Canan Tasci, Staff Writer
Created: 09/30/2010 06:34:17 PM PDT

DOWNEY – Candidates Larry Aceves and Tom Torlakson sharpened their pencils Wednesday evening at a forum to discuss critical issues affecting preschool through 12th grade education.

The purpose of the forum at the Los Angeles County Offices of Education was to help voters learn about the positions and perspectives of the two candidates for the statewide, nonpartisan post of superintendent of public instruction in the Nov. 2 general election.

The current state superintendent is Jack O’Connell, who is not running for re-election.

“The future of California, the state education system will be shaped by those who we elect on Nov. 2,” said Scott Svonkin of the Los Angeles County School Trustee Association, part of a panel who questioned the candidates.

Aceves, who prefaced his opening statement by saying he is an educator and not a politician, has taught in California public schools for 30 years.

He said it is important for the person in the position to understand how the system works from the trenches and what budget cuts mean to classrooms.

Assemblyman Torlakson, D-Antioch, said he is approaching the position from an educator’s perspective. Torlakson, who teaches a political science class at Los Medanos Community College, said he is looking at how all government levels can work together for education.

Torlakson has served on the Antioch City Council, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, and the state Senate and Assembly.

The state superintendent position is a four-year term to lead the California Department of Education.

The core purpose of the Department of Education is to lead and support the continuous improvement of student achievement, with a specific focus on closing achievement gaps.

The candidates answered more than 20 questions about parent involvement, charter schools, special education, career technical classes for high school students, truancy, and more.

They share the same view on early childhood education and preschool programs, saying they are critical to the development of student achievement.

Their views differed on what the federal government’s role is in California’s public education.

Aceves said education is a state’s right and responsibility and the federal government has overstepped its bounds in some areas.

“The reason we have been following it so closely is because they hold the purse strings, and I am very concerned about that. Washington, D.C., does not know what kids in Los Angeles need, nor should (it), it is not their business,” he said.

“At the same level, I do believe there are some things the federal government is doing that we should be a part of – their school-to-career and school-to-college (initiatives are) very strong, the preschool money they are willing to give us is very strong.

“We always (have) to be very careful that money we take doesn’t have strings so strong that we can’t control what it is we want our kids to know in our public schools,” Aceves said.

Torlakson said it was refreshing to have a president who’s willing to invest in education and have federal dollars available to schools. However, he said federal funding does need to be approached cautiously and local school boards should play a larger role in the process.

“We should leave No Child Left Behind behind and the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act should be renamed and the federal government should help us (change it) to the Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” he said.

Torlakson said the president’s initiative on science, technology, engineering and math, and having seed money for training are important.

“I believe we can find the balance,” he said. “The state superintendent of schools in California will be a national figure in terms of standing up for all schools in California. We’re the biggest state, the biggest economy – the federal government should listen to us, we have good leaders …”

As state public schools deal with $17billion in cuts to education, the candidates shared their views on how they would persuade legislators to enact the kinds of laws and allocate the kinds of funding needed to get the job done in schools.

Torlakson said one of his greatest strengths is his experience in the political arena and his ability to pull together business and labor leaders and Republicans and Democrats.

He said when there was gridlock on a school bond measure he was able to talk to Republican leaders and found out what they needed to vote yes on the bond.

“Businesses want a better prepared group of graduates from our schools … they need workers for the new economy,” he said.

“I am working with business leaders across California who want to be part of my team to work with legislators and put pressure on legislators. Wake up, we need it for the economic vitality of our state as well as we need it for the moral basis that the kids deserve this education that is part of the California promise and the California dream,” he said.

To read entire story, click here.