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#EDlection 2018: Steven Ireland on why he’s running for state superintendent as ‘the parent candidate’

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | May 23, 2018

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Steven Ireland is one of four candidates running for state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Ireland, 59, was the last to enter the race. He is nonpartisan, has never run for office before, and is running as “the parent candidate.”

The only position he has held in education was PTA president at Toluca Lake Elementary School, in the Los Angeles area. He works full time as a television producer.

His two sons attend an LA Unified high school, and his daughter attends a magnet middle school.

The top two vote-getters in the June 5 primary will advance to November’s general election. Read more on the election and the other three candidate interviews here.

LA School Report talked with Ireland about school choice, the California School Dashboard, parent engagement, and more. The interview has been lightly edited.

What is your age and your current job?

I am 59. I’ll be 60 in August, and I work in television. I am a television clearance person, basically. I also have a real estate license as well.

Why are you in the race? What do you hope to accomplish before the primary, and what will be your role after the primary?

What got me in the race is a couple of different things. When my kids were in elementary school, I heard a statistic that on any given night the LAUSD had 12,000 homeless students. That includes people in cars, motels, relatives, that kind of thing. But several thousand of them are literally sleeping on the street. I couldn’t believe that, it boggled my mind. And I talked to people about it and I was upset about it, but I never did anything.

About probably November or so I read an article that that number is now 17,000. We have thrown money at it, we’ve allocated resources, and the problem got 40 percent worse. The statistics say there are 202,000 homeless students in California. About 15 percent of them, or 30,000 of them, are literally sleeping on the streets. And I think that’s criminal. So that’s what made me pay attention and say, “Hey, why aren’t we helping these kids in our schools?”

And obviously the other problems you hear about that we’re not meeting basic literacy standards, we’re not. We’re not taking care of the basics with our kids. We have a huge budget. … I realize our per-pupil funding is quite low, and we need to improve that. But really, that’s what it is. I can’t sit here and not try to do something as a problem gets much worse around me.

So, I guess that’s the best answer as to why I’m in the race. I understand that the odds are quite long against me, but I’m trying to, at a minimum, make some noise because I feel like no one else is saying this.

Now, the governor candidates, I read the interviews of the governor candidates on LA School Report. Some of them are talking about this finally, but we’re not dealing with it at the school level, and I think that’s where we need to be doing it. I think Gavin Newsom was the one that said we need to make our schools community centers, and I think that’s right. I saw something about a school district in, I believe it was Montana or Idaho, and I’m honestly not sure, but they created a food pantry literally at the school. So if a family’s hungry they don’t have to apply for something or go somewhere else. They literally go to the school, pick up a bag of groceries and take it home. That’s incredibly simple problem-solving, and yet I don’t think we do that anywhere. That’s the kind of thing where we can deliver social services at a school and make huge differences.

Again, really nobody was saying this. The governors have since mentioned this, but at the time I wasn’t hearing this anywhere else. Certainly not from Tony Thurmond or Marshall Tuck, one of them is likely to be the superintendent. You go on their websites, they don’t talk about it. They talk about metrics and numbers, and that’s all good, and I understand they’re academics and that’s the way they’re going to approach it, but we have to solve the most basic problems to get to the metrics.

I don’t want to go on and on, but homeless kids, there’s an institute in New York, the Institute for Children, Health & Poverty, I believe it is, and they talk about what happens with a homeless kid.  A homeless kid has to travel farther, probably hasn’t had a shower, probably hasn’t had a decent meal, and they get dropped off at school, and now let’s learn math. You’re asking a lot of a kid that possibly slept literally on the street. He’s not going to be able to learn. We need to address those fundamental issues before that child’s going to be ready to learn. I guess what I’m trying to say is, what I hope to accomplish is to make some noise about this stuff and get it on people’s radar.

The other thing that I’m very concerned about is the board. The board basically controls everything — a $76 billion budget. The current board has six PhDs on it. … There’s a charter school expert, and you have a student representative, but you don’t have a parent representative. I’d like to see a dedicated, either PTA or other parent group, recognized parent group representative that can bring concerns to the board directly from parents. I realize some of them are parents….

If you go on it breaks down where (state superintendent candidates Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond’s) money’s from. They’re very similar. They each have less than 1 percent of their donations from small donations. They each have about 8 percent of their money from outside the state of California. And everything else is mega-donors. So, $30,000 from the teachers union, $30,000 from the charter schools, and they both have a couple million dollars. So they raise millions of dollars from special interests.

Now my questions is this, if we have a decision to be made, and on one hand this is what’s best for the children of California, but on the other hand, this is what my special interests want, the charter schools or the teachers unions that put me in office, which hand am I going to choose? And it’s not a hypothetical issue, and you probably covered this, (State Superintendent) Tom Torlakson rescinded a memo several years ago that took Local Control Funding and he used it, he basically said it was OK to use it, so he paid teachers’ salaries. And that’s money that’s allocated for the hardest-hit kids in California. For homeless, foster youth, for English learners, for kids that are having problems. And they took that money and paid it to the teachers.

Now, I’m not opposed to teacher salaries, teachers are the heroes of our system, and they absolutely deserve more money. But that was the wrong way to do it. They took money that was allocated for kids and gave it to the teachers union, and the teachers union is the special interest that got Torlakson in office. So when you see they’re raising all this money, very little of it from small donations, a goodly portion of it from outside the state of California, and then the rest of it from large donations, that worries me. And I can’t help but speak my mind about that, I want them to be on notice that people saw what Torlakson did and we’ll be watching if one of them is in this position and tries to bend to the special interests. I want parents to be on notice so they see that.

