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An Insider investigation has found that some of California's highest-ranking education officials and leading public universities worked closely with a swaggering entrepreneur who launched a private boarding school for elite families in China.
Tom Torlakson, California's former state superintendent of public instruction, used his position to help establish Pegasus California School, which attempted to mimic a California public high school education for wealthy students in Qingdao, China.
The school's founder, Steven Ma, contributed thousands of dollars to Torlakson's 2014 campaign for superintendent. Ma said that supporting Torlakson politically was not a quid pro quo.
On September 17, 2018, Brennan Burnett, an associate director in UCLA's admissions department, received a strange email. It was from an assistant to Tom Torlakson, then California's state superintendent of public instruction - the state's top education position.
"I am writing to ask that some time be set up to introduce your university to a wonderful bi-national program," the staffer wrote. "This is a joint venture between the Chinese Government and California Institutions seeking to help elevate the quality of scholastic endeavors taking place between the two nations." Attached to the email was a letter on California Department of Education letterhead from Torlakson, who applauded a Chinese high school called Pegasus California School. He described Pegasus as a "true partnership between our California education system and the Chinese education system" and urged the UCLA admissions office to meet with Allen Riedel, the headmaster of Pegasus.
Burnett, records show, was confused by the note. Why was the California Department of Education teaming up with the Chinese government? Why was the state's chief educational officer trying to set up a meeting between the admissions department and a Chinese private school? Unsure of what to do, she forwarded the email to a colleague.
"How do you recommend I respond to/route this information?" she asked Ffiona Rees, a senior associate director in the admissions office, according to records obtained by Insider.
"This is new - and appears sketchy!" Rees shot back, copying Gary Clark, UCLA's director of undergraduate admission.
"I got the same email!" Clark responded. "Don't reply… odd coming from the Superintendent's office."
"He was excited about the idea"
A recent Insider investigation into the elite Chinese boarding school Pegasus California School has found that some of California's highest-ranking current and former education officials - including Torlakson and David Long, who previously served as the state secretary of education before becoming principal of Pegasus - worked closely with the school's founder Steven Ma to help set up Pegasus as a California public school in China, and give its foreign students preferential treatment that seemed to elude American public-school students.
The letter that Torlakson wrote in support of Pegasus was drafted at the request of Riedel, the Pegasus headmaster. Emails obtained by Insider show that when some schools proved unreceptive to his overtures, Riedel asked Torlakson to use his influence as superintendent to set up meetings with the hard targets such as UCLA. (In a statement, UCLA said no one from the admissions office ever met with Riedel or any other Pegasus administrator.)
Riedel told Insider he was directed to meet with school admissions officers by Torlakson and Long.
"He was excited about the idea," Ma said of Torlakson. "I told him that it's best if we could somehow get his endorsement of this because we want to create an authentic California education and it's going to be hard to do it without some kind of support from him. And then that's why he decided to support this on a personal level... and also a professional level." In a 2016 letter from Torlakson to Ma that was later circulated to colleges, the then superintendent said that he was "pleased to endorse the use of California's academic curriculum by Pegasus."
In addition to reaching out to schools like UCLA and urging them to meet with the Pegasus headmaster, Torlakson helped Ma in another way: he secured him an official state appointment.
In October 2015, Long emailed Torlakson, according to records obtained from the California Department of Education, to pitch him on the idea of establishing a new role within the department: international education liaison, to help California school districts that need guidance in areas like "diploma issuance to 'sister schools' in other countries."
Two years later, at a swearing-in ceremony, Torlakson appointed California's first-ever international education liaisons: Steven Ma and David Long. According to emails obtained by Insider, Long helped Torlakson draft the letter officially naming them to the position.
Torlakson became the chief principal at Pegasus
Torlakson and Ma had a close-knit relationship. As a former employee at ThinkTank Learning, Ma's previous business which filed for bankruptcy in 2020, told Insider: "Steven was very politically connected."
Before Torlakson helped Ma establish Pegasus, Insider has learned, he was the frequent beneficiary of their political largesse. Campaign-finance disclosures show that Ma, his brother John, and another ThinkTank Learning employee, Chin Tsai, together contributed a total of $28,422 to Torlakson's 2014 campaign for superintendent, an elected position in California. ThinkTank donated another $11,100 to the campaign and created a committee, "California Educators for Excellence in Leadership, supporting Tom Torlakson for Superintendent of Public Instruction 2014 sponsored by Think Tank Learning Inc." According to Torlakson's personal financial disclosures, he accepted nearly $6,000 from Long's company, Dave Long & Associates, and the Chinese government from 2016 to 2018 to travel to Qingdao.
In an interview, Ma said that supporting Torlakson politically was not a quid pro quo. "Tom is a personal friend to begin with, and as I would do for other friends who are in the political arena, I will support them financially when I can," Ma said. "It's not something that, 'Hey, I'm helping you out here so in the future you help me out.' No, it's not like that."
Years later, Pegasus announced on its school website that, after he had finished his tenure as superintendent in 2019, Torlakson had taken on a new position: he was the Chinese high school's chief principal. But when Insider asked Ma about Torlakson's appointment in May, Ma said the former superintendent of public education had stepped down from the role a few months before, citing health reasons.
But four days after that interview, Robert Taylor, the school's academic principal, contradicted Ma's account. Torlakson, Taylor said, was still his boss, and was still the chief principal of Pegasus.
Torlakson did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
READ OUR FULL STORY: Insider investigation reveals officials helped sell access to California public schools to Chinese elite
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