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May 24, 2014
Dan Morain: Maybe insiders know what we don't

tom_torlakson.JPG(May 24 - By Dan Morain, Editorial Page Editor)

The State Superintendent of Public Instruction is a nothing office. It'd be pointless to stir yourself to vote for such a powerless position on June 3, right?

Then again, the California Teachers Association, which represents more than 300,000 public school teachers and allied unions, is spending $4.5 million to elect its candidate, the incumbent Tom Torlakson, and bump off his challenger in the top-two primary, Marshall Tuck.

Maybe the insiders know something the rest of us don't.

Sharail Reed definitely is not an insider. She is 17 and finishing high school. She has never heard of Torlakson or Tuck. But they both have played parts in her young life.

Four years ago, when she was an eighth-grader at Markham Middle School in Watts, the Los Angeles Unified School District was facing budget cuts that followed the economic crash of 2008 and sent layoff notices to her teachers.

"You'd have a substitute for a month. It was hard to stay on track," Reed said by phone from her home in Watts. "It made me not take school seriously because it seemed they weren't taking it seriously."

Tuck grew up in the wealthy enclave of Hillsborough, the son of a lawyer and former public school teacher, and graduated from UCLA and Harvard.

Rather than head to Wall Street, he decided to try to make a difference, going to work for a charter school company, and later in then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's administration, where he was chief executive of Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, part of Villaraigosa's effort to improve public schools.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, adhering to long-standing work rules, laid off teachers on a last-hired, first-fired basis in 2009 and 2010. Since newer teachers worked in the toughest schools, the layoffs fell hardest on schools such as Markham.

Faced with the prospect that schools he was trying to fix would get worse, Tuck called Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California. Rosenbaum did what chief counsels for the ACLU do; he sued.

The suit noted that most of the replacement teachers at Markham quit within days of being hired, forcing the school to scramble to replace the replacements. The school district and the union fought back, claiming permanent teachers have a vested interest in the seniority system.

Budget crises force officials to make many bad decisions. But in this instance, the impact fell hardest on the poorest schools, where parents and students would be least able to recover.

Certainly, seniority ought to give workers rights and privileges. But kids have rights, too. Without them, there'd be no teachers or schools. And society does promise them an education.

In May 2010, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William F. Highberger sided with the students: "The evidence is sufficient to show a real and appreciable impact on plaintiffs' fundamental right to equal educational opportunity."

In that ruling, Highberger cited then-state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell's view of the "debilitating effects of high teacher turnover." Later in 2010, with O'Connell termed out, voters elected Torlakson as superintendent of public instruction.

In February 2011, shortly after taking office, Torlakson filed a brief siding with the teachers union and urging a state court of appeal and the California Supreme Court to stay Highberger's order.

Torlakson noted that Highberger's ruling "may result in the violation of the equal protection rights of other students" because other schools might have to lay off their teachers. The California court of appeal overturned Highberger's decision and sent the case back to the Superior Court.

Now, as Torlakson seeks re-election, the CTA and other unions are coming to his aid. In addition to spending $2.5 million on campaign ads to help Torlakson and attack Tuck, organized labor has spent another $2 million on so-called issue ads to burnish Torlakson's image.

The saccharine ads show Torlakson in a classroom and laud him for backing "legislation to guarantee spending decisions about our education tax dollars are made by parents, teachers and the local community, and not by Sacramento politicians."

"So tell Tom Torlakson to keep fighting for local control of school funding decisions."

Interesting concept: The most influential union in the Capitol spends millions on 30-second television ads portraying Torlakson as a Sacramento outsider, after Torlakson spent 16 years as a Contra Costa County supervisor, six years in the Assembly, eight in the Senate and four as superintendent of public instruction. It's called politics.

The ads attacking Tuck claim that he was the target of "no-confidence" votes by teachers at schools he helped oversee - the schools where he tried to block teacher layoffs. One of those teachers was Nick Melvoin.

Melvoin grew up in West Los Angeles, attended a private high school and graduated from Harvard. Concluding that improved public education was "my generation's civil rights issue," he joined Teach for America and returned to Los Angeles. At Markham, he coached soccer and baseball, and started a school newspaper. And he got laid off, twice.

"It was completely demoralizing," he recalled. "There were teachers who didn't do half of what I did. ... The injustice was that my students had almost all their teachers laid off."

After the second layoff, Melvoin applied to law school and graduated from New York University this month. At 28, he is back in L.A. and plans to use his law school education to the fight to improve public schools, specifically helping parents organize to advocate for their schools. And he'll do what he can for Tuck's campaign.

On Friday, Rosenbaum, the ACLU attorney, was in Superior Court where a judge approved the final settlement of Sharail Reed's lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The district agreed to spend tens of millions of dollars on 37 of the most troubled schools, including Markham. Rosenbaum called it an historic settlement.

Reed didn't go to her neighborhood high school. She was home-schooled, she said, because of the problems with the L.A. schools. The settlement won't help her. But she has a niece who will be starting school soon; maybe it will help her.

"It is a big deal," Reed said. "It is about schools benefiting in my area."

As it happens, she will turn 18 on Nov. 4, Election Day. She has never heard of the superintendent of public instruction. But she promises to do some homework and intends to spend part of her 18th birthday casting a vote. My guess is she will figure out that the person who occupies the office of public instruction matters.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.