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Sen. Torlakson talks education with locals

Santa Cruz Sentinel

As possible education cuts loom in the wake of a $10 billion state budget shortfall, a contender for California's top education post visited with Santa Cruz County educators Thursday, pledging to seek new schools funding through tax increases.

If elected as the next superintendent of public instruction, State Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, who chairs the Appropriations Committee and Select Committee for Schools and Community, said he would try to "convince the public at-large that good things are happening" and schools are worth the upped investment of tax dollars.

"The budget is upside down by $10 billion and I am worried about what that means for schools and Prop. 98," Torlakson said.

Proposition 98 is a minimum funding formula for K-12 schools passed by California voters in 1988 -- an amendment to the state Constitution that some fear may have to be suspended due to the budget crisis. Reports published Wednesday said the governor may ask for $5 billion in education funding.

Because the senator is a former history teacher, Santa Cruz City Schools Superintendent Alan Pagano said he trusted Torlakson's assessments about how to seek more funding, more equitably distribute it and re-evaluate the way districts are held accountable.

"Because he was a teacher himself, he has a very good and accurate understanding of those issues," Pagano said.

After Torlakson visited Bay View Elementary School in Santa Cruz on Thursday, administrators and board members from several area districts quizzed the two-term senator about the standards-driven No Child Left Behind Act that critics say sets federal funding based on test outcomes instead of other improvement measures.

"It's overall punitive nature, I don't like at all," Torlakson said. He said he believed "continuous improvement" on a student-by-student basis -- not just an "absolute standard" -- was also a valid gauge of measuring a school's success.

Last year, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed into law two Torlakson measures to direct nearly $3 billion to low-performing schools and to improve after-school programs. Educators also asked him about the concept of universal preschool and vouchers for charter schools.

He said he "strongly supported" federally funded preschool for all students as a mechanism to close achievement gaps that appear later due to stratified family incomes, language barriers and learning abilities. "Raising taxes or restoring taxes taken away" in past years would be one way to fund universal preschool and other initiatives, he said.

Torlakson said he was absolutely against vouchers for charter or private schools that yank money from public schools so that more affluent parents can combine the funds with their own wealth to create a better education for their student.

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