THE PAST few days have been rife with grand plans and lofty visions, which is to say new officeholders excelled in the category of optimistic speeches.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, sidestepping the financial realities that have slashed city services, told followers, "Together, we're going to create an epic story of a great city."

It never hurts to think epic.

Gov. Jerry Brown spoke hopefully of a budget solution that assumes "that each of us who are elected to do the people's business will rise above ideology and partisan interest and find what is required for the good of California."

Well, there's a first time for everything.

No inauguration was filled with more high hopes than Monday's installment of Tom Torlakson as state superintendent of public instruction. A crowd of about 500 giddy supporters crammed into the Mt. Diablo High School gymnasium wearing ear-to-ear grins.

Torlakson has deep roots in the East Bay, beginning as a teacher and coach at Mt. Diablo, and his popularity has soared with each step up the political ladder, from Antioch city councilman to county supervisor to assemblyman to state senator.

Those who took the microphone to speak fondly of shared experiences included a former coach, a former athlete and former students. Those who praised his credentials included a high school vice principal, a school district president and a county superintendent.

With political luminaries in the audience, a color guard presenting the flag, and the Dublin High School jazz band and Concord's Ladies First Choir performing, the event felt like a coronation.

Torlakson fed the crowd's appetite for celebration with an impassioned pledge: "I will do everything in my power as superintendent with you as a team to bring us back to the greatness California schools once enjoyed. We should be the leader nationwide."

Now, kindly fasten your safety belts. We are about to collide with reality.

The state superintendent, no matter his name, has a largely powerless role, unless you count speechmaking and lobbying for money. (Torlakson knows how to pitch for funds, but his legislator buddies don't have any.)

The 11-member state Board of Education has the power over California schools. As explained on its website, it "sets K-12 education policy in the areas of standards, instructional materials, assessment and accountability."

The superintendent's job is to execute the policies. That, and to lead cheers.

Not to put a damper on the whole Torlakson celebration -- OK, a small damper -- but there is a reason he didn't seek this office until after he was termed out of the Legislature. It's the same reason that predecessor Jack O'Connell didn't run for the position until he had completed a 20-year legislative career.

It's comforting to have a figure as thoughtful and well-regarded as Torlakson as the frontman for the state's educational efforts. But he doesn't have the juice to flip the system on its head. He reads the map; the board has the wheel. Speaking of which, what does the secretary of Education do?

Here's something to chew on: From 2002-03 until 2006-07, the last school year for which Education Week compiled statistics, California's high school graduation rate tumbled from 71 percent to 67.2 percent.

During that downward spiral, O'Connell was elected twice and generally praised for his efforts, which hints at the expectations of the office.

But keep a good thought for Torlakson.

Hopes are supposed to be high during inauguration week.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.