A Battle of Wits, Literally

By Connie Kwong Source: US News

The most hotly contested election in California this November isn’t the gubernatorial race between Republican challenger Neel Kashkari and Democratic incumbent Jerry Brown. Instead, it’s what we might classify as a literal battle of wits in the race for Calif. State Superintendent of Public Instruction between incumbent Tom Torlakson and Marshall Tuck, because whoever wins will be in charge of directing the state’s public education policy for the next four years. According to the latest polls, Torlakson and Tuck are currently tied with each receiving 28 percent of voter support, with the remaining 44 percent of voters undecided.

Torlakson and Tuck are both members of the Democratic Party, but the interparty rivalry isn’t what distinguishes this race. Torlakson is a favorite of teachers’ unions and liberal rank-and-file Democrats, while Tuck is a former charter school system CEO who has garnered support from Republicans and advocates for school choice. Although Tuck is right that we need to change the status quo of Calif.’s poor academic performance, his charter school-driven approach undermines the fundamental goals of public education as an institution and fails to adequately address the fact that academic performance is greatly intertwined with socioeconomic status.

The (Not So) Golden State of Education

According to a 2013 report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “The Golden State’s fourth-graders ranked 47th in the nation in both math and reading. Eighth-graders ranked 45th in math and 42nd in reading. And the scores show that the gap separating white students from their black and Latino peers in English and math is bigger in California than it is nationwide.” While numerous arguments can be used to explain the state’s achievement gap, one of the most commonly cited explanations is that bad teachers are to blame, and therefore existing tenure and teacher evaluation systems must be revamped to hold teachers more accountable. That’s exactly where Torlakson and Tuck fundamentally differ in their approach to education policy.

Taking teachers to court

On June 10, 2014, the case Vergara v. State of California was decided in a controversial landmark ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu. The ruling “found five laws concerning the hiring and firing of teachers unconstitutional… [because] the statutes permit too many grossly incompetent teachers to remain in classrooms across the state.” Torlakson, who was one of the defendants cited in the case, has since joined Gov. Jerry Brown, Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, and the California Teachers’ Association in appealing the decision. On the other hand, Tuck applauded the decision and declared that the case “is symbolic of what is wrong with the status quo.” If elected, Tuck would withdraw Torlakson’s appeal of the ruling on his first day on the job. He would also place greater emphasis on student performance on standardized tests in evaluating teachers.

Although there is a growing consensus that the tenure probationary period should be extended, voters should not apply the Vergara decision as their primary guide in deciding how to vote, because this is an overly simplistic approach that dichotomizes teachers’ and students’ interests. While Torlakson is indeed popular with teachers’ unions, it would be inaccurate to claim that his plan protects teachers’ livelihoods at the expense of students’ quality of education. And it’s also inaccurate to assert that teachers’ unions are too powerful and obstruct public education reform.

The mainstream debate over education policy frequently overlooks the fact that the drivers behind a student’s academic performance do not only exist inside the classroom. A 2010 study published in the journal Educational Policy found that an employment system that is primarily contingent on teachers’ performance alone will not necessarily raise school performance. The study also found that many of the causes behind achievement gaps in standardized tests for low-performing students in low-income neighborhood schools, such as poor health and nutrition and unstable home environments, are socioeconomic factors that are simply out of the teachers’ control. And according to the American Statistical Association, teachers only influence anywhere between one and fourteen percent of the variation in students’ test scores. Thus, placing sole blame on teachers for poor academic performance is an inaccurate explanation that is not supported by empirical evidence.

Experience shapes candidates

Tom Torlakson is a former teacher, state assembly member, and state senator. Marshall Tuck worked on Wall Street and as a software company executive before becoming a CEO of two major charter school systems in the Los Angeles area. The difference between the two candidates’ backgrounds is crucial to understanding the differences between their proposed education policies.

If reelected, Torlakson plans to continue building on what he has already achieved as Superintendent, which is “a path that has shown increased revenue for schools and new ways to teach and test students under the Common Core standards.” Torlakson played a crucial role of securing the passage of Proposition 30 in the 2012 election, which increased taxes to fund public schools, and has also proposed an extension of the proposition to ensure further funding.

Like Torlakson, Tuck supports allocating a higher percentage of the total state budget to education. But his proposed funding model is flawed. Tuck has stated that if elected, he would only extend Proposition 30 if it is tied to a bigger effort to streamlining the California Education Code. This is problematic, because while reform is indeed necessary, this would essentially cut off school funding for the sake of leveraging reform. Consequently, it could further jeopardize the already-precarious situation that numerous schools in poor communities face due to a lack of funding. Moreover, Tuck wants to amend the California Education Code in order to give traditional public schools the same flexibility that charter schools have, and “elevate parents’ voices at the state level to balance out the power of the California Teachers Association.”

In other words, Tuck’s plan wouldn’t actually achieve his goal of changing the status quo. It isn’t tied to greater efforts to confronting the socioeconomic problems plaguing students and teachers in poor communities, and it’s still largely grounded on the outdated notion that teachers are to blame. Public schools exist to make education free and accessible to students. Charter schools receive their funding from a mixture of both public and private sources, and because of the laxer requirements, there is a lot of variability between charter schools. While charter schools are not inherently bad and should be an option available to students, making school choice and a voucher system major components of an education policy plan is a precursor to privatization of the public school system. When charter schools are so heavily promoted as an alternative to traditional public schools, it creates an element of market competition in the public education system that undermines the idea that education is a public good and should be as equitable as possible.

Perhaps Tuck’s experience in Wall Street finance and charter school management is what makes him overly optimistic about privatization. Voters also need to greatly consider the fact that while Tuck has never worked a day as a teacher in the Californian public school system, Torlakson has.

After all, Torlakson has good reason to state that he has achieved success as the incumbent State Superintendent of Public Instruction. In addition to helping to secure the passage of Proposition 30, Torlakson has implemented policies that “shift decision-making to districts and provide extra funding for English learners, foster children and low-income students.” Additionally, in the 2013-2014 school year, the Californian high school graduation rate reached an all-time high of 80 percent, with graduation rates for Latino and African-American students growing at a faster rate than those of white and Asian-American students.

Vote for both students and teachers

Despite being home to the best public university system in the world, Calif.’s K-12 public education system ranks in the bottom nationwide. Neither candidate contests that the existing structure needs a makeover. Although Tuck may look like a strong challenger because of bipartisan support and his vows to change the status quo of lackluster standardized test performance in Calif. schools, undecided voters must look beyond the semantics of campaign rhetoric when filling out their ballots.

The competition between Tuck and Torlakson is really about two different approaches to public education reform that are constantly oversimplified and misrepresented as a conflict between teachers’ and students’ interests. Teachers’ unions are frequently vilified and accused of obstructing education reform, but the reality is that teachers’ and students’ interests are complements, not substitutes. The existing tenure system does not solely exist for the purpose of protecting teachers’ job security at students’ expense, but to ensure that teachers have the right of due process concerning their employment status. And like any employee in any other occupation, a teacher should be concerned about their salary and benefits. These are also crucial incentives for a teacher to work hard to be a good teacher so they can empower students.

Ultimately, voters need to consider that without the necessary resources and funding, teachers cannot teach to the best of their abilities. With years of experience as an educator and policymaker and a steady track record of increasing both the funding and success rate of public schools, Tom Torlakson seems like the right guy for the job.

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