TERENCE CHEA, ASSOCIATED PRESS
"The biggest strength I have is my experience as a teacher combined with my experience getting to win-win," Torlakson said. "I want to fix things so the kids of California can have a better education. I have the energy and know-how to get things done in Sacramento."SAN FRANCISCO—A teacher-turned-lawmaker and a retired district superintendent are competing to be California's next education chief at a time when public schools are facing unprecedented financial challenges.
Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, a veteran Democratic lawmaker from Contra Costa County, is running against Larry Aceves, a longtime school administrator who has never held public office, to replace Jack O'Connell as the state superintendent of public instruction.
They give voters a solid choice, said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
"This is a battle between two progressive guys who are very smart and very capable," he said. "Both are distinguished public servants with many years of service who have dug deeply into school-reform issues."
The next state superintendent will lead the California Department of Education as deep cuts in state funding prompt districts to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, close campuses, eliminate summer school and cut programs to help struggling students.
California, which once had one of the country's best public school systems, now ranks at or near the bottom on numerous measures of academic achievement and school funding, according to a recent report by the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The state superintendent will be in charge of distributing tens of billions of dollars in state and federal money, enforcing state education policies and tracking school performance on standardized tests.
The schools chief has limited power to set policy, but can use the superintendent's bully pulpit to lobby lawmakers, the governor and the public on key education issues. O'Connell, for example, has used the office to draw attention to the student achievement gap between different racial groups.
Torlakson and Aceves emerged as the top vote-getters out of a dozen candidates in the nonpartisan primary election in June, when none of the candidates won more than 20 percent of the vote.
Aceves surprised observers when he finished first, knocking out state Sen. Gloria Romero, the Los Angeles Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee and was considered a strong contender.
Romero is a vocal proponent of the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" school reforms that include expanding charter schools, loosening teacher tenure and linking teacher pay to student performance. The initiatives have faced heavy resistance from the state's teacher unions.
"There was a huge sigh of relief when Romero was defeated," said Michael Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University. "When she lost, it became a battle between two people who are generally close together in their views."
Torlakson is a former high school science teacher and track coach who has held elected office for more than three decades, serving on the Antioch City Council, Contra Costa Board of Supervisors, state Assembly and state Senate.
He calls himself a problem solver and consensus builder who can work with all parties to come up with innovative solutions. He points to legislation he authored to expand after-school programs, assist struggling schools and build new facilities.
He's endorsed by the California Democratic Party, the California Teachers Association and numerous labor unions and Democratic politicians.
"The biggest strength I have is my experience as a teacher combined with my experience getting to win-win," Torlakson said. "I want to fix things so the kids of California can have a better education. I have the energy and know-how to get things done in Sacramento."
Torlakson says he will push hard to restore and protect state funding for education and make it easier for communities to pass parcel taxes to fund local schools. He says school districts can save money through consolidation of administration and becoming more energy-efficient.
"As a lifelong educator, I am upset with the shabby treatment that education has received from the state of California," he said. "We need to prioritize education again and invest more money in education."
Aceves began his career as a teacher before serving as an administrator in school districts in San Diego, the Central Coast and San Jose. He also served as president of the Association of California School Administrators.
Aceves, a lifelong Democrat who recently reregistered as an independent, paints himself as an outsider who has hands-on experience running schools and is not beholden to special interests. He's endorsed by numerous principals and superintendents, as well as such newspapers as the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle.
"I don't have any hidden agendas. I'm not trying to sweeten anybody's pot," he said.
Aceves says he will advocate to increase state education spending, equalize funding between schools in rich and poor communities, reduce mandates on educators and modernize the state's system to track student and teacher performance—a key deficiency in California's losing application for a "Race to the Top" grant.
He says he would be respectful to teacher unions but also would push for greater teacher accountability.
"We really need to have someone in Sacramento during these hard times who understands how the Legislature and the Department of Education impacts the school districts," Aceves said. "There's some heavy lifting to be done, and I think I'm the person that can do that."