Next state superintendent should change the relationship with districts

As both candidates for state Superintendent of Public Instruction travel the state, debate, discuss, and answer thousands of questions, there is one key question no one is asking: How will you run the California Department of Education? At its heart, that is the fundamental job Messrs. Larry Aceves and Tom Torlakson want, and their answers matter greatly.

Since the Serrano v Priest court decision, shifting control of K-12 dollars from local districts to Sacramento to ensure equity, and the passage of Proposition 13, the state has slowly consolidated decision making within the power corridors of the State Capitol. Legislatures and governors have attempted to micro-manage reform, most often with one-size-fits-all solutions. The Department of Education has then been directed to implement these reforms and provide technical assistance.

But a fundamental shift in that dynamic occurred with submission of California’s second-round Race to the Top application. In turning over the job of drafting the RTTT application to district leadership, the state acknowledged a painful reality: Sacramento is fundamentally broken and unable to continue to provide effective educational leadership.

I witnessed this first-hand as the Department of Education’s staff lead for our application in the first round of RTTT. A team representing the Department, the governor’s staff and the State Board of Education stopped short on key reforms time and time again — not because we didn’t know what was necessary to win, but as a result of our complete inability to summon the collective political will, votes, or consensus to move forward.  To their credit, while they were ultimately unsuccessful in winning the grant in RTTT round 2, the seven district leaders put together a more compelling and specific set of commitments and recommendations for improving student achievement.

Even though the Race to the Top contest is over, the seven districts remain committed to working together and have formed the California Office to Reform Education (CORE). Fundamentally, the establishment of CORE recognizes that in a standards-based system with strong technology tools, educators can share and learn directly from each other in more meaningful ways than ever before. Educators don’t need to wait for the state to tell them what to do next to improve student learning. The question for the next superintendent is how – if at all – can the Department support this effort?

My recommendation is that the Superintendent should lead the Department – and the state – in evolving into “brokers” of expertise. Recognizing that the true experts for increasing student achievement and closing the achievement gap will not come from the state government, there is nevertheless an important role for the state to play in cataloging successful practices and making them accessible so that all educators can learn from their peers and share materials, practices, and successes. But this can only be done if the state truly sees itself as an honest broker of the information and not the controller of it.

This will not be easy. A lot of people have a vested interest in power remaining in Sacramento, so the new superintendent will need a specific and thoughtful plan of action. This will matter each time he takes a position on a bill creating a new program, no matter how good the idea seems in theory; it will matter each time he is asked to support a program that is well liked or has a powerful constituency, but is not supported by data; and it will especially matter when the new governor and Legislature begin to debate what to do when the current round of categorical flexibility expires.

This is going to be the daily, critical work of California’s next state superintendent. And while I’m glad to know the candidates’ positions on merit pay, school choice, and the importance of parent involvement, I’d rather hear how they plan to do the job for which they’re running.

Rick Miller is a principal of Capitol Impact, a Sacramento-based education policy advisory firm, and a senior partner at California Education Partners. Previously Miller served as a Deputy State Superintendent for the California Department of Education, Communications Advisor for Microsoft Corporation, and as the Press Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education.

Author: Rick Miller

Rick Miller is a principal of Capitol Impact, a Sacramento-based education policy advisory firm, and a senior partner at California Education Partners. Previously Miller served as a Deputy State Superintendent for the California Department of Education, Communications Advisor for Microsoft Corporation, and as the press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education.

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