Photos and video by Scott Buschman
I’m not slowing down one bit,” asserts Tom Torlakson, who is fast approaching his final year as California’s superintendent of public instruction. “I’m moving full steam ahead. I’m planning on doing incredible work during the next months. Watch me.”
There’s been much to watch since this former science teacher, cross-country coach and state legislator was elected to lead the state’s public education system in 2010 and again in 2014. Education funding went from a state of emergency to stability. The California Department of Education put in place the Local Control Funding Formula to provide more funds for vulnerable students. New standards were implemented. The high school graduation rate rose to an all-time high of 80 percent, hitting nearly 95 percent for students in career preparation programs. Prekindergarten programs expanded. The Smarter Balanced assessment system now measures what students know and can do, instead of asking them to fill in the bubbles.
Nonetheless, California remains 45th in the nation in per-pupil spending, and public education advocates are battling billionaires seeking to privatize schools. There’s also financial uncertainty due to a new administration that wants to cut school spending and penalize states and school districts that have declared themselves “sanctuaries.”
We recently visited with the superintendent in Sacramento, who reflected on his work, the coming year and the state of public schools.
What are you most proud of accomplishing?
When I started, we declared a state of fiscal emergency. Public education was collapsing. Budget cuts resulted in 30,000 teachers and 20,000 classified employees being laid off. We traveled up and down the state to convince voters it was worth investing in public education, and passed Proposition 30, a tax increase that prevented $6 billion in education cuts, which was a lifesaver.
Also, now we have the largest career technical education (CTE) program in the nation — reviving what we used to call vocational education. We have the largest after-school program in the nation, and we are No. 1 in quality. We’ve brought civics back in our schools.
President Trump’s 2018 proposed budget, which you graded F, would cut federal education across the board, including CTE, adult literacy, academic enrichment courses, teacher training and class size reduction. How do we retain programs that benefit students?
I’m worried because these are seriously destructive proposed budget cuts. One way to retain these programs is sharing the good news of what is going on in our classrooms. Besides keeping a positive spotlight on things that engender public support, we need to make sure Congress understands the consequences of these devastating and destructive cuts and how they would be harmful to students and the teaching profession.
Congress needs to send the budget back and produce a new school budget that makes our nation proud. And Congress needs to know our schools will remain safe places for teaching and learning for all students, regardless of immigration status.
What are some things you want to accomplish before your term ends?
One of our main goals is to integrate the Next Generation Science Standards. I’d like to see us weaving in more environmental education. I would like to continue our work in implementing Common Core and provide continued professional development for teachers who are eager to receive it. I think the Local Control Funding Formula is working well, but we need another layer of accountability and documentation through county superintendents to track where the money is going. We also need to fund the pension system properly. It will be an additional cost item, but we need to retain teachers so there is less turnover and better school climate.
Your critics have accused you of being too cozy with the teachers unions. What’s your response?
We need to work as a team because together, everyone accomplishes more. I am proud that we have built partnership teams with teachers and administrators in a task force which has led to continuous improvement in the California School Dashboard Report, the new accountability system based on multiple measures instead of being obsessed with test scores. The Dashboard is a great tool for parents, teachers and students to identify students’ strengths and areas needing improvement.
Who are you endorsing to succeed you?
Tony Thurmond. I think he’s the right person for the job. He’s been on the school board in West Contra Costa County and has great experience as a legislator. He is passionate, smart, and knows the issues. He’s not going to be someone who will bash teachers. He and I think alike; we want to lift up the profession.
How do you handle the stress of the job?
I ride my bike and do a lot of running and walking, averaging about 20 miles a week. I did four miles this morning. Give me three cups of coffee and endorphins from running and I’m unstoppable.
What do you hope will be your legacy?
Being seen as a bridgebuilder who brought strong teams of people together that believe in public education and work hard to improve it. I want to be seen as someone who helped create measurable improvements in student outcomes — and someone who helped create a strong foundation for even greater success that will follow my term in office.
Family: Wife Mae Cendaña Torlakson; daughters Tiffany and Tamara
Educator: Spent six years as a high school science teacher
Legislative experience: California State Senate and State Assembly, Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, Antioch City Council. Authored the Quality Education Investment Act of 2006.
Background: Born in San Francisco; served as a fireman in the U.S. Merchant Marine, earning the Vietnam Service Medal; B.A. in history, life secondary teaching credential, M.A. in education from UC Berkeley.
Video excerpts of the Torlakson interview; he speaks about California’s new standards and how they came about, and how educators can integrate multiple subjects while teaching the standards: