This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington's blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBABuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa or Facebook.com/TheresaHarringtonBANG.

July 31

An incumbent former teacher who is a seasoned politician is running against a challenger known as an education reformer and political outsider in the race for state schools chief.

In interviews with the editorial board of this newspaper, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and his opponent, Marshall Tuck, revealed similarities and differences in their opinions about education issues.

On the topic of teacher tenure, Torlakson said he waiting to see the final judgment in the recent Vergara court case, in which a judge struck down California's teacher tenure laws, before deciding whether to appeal.

"We want the most highly qualified, excellent teachers in front of all of our students in all of their classes, so I am working diligently on different ways to accomplish that," he said. "At the same time, I want to make sure that the final judgment doesn't detrimentally affect our ability to recruit and retain our teachers."


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Granting tenure after two years is reasonable if teacher-training programs provide hands-on classroom experience and if competent administrators provide adequate programs to mentor and evaluate teachers, along with peer reviews when they first become teachers, he said.

Tuck wholeheartedly supported the judge's decision and promised to drop any appeal the state files if he's elected. He said most people he's talked to in the state believe that tenure laws are not benefiting students.

"I think that kind of lack of leadership -- where it requires a lawsuit by students rather than true leadership by elected officials to really drive change that we know our kids need -- was a big challenge," he said.

After the lawsuit was filed, Tuck said the state superintendent of public instruction, whose job is to advocate for youngsters, should have been the first witness for the plaintiffs. After the ruling came out, Tuck said the state superintendent immediately should have begun working to fix the system.

Both men are passionate about improving education statewide. They agree that it's important to help charter schools succeed and to share best practices among teachers at all public schools. They also want to help schools involve parents in their children's education.

However, they have taken different paths to accomplish their goals.

Torlakson has worked as a teacher and legislator, collaborating with others to pass laws to benefit students. While in office, he has convened education leaders and others to create a Greatness By Design report focused on "supporting outstanding teaching to sustain a golden state"; A Blueprint for Great Schools report; No Child Left Offline report; and a report on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM. He has worked to implement Common Core standards that changed the ways teachers teach and students are taught, and the new Local Control Funding Formula, which shifts more money to schools with a high percentage of disadvantaged students.

"I'm determined. I'm a bulldog when it comes to getting things done," Torlakson said. "I'm a coalition builder. I'm a team builder. I'm a coach. I'm a teacher. I've done some good work by building strong teams."

Tuck, who started his career as an investment banker in his early 20s, later transitioned into running Green Dot charter schools, then working with the mayor of Los Angeles to turn around low-performing schools in the city.

"I jumped into education full-time in 2002. I made the decision that I wanted to spend my time and energy helping as many people have a better life as possible," he said. "(With the) combination of values I was raised with growing up, I decided, 'I'm jumping off the material success train and jumping on the helping people and better life train.' And to me, there's nothing better than education to do that."

Torlakson has strong backing from the California Teachers Association. Tuck says the voices of parents should be given more weight.

But, like Torlakson, Tuck said change can only happen if everyone comes together behind common goals.

"Without question," Tuck said, "to get to where California needs to get to -- which is everybody focused on a kids first agenda -- we're going to need everybody on the same team."