Superintendent of Public Instruction
There are three candidates for Superintendent who have any reasonable chance to win; Gloria Romero, Tom Torlakson, and Larry Aceves.
Romero and Torlakson have similar advantages and disadvantages. They are both termed out legislators seeking a new position, not leaders in education.
In the last two years California’s k-12 schools have received over a $16 Billion cut back in funding. California presently ranks 45th of the states in per pupil spending and last among the states in class size. Currently the Governor proposes to reduce k-12 spending by another $2.4 Billion.
Since funding is a legislative issue, at first consideration it might seem that the two retiring legislators would have the greatest possibility of convincing the legislature and the governor to adequately support public schools. However, the prior to Superintendents Jack O’Connell and Delaine Easton came directly from the legislature and presided over the schools during times of massive funding cut backs. We just do not have evidence that being a Senator – even the Chair of the Senate Education Committee – does much good once you leave that office and become the Superintendent.
To understand the issues in this race you need to understand key issues in k-12 education. This will also prepare you to understand the emerging debate of the re-authorization of ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) currently known as No Child Left Behind.
The Obama administration has proposed a re-authorization with some positive changes and some troubling directions.
First, you need to understand that California’s k-12 schools are not all bad. California students regularly score ( on average) at the 47th. or 48th. rank among the 50 states in reading and math. Superintend Jack O’Connell notes that the scores are stagnant, or holding steady. He does not note they are stagnant at 47th. out of 50 states plus the District of Columbia.
These scores are cause for alarm- and they have been rather constant for over 25 years. That is, the several waves of school reform, such as writing new standards and increasing testing, have not improved the average scores in California.
Lets start with the problem of average. Most of California’s schools are doing quite well particularly given the declining levels of state financial support for K-12 education. It is particular schools that are in crisis. The new Obama proposals target the bottom 10% of schools. This is a reasonable and intelligent decision. Intervention programs and policy decisions should focus on the drop out factories.
Over 85% of the schools are doing quite well by most state, national or international standards. For the election, this means that we need a superintendent for 85% of our schools who can support schools and teachers and who can secure adequate funding. Is there a candidate who can get a 2/3 vote for adequate funding of schools and get the support of a future governor?
Senator Gloria Romero is the leading candidate for the position – and she has some powerful opponents. Senator Romero has been a leader in the legislature on issues of prison reform, prison funding, and the effort to provide educational opportunities in the prisons to rehabilitate young offenders. In her efforts she has been a harsh critic of the actions of the prison guards union in violating the civil rights of prisoners and she has not supported the efforts to increase funding for prisons, Instead she has preferred community based diversion programs. The growth of the prison budget is one of several factors leading to the cuts in k-12 funding in the state general budget.
For her efforts, Senator Romero has earned the wrath and opposition of the powerful and well funded prison guards union and many law enforcement groups. Many Democrats look at this conflict and decide to seek another candidate. Assemblyman Tom Tolakson seems a likely candidate.
Torlakson has gained the endorsements of a wide variety of Democratic Party and labor groups particularly those who for one reason or another oppose Gloria Romero. He has the support of both major teachers unions, the California Federation of Teachers and the California Teaches Association.
Romero had offended these unions over several years but particularly in her efforts in the last year to support changing state laws to respond to demands of Obama’s Race to the Top. She gained the support of parents’ groups in Los Angeles by supporting their strong demand for new charter schools ( a part of Race to the Top). Charter schools are one immediate way to achieve the long standing effort of some parents to separate themselves from a largely dysfunctional Los Angeles City School System. Again, specific schools are doing well, but the school district has failed in many ways.
Romero has chosen to align herself with a group of educational advocates ( not teachers) who consider themselves school reformers. In this she gains the support of Ed Voice and other corporate aligned school “reformers”.
These reformers are what Diane Ravitch calls, “The Billionaires Boys Club” in her new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010). The club is a series of foundations with wealth, Gates, Walton Family, Broad, all committed to charter schools and measuring teachers by test scores. In California a leader in this direction is Ed Voice. These foundations employ a number of ‘consultants” and fund endless meetings of important people. At times, they even drop into a school for a quick look ( usually less than two hours). This is a scam of the consultants and the NGOs such as the Ed Voice and others. It is a good life. Good hotels, good food, you don’t have to meet with kids and their runny noses or problems of poverty.
The consultants and ‘experts” of the billionaires clubs provide Governors and politicians with a valuable service, they can appear to be doing something about the education crisis without spending much money.
Politicians, Secretary Duncan and the eduwonks of the “consultant class”, would continue to ignore the crumbling and under-resourced urban school buildings and programs where children don't even have textbooks or toilet paper, let alone science and technology labs. Instead the “professional consultants” would focus on the same school turnaround policies for low income schools that have been demonstrated as not working in Chicago and other cities. ;http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/10/28/10chicago.h29.html
The consultants repeat of mantra of several reforms; standards, testing, accountability even though California has some of the highest standards in the nation, and some of the lowest test scores. When one silver bullet is exhausted, they move on to the next, seldom stopping to listen to the teaches who work in the schools.
