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O’Connell discusses education, possibility of running for governor

With election mania sweeping the nation, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell hoped that a trip to a Rio Americano High School government class  in Sacramento would relieve him of questions concerning his own possible bid to enter the 2010 California gubernatorial race.

He wasn’t so lucky.

When a student asked the big question, O’Connell said that he might run, though he has many factors to consider before throwing himself into the exhaustive burdens of a long campaign.

“I’m not sure if I want to travel eight days a week,” he said.

In the meantime, O’Connell is content focusing on his responsibilities as the state superintendent. His visit to Rio Americano High School was one of nearly 200 California schools he goes to each year.

“It’s the best way I know to keep in touch,” O’Connell said. “I see plenty of teachers, administrators and school board members at work, but it’s the students I enjoy talking to.”

Faced with a crowd full of high school seniors and potential future voters, O’Connell addressed questions regarding his implementation of the controversial high school exit exam, a test that California students must pass in order to graduate.

“My daughter wasn’t too thrilled about the idea, and she even threatened to change her last name to Bush,” O’Connell joked.
But the superintendent is proud of his work establishing standardized achievement tests for public schools.

“Because of this, we can hold our schools accountable, we can hold our teachers accountable, and the people can hold me accountable.”

The superintendent also addressed the importance of a well-rounded curriculum in today’s global economy.

“There has got to be a basic understanding of science, math, English — you have to know how to communicate. These disciplines are more interrelated today than they ever were before. You have to be able to be an analytical thinker, a problem-solver, critical thinker, technologically proficient. Those are the skills that this workforce is going to need.”

O’Connell has been busy as he continues to seek support for education reform. This past November, O’Connell hosted an Achievement Gap Summit, bringing together educators and leading education experts to explore ways to close the achievement gap.

“We know every child has the ability to succeed academically, yet so many of our students are struggling in school,” O’Connell said at the time. “In a state with 6.3 million public school students — nearly half of whom are Hispanic, 25 percent still learning the English language and 40 percent struggling against poverty — closing the achievement gap is essential to a secure future.”

O’Connell has more to worry about than leveling out student performance. With the state deficit at nearly $14 billion, cuts in education are a very real threat.

“We have to be smart,” O’Connell said. “We have to generate some additional revenue, and then cuts in education have to be as far away from the classroom as possible. We’re still a very lean education system, behind other states. We need librarians. We need counselors. We need nurses.”

While some doubt that O’Connell has the name recognition or money to make a serious bid for governor, Netflix founder Reed Hastings contributed nearly $1 million last July to an independent expenditure committee, hoping to encourage O’Connell to run for governor in 2010.

The superintendent has spent 26 years in the state legislature. After serving on the Santa Barbara County School Board, O’Connell was elected to the California State Assembly as a Democrat, where he served representing much of the Central Coast area from 1982 to 1994. He was later elected to the California State Senate, where he served until his 2002 election to the office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

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