In November, former state legislator and science teacher Tom Torlakson became the new state superintendent of public instruction. It is the chief education job in California and it promises to be a hard one as schools grapple with another threatened round of budget cuts.

As a legislator, Torlakson is known to educators for writing a law that afforded extra funding and smaller classes to troubled schools. As educator-in-chief, he kicked off his tenure by calling a state of financial emergency in California schools.

I joined him for a quick chat at a coffee shop in La Jolla yesterday during his visit to San Diego.

Education funding depends on tax extensions in Gov. Brown’s plan. How optimistic are you about voters will approve them?

I’m a teacher, so I’m optimistic to begin with. It’s overdue in California to have a big debate about what the state budget needs to provide high quality schools.

A lot of information has to get out. That’s one of my reasons for calling a state of financial emergency. For a lot of the public, the cuts have been invisible. Class sizes have crept up from 20 to 22 to 27 to 29 to 30. Parents drop their kids off. The school somehow takes care of them. But their learning is diminished.

When we get the word out, voters want to invest in the future of our state.

As budgets are cut, do you think there are creative ways that schools can ensure that students have more individual attention without necessarily investing in small classes?

Computers and educational software allow for instant feedback. We’re way behind the nation on that. It’s embarrassing because California invented a lot of the technology and the software and gadgets and gizmos.

That is something we should be doing regardless of whether we have this budget crisis. But it will also help teachers cope with the overcrowding. A teacher who has a set of computers in a class can work with 10 students while others students are on computers doing remedial or advanced work.

You’ve spoken in favor of a more logical funding system. Can you talk about what would that look like?

It’s a complicated process. We’ll be working to find a fair way to provide a basic level of support for all students, then look at students who have greater needs and figure out how you would fund that greater need.

This is a mini example: Some districts get more dollars per student. One way you can equalize it is, when you get new money, you share the new wealth with all the districts, then give more to districts with the types of students that have greater need.

During the campaign, the race was often depicted as being divided on labor issues. Your victory was seen as a victory for the California Teachers Association. Do you see that as a misreading of your politics?

Maybe some of the press focused it that way. But people I met up and down the state when I visited schools saw it as a race between someone who had experience as an educator — I’m still a teacher — versus the bureaucrat.

I also have practical experience of years in the political arena. I’m a bridge builder. I’m a problem solver. That combination of skills is what won the day. I was popular with teachers, but I was also popular with business. I had a large number of Republican endorsements, I had Nathan Fletcher here.

Expanding access to preschool seems like one of these things that everyone agrees is a really good idea but somehow never gets done. How are you going to try to get it done?

I don’t have all the answers. But you have to start somewhere. You can’t just start and say, “We’re going to offer preschool for all families of a certain income — tomorrow.”

I could see potentially something that would go to voters. Rob Reiner had the tobacco tax. I think the goal was a good goal, but the time wasn’t right. There’s a much greater consensus now about the value and the need.

It’s one of the best investments we could make. It’ll greatly reduce the dropout rate, help us close the achievement gap and increase public safety. The young people who have quality preschool are not the crime statistics. They get into kindergarten ready to learn.

What do you think is the best educational idea that’s not getting enough attention in California?

Wow. The best one? (Laughs.)

Okay, a really good one.

Voters and parents want young people to graduate with skills so they can be employed. Having some kind of renaissance in career tech, not the old shop classes, but new, modern career tech programs is really important.

It seems like it all comes back to the budget crisis. How much do you think you’re going to be able to accomplish on those other priorities while funding is cut?

As bad as the crisis is, there are opportunities to rethink and rebuild some of our school infrastructure. We can’t just wring our hands and say things are falling apart. When money becomes available, how will we get preschool going? How will we make career tech available to more students? What about technology?

The time of chopping down a bunch of trees to make books has become outdated. We’ll still have some textbooks, but you can pick up an online program where you can learn about the Iraq War or Afghanistan or, if your textbook doesn’t have it, that there is a president named Obama, that there is no confusion about Pluto being a dog from Disney World or a planet. Our goal is to ask Google and Facebook and AT&T and Comcast, “How can you help bring California schools into the 21st century?”

Interview conducted and edited by Emily Alpert. Contact her at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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