lay off teachers of very high quality,” Tuck said. At one school, he said, half the teachers got layoff notices, while at other, more desirable schools, “only 5 percent received layoff notices.”

Tuck insists he favors tenure, and disagrees with the pro-voucher, anti-tenure views of some of his well-heeled supporters. “I’ve only worked in union schools,” he added. “I’m an independent, first and foremost.”

Former state Superintendent Delaine Eastin, who founded the California Teacher of the Year Foundation to provide funding for recognition of outstanding teachers and is on Torlakson’s list of supporters, said many top teachers favor significant changes in the probationary and tenure system which is at the heart of the current election. “Some of those teachers are not in favor of the current tenure system,” she said. “Many favor a three-year probationary period, with levels of [job] protection. . .I do think it’s too hard and too expensive to fire a teacher for doing evil things, let alone incompetence.”

California remains one of the lowest among the states in per-pupil spending.

Whatever happens in the superintendent’s election, with its promises of reform and a blizzard of campaign cash, the role of the office comes down to educating kids in an increasingly diverse, economically divided state with some 6 million kids currently attending public schools – an estimated one-fourth of them poor, many attending substandard facilities with overcrowded classrooms, too many failing to complete high school.

And while teacher tenure has become a driving issue in the election, adequate school funding is hardly mentioned. “Both sides agree on the need for more funding,” says Sonenshein. “They disagree about how education should be delivered.”

Post-recessionary infusions to K-12 budgets, with emphasis on poor and low-performing schools, in the governor’s budget are a good start, Eastin and others say, but hardly address the overcrowded classes, aging buildings, staff cutbacks and other gaping holes in the system that began with the 1978 passage of the property-tax limitation initiative, Proposition 13.

California remains one of the lowest among the states in per-pupil spending. “The solution is a long-term plan to get us back to where we fully fund K-12,” says Eastin.

As a young community college teacher in southern California in the 1970s, who became a state legislator and state schools superintendent, Eastin also taught youths at a juvenile detention facility – an experience that helped drive her views of public education in California, which spends far more to incarcerate young people than to educate them.

“It was an excellent experience for determining policy,” she mused. “The state Constitution doesn’t say that the first priority is incarceration. It says the first priority is education.”

Ed’s Note: Sigrid Bathen is a longtime education writer who teaches journalism at California State University, Sacramento.

© 2023 Sigrid Bathen

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