There’s a new Superintendent of Public Instruction in town…

by Joe Landon, Policy Director

Just three days after Tom Torlakson was installed as California’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction, his chief deputy, Richard Zeiger, met with the Policy Council of the California Alliance in Sacramento, to discuss the state of education in California, with a particular focus on arts education.

The previous day Torlakson had described California’s school finances as being at the level of ‘emergency’. Zeiger explained that before anything can be done to improve the education outlook, Governor Brown will first deal with the current budget crisis facing the state. He anticipated that education spending for the current year would remain the same as the past year, provided that California’s voters approve revenues in a special election later this year. He noted that we, as the public who cares about quality education for California students, will need to take an active role in assuring the approval of revenues in the special election.

Zeiger was upbeat in his assessment that for the first time in many years, the Superintendent, the State Board of Education, the Governor and the Legislature are in alignment about the need to advance education.

He explained that approximately 70% of the Department of Education’s operating budget comes from the federal government. The other 30% comes from state funding, and both funding streams require strict policing, leaving a very small slice of funding for new initiatives

In discussing how arts education can best navigate the current storm, Zeiger stressed that California remains the creative capital of the world, and that advocates should use this to highlight the importance of arts education in advancing the state’s economy by preparing students to enter the workforce of the twenty-first century, with skills that include creativity, innovation, and collaboration.

Zeiger reported that statewide categorical funding for the arts, as well as other subjects, is unlikely to buck the trend towards local control, which is central to Governor Brown’s vision for remedying the budget crisis. ‘Flexibility’ for local districts to spend these designated funds based on local need will likely accompany the funding.

In a lively back and forth with the twenty Policy Council members who represent various arts, education, parent and business groups, Zeiger was pressed on what will happen if the current ‘flexibility’ allows districts to divert categorical funding from its intended purpose of arts education. Zeiger suggested that focusing on ‘outcome measurements’, with districts reporting on how they are providing arts education, might be another way to help ensure that districts are providing students with access to arts education. He expressed the desire to create a new index of what a comprehensive curriculum looks like and the “need for a system that counts other things” besides math scores.

He encouraged the Alliance to consider “putting on a show”, to highlight the importance of arts education and the good work that continues to be done in classrooms despite the current economic situation.

With candor, humor, and humility, Zeiger expressed the Superintendent’s deep appreciation for the role the arts play in a complete education, and his commitment to work with advocates to ensure that arts education is at the table as important decisions are made about our state’s education system.