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Assemblyman vies with retired school administrator for state Superintendent of Public Instruction job


In a highly charged November election dominated by partisan politics, the nonpartisan office of state Superintendent of Public Instruction has drawn less attention than many other hotly contested races.

The race is important because the winner could help dig California schools out of their severe slump by spearheading new initiatives and leading the charge for reform. With continued state school funding cuts and California's failure to earn federal Race to the Top money, the public is looking for a leader who can restore quality education to local classrooms.

Voters will choose between two former teachers who both say they have the in-depth knowledge of schools and classrooms necessary to understand the nuances of education, as well as the ability to build consensus and get things done.

Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, turned to politics after his stint as a science teacher in the Mt. Diablo school district, working his way up from an Antioch city councilman to a Contra Costa County supervisor, to a state assemblyman and state senator. He has continued to teach part-time at Los Medanos College and will lecture Oct. 24 about state politics.

"I think I'm the one most suited to have the communication that was absent in the top-down push to have California in the Race to the Top," he said. "A lot of administrators, school board members and teachers were wary of the strings attached to the federal legislation. Ultimately, I find that teachers are anxious to have accountability with the right measuring tools and they're very big on using data."

Larry Aceves, a retired school superintendent, turned to school district administration in Southern California, Watsonville and San Jose after launching his career in education as a kindergarten teacher in San Diego County. With no political experience, he touts himself as the candidate who is steeped in education and is not beholden to the California Teachers Association, which has endorsed Torlakson.

"There has to be system accountability," he said. "Districts, what are you doing to get students ready (to graduate)?"

The pair finished neck-in-neck in the June primary, with Aceves getting 19.2 percent of votes compared to 18.6 percent for Torlakson, in a field of 12 candidates. This surprised many election observers, who were betting that state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, would likely end up duking it out with Torlakson in November.

"That was a shock," said Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University. "The last holders of that office after Bill Honig have been legislators. Delaine Eastin was an assemblywoman, and Jack O'Connell had been in the Assembly. It will be very interesting to see whether somebody who's not a seasoned politician can do this."

Through Sept. 30, Aceves had raised $122,438 for his campaign, while Torlakson had raised $915,323 in contributions. Aceves has $39,348 in cash on hand, and Torlakson has $318,981.

With the public largely blaming the Legislature for the ongoing state budget crisis, Kirst said Torlakson's occupation listed on the ballot as a "teacher/legislator" could turn voters off. A Torlakson supporter challenged Aceves' designation as a "retired school superintendent" in a last-minute legal skirmish before the ballots were finalized, asserting that his post-retirement work as a consultant for a school superintendent search firm should be listed. A judge denied that petition.

The candidates agree on many issues, such as the need to bring more money to California schools and to provide the best education possible to every student. They urge better training for school employees; collaboration between teachers, administrators and higher education officials; and want to see more high-tech classes to prepare students for 21st-century jobs.

Aceves, however, wants the Legislature to grant the Superintendent of Public Instruction the authority to suspend provisions of union labor contracts that could "interfere with learning." This might help overcome gridlock and force reforms where unions are butting heads with administrators.

"It's so political now," Aceves said. "Sometimes, what sounds best for kids is not."

Torlakson opposes Aceves' plan to interfere with labor agreements, saying it's not workable. Instead, he said all parties should try to reach agreement about possible changes to the Education Code.

"The tradition is that teachers work with the school board," Torlakson said. "To usurp local authority in designing issues around student success seems to be micromanaging in a way that just wouldn't go anywhere."

To help voters better understand the candidates and their positions, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group is hosting a debate between the two Friday that will be streamed live online, rebroadcast on ABC-TV and local radio stations and covered by the Bay Area News Group.

"These candidates have a really hard time (getting their messages out), especially with Meg (Whitman) and Jerry (Brown) dominating the airwaves," said Carl Guardino, CEO and president of Silicon Valley Leadership Group. "For Silicon Valley, the innovation economy, education is the foundation of our success."

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commented 2013-12-27 23:20:30 -0800 · Flag
Thank you