SACRAMENTO -- California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson declared a fiscal state of emergency in K-12 education 3½ years ago.

But much has changed since then. Now, Torlakson says, schools are in better financial shape and ready to take on the challenges of new education standards and computerized testing, which are expected to better prepare students for college and careers.

Below is an excerpt of an end-of-the-year phone interview with Torlakson that also touched on parent involvement in schools, controversy over new Common Core standards, and the federal government's threat to withhold funding due to the state's elimination of most STAR tests.

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson
Staff Archives: California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)

Q What's changed this year for California schools?

A There's new hope, a greater sense of optimism. Instead of the chaos of budget cuts bumping programs, there's a vision of rebuilding programs with money from Proposition 30 and the recovery of the economy to invest again in education. That's a key difference from just one year ago and it's also setting the stage for one of my top priorities, which is implementing the Common Core standards.

Q What can schools expect in the coming year?

A First, a keen focus on Common Core implementation. I've led the way to get the $1.25 billion block grant for Common Core out to school districts. I'm advocating for another $1.25 billion or more for next year. That's $200 per student. That and the Local Control Funding Formula, which puts $2 billion more into schools that have high levels of poverty and English learner students. ... We're going to need to have parents involved in understanding Common Core and helping with the accountability systems -- the local (district) plans. They need to be transparent and we need to have parents involved in the development of those plans.

Q Some advocacy groups said preliminary draft guidelines for districts' local accountability plans didn't tie spending closely enough to disadvantaged students. What's your response?

A I think it's a balance -- to try to find the right balance between flexibility and specificity. I don't think the new money should supplant existing programs. So, if the district was already providing summer school for English learners and then they put that in the plan (for new spending), that wouldn't be consistent with the intent of the law. I do believe in general we should make sure those new dollars go to the students who generated those new dollars -- low-income students and English learners.

Q Although many people support new Common Core standards, some skeptics have raised questions about demographic data collection and other concerns. What's your response?

A As parents and business leaders find out more about the Common Core, they like it. It's practical. It's relevant to the real world. I don't have any concerns about the privacy of data. We have a system that has a lot of data. There's been no abuse of that. We have responded to inquiries by different groups. This was developed -- not from the federal government, it's not top-down. It came from concerns that California, as one big part of the nation, was falling behind other countries. So, 46 governors -- with the common concern that our students were falling behind -- wanted more rigorous standards that were more relevant and tied to employment, tied to readiness for college. It came out of that discussion that went on for over a year with a large degree of public participation. There was widespread optimism that this was the right thing to bring California and our country back to a globally competitive position. We field calls and we try to allay concerns. We have a website. We've done numerous public meetings. ... We've worked with the PTA on parent guidelines and printed the Common Core in Spanish. ... We'll be doing a concerted outreach to parents and community leaders to inform them of what this is all about and debunk the myths and allay concerns. ... As teachers become more conversant with the new form of learning, they will communicate more directly with parents. ... This is a really positive thing not just for students, but for our economy.

Q You've spearheaded a testing overhaul that has tossed out old STAR tests in favor of new computerized Common Core tests to be piloted this spring. But Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, has threatened to withhold federal funds over this plan. What's the status of this dispute?

A The conversations have continued. ... I felt that spending one more minute or one more dime on old tests based on standards that (started phasing out) three years ago made absolutely no sense. ... I had conversations with many superintendents who wanted to pilot new tests. So I took the $25 million we saved from not having to do the CSTs (California Standards Tests) to get 3 million students ready to go in field tests in March of next year. We laid out the logic of that and despite Arne Duncan's threats, which we feel are misplaced, we're doing the right thing. We went ahead and submitted a waiver application. ... Then we heard again from the field: Is there any way we could take two tests? We had offered that some were going to take English and some math. ... We came up with the idea of offering both subjects in one test. ... We think we have met the intent of the federal guidelines. We have submitted a waiver. Stop the threats, please, and move forward. We're hopeful.

MORE INFORMATION
Additional details about California schools and the state Department of Education are available by visiting www.cde.ca.gov.