Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has been hailed by educators as someone who “gets it” — who understands public education and how schools and colleges actually work. He is running for re-election, so we sat down and asked him a few questions.
What do you consider your most important accomplishment as state superintendent?
Without a doubt, the work we’ve done in partnership with teachers to stop the budget cuts to education and address the funding crisis in California’s schools was critical to the future of our state. We still have a long way to go, but we’re making real progress after years of decline and billions of dollars in cuts. And as we invest in education again, I’m fighting to make sure that decisions about our education dollars are made by local schools, parents and teachers themselves — not by Washington, Sacramento or Wall Street.
You’re a teacher yourself. How does your time in the classroom influence your work as superintendent?
It’s true — I spent years teaching science in low-income communities, coached high school track and cross-country teams for 25 years, and continued to teach community college classes even after I took office. I try to bring my training and experience as a classroom teacher to every part of the job, whether it’s managing a large, complex agency like the California Department of Education or shepherding major legislation through the Capitol. And because I am a teacher and a coach, I’m focused on an agenda that brings people together to build our schools up, not tear them down to make way for private interests.
As California’s schools start to recover from years of cuts, do you expect to see a renewed emphasis on providing a well-rounded education for students?
Absolutely. We have to rebuild programs that we know help keep children involved and engaged, such as music, drama and sports, and refocus career technical education, which is a high priority for me. I’m thrilled that California has established a new Career Pathways Trust, with $250 million for schools to develop partnerships and career internship programs. I believe strongly that our students need a taste of the working world before they graduate, and need to leave school with real-world skills that will help them succeed in college and a career.
What are your goals for the next four years?
We need to keep fighting for the resources our students and schools deserve, especially as we tackle the challenges that go with the transition to new standards and assessments (no more bubble tests!). At the same time, I believe we must make a commitment as a state to invest in early learning, so that every child gets off to a great start. Another priority is to continue our efforts to expand career technical education, so that all students get a taste of the working world before they graduate.
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