Teacher unions and charter school advocates square off over election


The contest for state schools superintendent has unleashed a battle between unions backing one candidate and charter school advocates and some philanthropists supporting another.

Teacher unions line up with state Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) while opposing forces have rallied behind state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles). Both liberal Democrats are expected to benefit from sizeable independent campaigns on their behalf for the June 8 election.

A third contender, retired school district superintendent Larry Aceves, stands outside that fray, touting his long experience in the education trenches.

In all, 12 candidates are vying to succeed eight-year incumbent State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who is barred by term limits law from running again. Romero and Torlakson also face term limits in their current posts.

The superintendent of public instruction has little direct control over broad education policy but has substantial influence through managing its details. The office also carries a bully pulpit and enough resources to boost initiatives of the governor and Legislature or to oppose them.

If no candidate in the nonpartisan race receives a majority next month, the top two will face off in November.

Torlakson, 60, said that if elected, he would focus on finding more education funding.

“My goal is to restore that sense of priority for education we used to have in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s and the funding commitment that goes with it,” said Torlakson, a former high school teacher and Contra Costa County supervisor.

Romero, 54, had union support for most of her career but has recently championed reforms opposed by both the California Teachers Assn. and the California Federation of Teachers, the state’s two major teacher unions.

Her positions on how to improve schools align more closely with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and President Obama’s. These include shutting down failing schools and helping charter schools increase in number and secure additional funding.

“I’m the person that can shake up the system, putting kids up front,” Romero said. “The adult special interests need to move aside.”

Former San Jose-area superintendent Aceves, 65, has policy positions similar to Torlakson’s and has endorsements from a long list of school and district administrators.

Also a Democrat, Aceves began his teaching career in a bilingual San Diego-area classroom. He served as superintendent in two small San Jose-area school systems from 1991 until 2006. He’s a past president of Assn. of California School Administrators.

“I see myself more as a coach than a dalai lama,” he said of his leadership style at a recent campaign forum.

Besides wanting to increase funding, Aceves talks of giving school districts more freedom in exchange for showing improvement at schools.

Regarding teachers, Romero said she would support efforts to lengthen from two years the time needed for teachers to earn tenure and thus gain significant job protections. And a teacher’s evaluation should be 30% to 40% based on whether students improve on standardized tests, she said.

Torlakson said test-score data should be used to inform teaching, not to make employment decisions. And improving the evaluation and support of teachers before tenure is more important than lengthening the two-year process, he said.

Aceves said earning tenure should perhaps take longer and noted “it’s not easy” to dismiss tenured teachers. He added: “And it shouldn’t be easy.” First, he said, “You work with teachers to get them to be as good as they can be.”

Separating Romero and Torlakson on education policy used to be challenging. Their similar overall voting records over long careers in both houses of the Legislature reflect the left-leaning enclaves they represent.

Romero marked an emerging direction when she supported the failed bid of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District. She subsequently became a vocal supporter of charter schools, which are independently managed outside of a school district’s control. Most are non-union.

Many union leaders vocally oppose charters andpoint out that anti-union conservatives typically extol charters. But these schools also have the support of such centrist Democrats as philanthropist Eli Broad and federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Romero has tapped into the only other major funding sources that are willing to match unions in this statewide race: charter school advocates and activist philanthropists, including Broad and Reed Hastings, a former member of the state Board of Education and the founder of Netflix.

The split between Romero and Torlakson became most evident in the legislative tussle over California’s application for federal Race to the Top school-improvement grants.

Romero joined with Schwarzenegger over a package of measures that included letting children in low-performing schools enroll in another school system.

Torlakson and union leaders called such measures poorly thought-out. They said the legislation could weaken neighborhood schools and noted that it made no provision for transporting students.

The legislation also called for persistently struggling schools to face aggressive remedies, such as replacing staff or converting to a charter school.

Torlakson joined with critics who called the law’s mandate to replace staff unnecessarily punitive as well as unproven.

Information on all 12 candidates can be found at the secretary of state’s website.