Volume 14 Issue 8
Extended interview with Assembly Member Tom Torlakson, candidate for state superintendent of public instruction.
California Educator: Why are you the best candidate for state superintendent of public instruction?
Tom Torlakson: I am running for state superintendent of public instruction to fight for our kids. I’m a second-generation teacher who wants to continue to apply my experience as a science teacher and high school coach to restore our public schools, and the funding they receive, to the top ranks in the nation.
As superintendent of public instruction, I will fight to protect education funding. I will work tirelessly to ensure parents can send their children to a safe, high-quality school in their own neighborhood.
I know how to build effective coalitions to win — either in the Legislature or on local and state education funding propositions.
While some in this campaign want to scapegoat teachers, I know from my visits to schools across the state how unfair these attacks are.
I am honored to have the support of classroom teachers and school employees. I have worked hard to develop the broadest coalition of supporters of any candidate running for superintendent of public instruction.
What do you think is the greatest challenge facing California schools?
Our failure to properly fund and invest in our schools. It is a disgrace that California ranks 47th in the nation in per-pupil spending.
I have opposed the recent rounds of education funding cuts because I know they will impact today’s students for a lifetime. These cuts won’t heal.
The first step out of this crisis is to stop digging the hole any deeper. There must be no more cuts to public education.
What should we be doing in California to bring our schools up to the national average in funding?
Getting to the national average in the next four or five years is a good start, but it should not be our final goal. I will fight to bring California back into the ranks of the top five states.
Proposition 98 is supposed to be the floor, not the ceiling, for education funding. We must expand and strengthen the Proposition 98 guarantees — including earlier payback of the billions taken from schools during bad budget years.
I also want to close corporate tax loopholes and work to develop ways to bring new revenue into state and local education budgets. We need majority-vote state budgets, majority-vote approval of school parcel taxes, and we must increase revenues to invest in our public schools.
What should be the role of the federal government in improving education in California? Where does Race to the Top fit into that?
I support efforts to bring more federal money into our educational system — especially during times of budget crisis.
I am very concerned about how Race to the Top has been implemented. I opposed, and spoke out against, both SBx5 1 (Steinberg) and SBx5 4 (Romero). The bills were linked and included policy changes — like open enrollment and eliminating enhanced accountability for charter schools — that were not necessary to compete for Race to the Top funds.
I believe this legislation will take California public education in the wrong direction.
As superintendent, how would you work to improve public education?
As state superintendent of public instruction, I will use the office as a platform to put public education at the top of California’s agenda.
I will travel around the state — and use the latest technology available — to meet with teachers, parents, administrators, and other people concerned about our schools.
I will work tirelessly to fight cuts in education funding at all levels and to fight against fee increases in higher education. I will fight to reduce class sizes and give our hard-working teachers the resources they need to help our students succeed at all levels. I will work to restore funding for science, social studies, art, music, drama, and sports. Our students deserve a comprehensive education — not one narrowly focused on test-taking in just two subjects.
What do you think the role of charter schools should be in California? Do you think they should be held to the same standards as public schools?
Charter schools can serve an important role in our educational system, and responsible ones can encourage innovative instruction.
Unfortunately, the charter schools movement has fought efforts to hold them accountable in the same way public schools are held accountable. That’s unacceptable.
I have supported and authored legislation to improve charter school accountability and transparency. I will continue to do so.
What is the role of community colleges in California?
Community colleges should provide all students inexpensive access to a high-quality education.
I know from experience — having attended and now teaching at a community college — how important community college access is to many students.
We need to oppose fee increases and make sure our community colleges have the funding required to serve every eligible California student.
We’re beginning to see some success in our QEIA schools. Why do you think this program is successful?
The Quality Education Improvement Act is working because it is focused on reforms we know will improve student performance — not fads or ideological mandates.
QEIA has reduced class sizes, improved teacher and principal training, led to hiring of more counselors, and given school districts more resources.
QEIA stresses collaboration among administrators, teachers, and parents to achieve better student learning. As the author of this legislation, I was proud to work closely with CTA and other educators to design this program and see it implemented so well. I look forward to building and expanding upon this model.
So many focus on what California schools are doing wrong. What are we doing right?
As I have traveled around the state visiting schools, I have been heartened by the successes I have seen continue despite the horrible education funding cuts.
I see teachers and the classified school services team doing valiant work against all odds.
While class sizes are rising, while we rank at or near the bottom of the nation in terms of the number of counselors, librarians, and teachers available per student, while budgets are getting slashed — test scores are rising.
Teachers are guiding students to success despite all of the great hurdles put in front of them. I see caring and excellent professional work in progress at every school I visit.