Former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell speaking about improved test scores at a Los Angeles middle school back in 2009. IMAGE BY Reed Saxon/Associated Press

Champion of California schools advises conservative approach on state funds

When former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell was termed out five years ago, the popular politician could only watch as a state budget deficit eroded his signature priorities to reduce class size and improve the performance of Latino and African-American students.

These days, O’Connell, 64, spends his time hopscotching the state advising school districts from San Francisco to San Diego on how best to manage a 51 percent increase in state funds with newfound local flexibility. As a partner at the Sacramento-based government lobbying and consulting firm Capitol Advisors Group, LLC, O’Connell isn’t a registered lobbyist but uses three decades of political experience to guide school administrators on education policy and finance.

“Over the next three to five years, districts should look at the school finance horizon exactly the way (Gov.) Jerry Brown looks at the state’s fiscal future -- anticipating a downturn and preparing for that eventuality,” O’Connell said. His firm is calling for a conservative approach as it hosts workshops on the state budget for district budget officers and administrators.

Most ominous for school funding is the potential for a slowdown
This chart depicts the midpoint of projected revenues for schools if a tax is extended. Source: Legislative Analyst's Office
While district and county superintendents are pleased that California is projected to spend $14,550 per student this year, up more than $3,800 from 2011, O’Connell says they are concerned about budgeting for the future. District contributions to the teacher pension system are scheduled to double by 2019, a voter approved tax that sent $8 billion per year to schools will phase out by 2018 and recent economic gains may not hold.  

“(Schools face) a continuing challenge with revenue uncertainty,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell was a teacher and Santa Barbara County School Board member before representing the Central Coast as a Democrat in the state Legislature from 1982 to 2002. He was elected state superintendent in 2002 with 61 percent of the vote and re-elected with a majority vote in the 2006 primary with endorsements from school administrators and teachers, including the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers.

Among his accomplishments in the Legislature was a 2000 ballot measure that lowered the threshold for passing local school construction bonds from 66.7 percent to 55 percent. As a result, voters have approved billions of dollars for school construction that would have failed before Proposition 39.

As regulator of California’s public schools, O’Connell was viewed as a moderate and optimist. He pushed for increased school funding while confronting the lagging academic performance of Latino and African-American students.

“Jack was and is the consummate middle-road guy,” said Rick Miller, who served as O’Connell’s communications director and a deputy superintendent when O’Connell was state superintendent. “I think he worked very hard and succeeded in working with teachers unions … but also the (anti-union) reform camp, which was starting at the time.”

But former Sen. Gloria Romero, who wrote the nation’s first parent trigger law to empower parents to restructure poor-performing schools, recalled O’Connell as “a nice guy but weak-kneed” when it came to initiating school changes. She criticized his push for class-size reduction as “a job growth program” for the teachers union and said it exacerbated the lack of good teachers at schools with large enrollments of minority students.

This year, O’Connell is promoting a statewide bond on the November ballot that would generate $9 billion for school facilities. And Proposition 39 will help leverage the statewide money with local school bonds.

Proponents say the money is needed because it’s been 10 years since California authorized a statewide bond and funds are needed to build new classrooms and upgrade aging school facilities. “The state cookie jar is dry,” O’Connell said.

California is also in the process of implementing a set of new policies to improve academic outcomes and hold underperforming schools accountable under a new federal law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. O’Connell says creating a fair system for evaluating schools is “easier said than done,” but he has confidence in his successor, Tom Torlakson, and Michael Kirst, the president of the state board of education.

“There’s going to have to be a ranking system and that’s going to be a huge challenge for the state board of education and for some guy named Torlakson,” O’Connell said. “They’re going to have a lot of work. But they’ll do it. I have confidence and faith in that team and no doubt in my mind they’ll do a good job.”

O’Connell is mindful that education is always transforming.

He was the author and champion of California’s High School Exit Exam, which has been suspended since it no longer aligns with new math and language arts curriculum. He characterized it as a stop-gap measure that helped get tutoring for students who were at risk of failing.

“I always said if students don’t pass high school math, you can’t only hold the math teacher responsible,” O’Connell said. “It may mean there were problems beginning in elementary school right up to middle school.”