Finally, as far as what happens afterwards, I’ve been thinking about that. Obviously, I want to win, I don’t expect to, I’m a 16-seed trying to beat a 1 seed, or two 1 seeds, in a basketball metaphor. But I’m not sure where this goes afterwards. I’m trying to organize parents because I really want to see, I’ve been in a number of different schools, we’ve been in regular public schools, we’ve been in affiliated charter schools, which is where it’s still an LAUSD school but it has some control over itself, and then I was in a public charter school, an independent charter school. And so I’ve seen the pros and cons of all of them, and I’m not wedded to either one. I want to do whatever helps our kids get through.

What I’m trying to say is, the best-performing schools, of all of those, are where the parents were involved. Because when the parents show up, and they volunteer, they raise money, then the school becomes dramatically better. Colfax, where my kids went to elementary school, was in the 700s when we first went there, with the old API scores. And the parent group raises now a couple hundred thousand dollars a year. And that money has made the school … I think the last score was 920 something or like that when they were using API. So, it’s the parents that made that difference. And if I can get parents involved going forward, then I will have done something that I really wanted to do.

And my hope is that there’s a parent candidate in every election from now on, to put people on notice. That’s really it, I got into the race because I’m frustrated at not seeing any real progress. I hope to raise awareness on these different issues, and then going forward I hope we can create something that will last.

How would you define a high-quality school? What was high quality about your own education, or what you want to see?

As I say, we went to a number of different schools, and at the schools where the parents were raising money we had all sorts of activities. The school was clean for one thing, and I think that’s critical. People, especially academics, don’t understand the importance of school infrastructure. Things are falling apart and peeling paint, you can’t drink the water, that’s not welcoming. You wouldn’t go to a hotel and go, “Wow, don’t drink the water, watch out for that paint.” You want a welcoming environment where you can go and learn, and so we need to focus on that infrastructure.

So, a school where the teachers care and connect with the students, a school that is welcoming, clean, safe and where there are activities and the ability for kids to learn and grow. And Colfax, again this is my personal experience, part of the money that people raised, they teach the kindergartners and first-graders Suzuki violin lessons and then second to fifth-graders get keyboard lessons.

And what that does, it raises math scores. Because music is math, when you learn quarter notes, you’re learning fractions. When you learn beats, you’re learning to count. So, music improves math scores. And they provide that. It’s nice to go, “Wow the kid got music,” and all that, but they really did that because it improves the math. That’s a high-quality school to me. Where every activity is directed at getting the students engaged and giving them a better education.

How about school choice? Did your parents make choices about where you were educated? Did you have the opportunity to choose schools for your own kids?

I did not, like I said, I’m almost 60 so I was old school, and I went to the same elementary school from K to 8, and then the same high school that my brothers and sisters went to from 9 to 12. So we didn’t have much choice, but at the time, I grew up in southern Ohio, and frankly the schools at that time were very good. There were some issues, obviously, but by and large most kids came out reading, knowing what was going on and they applied themselves, they could go to college, and that’s not the case now. It’s almost a little overwhelming, the choices, as a parent, frankly. With LAUSD you have to play the point game where you say, “Oh, I want to transfer to this school,” and hope that they don’t take you so you get four points. So you can rack up points to go to the high school or the middle school you really want to go to. And that was frustrating, that was quite frustrating.

So I’m all for school choice, is the short answer. I think whatever works for a student is what they need. Somebody told me, we went to Toluca Lake, that’s our local school, I live in the Toluca Lake area, and at the time it was miserable, it was a dump. WIth 600 (API) scores, peeling lead paint, just a mess.

I’m in favor of school choice, because I think a student can learn wherever they are as long as they connect with the teacher and have the proper resources backing them up.

What do you think of the California School Dashboard? Have you looked at it?

I have looked at it, it was a little confusing.

How long did it take you to understand it? Did you need help to be able to understand it?

No, I don’t think so, honestly, I’ll be frank with you, I haven’t used it enough to really say. I looked at it, I would use a local thing here, LAUSD has its own interface and we use that. But I have not been on the California Dashboard.

Student achievement in the state is flat, if not worse for many groups of underserved students. What would you undo at the state level, and what would you do differently that hasn’t already been tried to support underserved students, meaning low-income students, English learners …

Absolutely, I think that’s where we need to start. We have money. We’re spending $76 billion a year, we can focus resources on those students. I watched another thing, there’s a program in Canada, where the immigrant students come in, some of them don’t speak English at all, and yet the immersive program they put them through within three years they perform as well as the native students. And they do that by, in the early morning they have immersive learning and they relate that to their cultures, they celebrate holidays, they try and incorporate cultural reference into learning the new language. So it means something, they relate to it. And then in the afternoons they’re placed in the regular classes with the native students, and their morning teacher is there to help them if they can’t understand something or they’re not getting it. And so, it’s really an immersive program, and it’s a focus on it.

That’s our problem: we don’t have the political will to focus on these issues. And again it goes back to that’s why I’m out there yelling and complaining, because I think we can. These are solvable problems but we’re just not doing it. And it’s like the homeless issue, I’m watching it get worse and I can’t sit here and not say something while it’s getting worse. The lawsuit, the Ella lawsuit, just about basic literacy skills. If we don’t teach our children basic literacy, what’s California going to look like in 25 years? These kids are our future, every kid, and you didn’t ask, but every kid — documented or not — deserves an education and deserves healthcare and just the basics to get them started on a proper life so they can succeed.

And that’s what it comes down to, how can we help these kids succeed? Not everybody’s going to go to college, not everybody’s going to do the same thing, but everybody should have a basic standard where they can go out and get a job and support their families, and hopefully afford a house or an apartment or something. People seem to have thrown up their hands about this stuff and are going, “We can’t solve it.” And I don’t agree with that, I think we can solve it.

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