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Torlakson wants a different kind of reform


Tom Torlakson, veteran East Bay legislator and a leading candidate for state schools chief, totes a black book around the Capitol these days that someone might mistake for a Bible.

Instead, it's Diane Ravitch's latest work detailing her transformation from education adviser to George H.W. Bush and advocate for standardized curriculum, privatization and punitive accountability - to the nation's leading critic of those principals she once embraced.

To hear Torlakson talk about education, it is clear that he doesn't support much of what Ravitch calls "the market reforms" - probably he never did. But like Ravitch today, Torlakson questions the fundamental premise that many of these ‘reform' measures are based.

His vision is to return to methods and programs that have proved successful in the past, to give teachers and principals the resources they need and target spending. An example of this, he said in an interview last week, is how the state has used funds from the Quality Education Investment Act that Torlakson helped create out of a lawsuit with the governor in 2006 and resulted in sending $2.9 billion to low-performing schools.

"The idea was that we would commit the money for 7 years and see if extra funding made a difference," he said. "And not just to spend it on flashy new text books or computers or something, but to do team building and enhance the learning environment.

"There's a lot of success with the QEIA schools," he explained. "I think a full evaluation needs to be done. But, again the idea was to keep it for seven years and not, after three or four years of progress say, oh we'll take the money back because you're on the right track. You've got to sustain the investment."

Torlakson said he is doubtful the aggressive restructuring mandates on low performing schools being pushed by the Obama administration will work. He's even more suspicious that the emphasis on charter schools will lead to any widespread student improvement.

"There's a Stanford study that says that 16 percent of charters are outperforming public schools but 35 percent or so are underperforming and have sold a bill of goods to parents," he said. "They're not getting the education they would have got if they stayed at the public school. And then there's the whole bulk in the middle that are about the same as public schools but public schools have been undermined."

Torlakson said he disagrees with the notion that charters can help ‘scale up' the school system enough to help all students. "I think that's totally unrealistic," he said. "Many of these charter schools get extra funding from philanthropists and they get enough money to do after school programs, Saturday programs, intersession programs.

"I don't see how we could scale up that quickly to have the other 6 million students join the 300,000 students in charters schools," he said. "And not all of the 300,000 charter school students are all succeeding, there's only about 15 percent that are succeeding."

A big part of his agenda is finding ways to get public schools more money.

"At this point, we're going to have to get back what's lost, pay back the maintenance factor on a steady schedule and as quickly as possible," he said.

"Californians don't know we're 44th in the Nation in math scores," he explained. "They don't know we're 45th or 47th in language arts scores and science scores. They're appalled when they hear that. They get it and business increasingly gets it. They're not able to have the trained technicians and engineers, auto repair, craftsman - they're not coming out of our schools like they use to. I think the state is set for a calamity of this crisis."

One of his ideas is to once again allow a general fund tax increase to be approved on the local level by a simple majority. He's also talking about pulling together a statewide debate on a new tax for schools that might be brought forward two years from now.

"I believe I can pull together a team and the business community will find in itself interest the idea that investing in education if its guaranteed and doesn't cause money to go out the back door or when you put money through the front door that the public would be willing to vote YES for more taxes," Torlakson said.

A key issue that separates many in the education community these days is the question over merit pay for teachers - or even linking teacher evaluation with student test scores. Torlakson said he does not support the concept.

"I think it (test scores) could be in the mix but I don't think it should be a substantial part. If you are trying to build teams of teachers and administrators cooperating and focusing on the students in that school, in that neighborhood, and engage the parents, you have students learning at home as well," he said. "Having a model that pits teachers against each other or gets down to possible nitpicking over scores could be detrimental to this idea of team spirit I see works so well in the schools are that working so well. In terms of it being a major component I don't think so."

Reprint Permission of SIA/Cabinet Report


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