Romero’s alliance with the eduwonks reached its apex in the hearings for SX 5.1 in the special session of the legislature in January 2010 when existing California law was changed to respond demands of Race to the Top. ( California was ranked 27 out of the states in the RTTT competitive grants.)
The economic crisis in the state
While the eduwonks continue their efforts and California achievement scores remain stagnant, others look to the immediate economic crisis that California and 42 other states find themselves in.
The Governor and elected officials discuss the economic crisis as if the crisis is a neutral act, or as if a natural act- like rain or snow. But, the California school budgets are a disaster not because of some natural phenomena. The crisis was created by people and policies of the federal government and of the financial system.
This economic crisis was created by finance capital and banking, mostly on Wall Street particularly Chase Banks, Bank of America, Citi Group, AIG, and others – not by teachers and not by students. Finance capital produced a $ 2 trillion bailout of the financial industry, the doubling of US unemployment rate and the loss of 2 million manufacturing jobs in 2008. Fifteen million people are out of work.
Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research says it this way,
"The reality is that we got into this mess because of an overwhelming excess of greed and stupidity on the part of the Wall Street bankers and the people deciding economic policy. We continue to face excessive rates of unemployment because of a continuing reluctance to pursue policies that can restore the economy to health.
Rather than slash school budgets and lay off teachers, an appropriate response would be to tax the banks and the financial trades. We pay a 8% sales tax in California. There should be at least a 3% tax on sales of stocks and derivatives and financial instruments. Such a tax could fund the schools and slow down the excesses of casino capitalism.
The USThe UThspends less per student than 16 other modern industrialized countries . Moreover, of these, we are the only country that does not actively promote equality of educational opportunity. In the Netherlands, for example, schools receive 25 percent more funding for each lower-income child and 90 percent more funding for each minority child than in the United States (Slavin, 1998). Clearly, schools serving working-class students and cultural minorities fail in large part because our nation refuses to invest in its children.
Our economy needs well-educated workers. We cannot permit schools to continue to fail. When schools succeed for the middle class and fail for working-class students and students of color, schools contribute to a crippling division along economic and racial lines in our society. Schools, as public institutions, must find ways to offer all children equal educational opportunity.
Let us be clear about the reality of schools in our nation. Some middle-class schools could benefit from reform, but most middle-class schools work reasonbly well. . Many schools in urban areas, however, are unable to provide the equal educational opportunity called for by our national ideals and by constitutional law. There will be no significant change in the quality of education without substantial new funds allocated to these schools.
Neo liberal reformers, although they claim to be influenced by business management theories, miss use recent developments in management theory. They fail to recognize that teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Most large city schools are highly bureaucratized and control oriented institutions- based upon a high level of control and distrust – as is the federal legislation NCLB. Modern management theory recognizes that in personnel-intensive workplace, control does not work well.
Having explored the conflict between the two legislators, now lets turn to the candidacy of Larry Aceves. Aceves is a retired school superintendent with extensive experience in the classroom and in school management. He is not campaigning for one of the eduwonk projects of instant school reform which we know do not work. His primary supporters are school administrators up and down the state. He clearly has their respect. On the other hand, these administrators are not teachers. Most are former teachers. The teachers’ union endorsements of Toralkson are more impressive.
Aceves represents the argument that what we need currently is an education professional who can lead the state office. He has the experience in educational administration and leadership to make this case. And, as noted, the prior two Superintendents were former elected officials.
The teachers and the children in 85% of the schools need a Superintendent who is knowledgeable about public schools, can lead and provide support. The teachers and the students in the other 15% of schools need a Superintendent who can work with the Obama Administration to develop, fund, and guide a turn around strategy. For most schools, the primary issue at present is the budget and response to the economic crisis. Nothing in Aceves’ interviews nor promotional literature responds to the urgent issue of making the public, the legislature, and the governor understand how the financial crisis is hurting public education.
The protracted economic decline of the Great Recession has had a devastating impact on the California budget and the budgets of our schools. Revenues have continued to plunge and legislatures have made a series of deep cuts. The crisis of state and local budgets, and thus of school budgets, will be even more severe next year when the current economic stimulus runs out.
Both Torlackson and Romero were in the legislature this year and had the opportunity to lead in responding to the budget crisis. They did not. They, like other politicians looked the other way and treated the calamitous economic crisis as a natural event, one not caused by specific policies and one not requiring policy responses.
Given the above, if you want someone who can deal with the legislature, then vote for Torlackson.
If you want someone who knows k-12 education well and can guide the state school bureaucracy; then vote for Aceves.