Teachers unions defended their ground in California this week — and bucked national trends — by helping to reelect a state schools chief in a race with broad implications for education policy and politics.
With union backing, Tom Torlakson won 52% of the vote and a second term as superintendent of public instruction in Tuesday's election, fending off fellow Democrat Marshall Tuck. Nationally, the picture was gloomier for Democrats supported by teacher unions; many fell amid a Republican surge.
Tuck supporters, who refer to themselves as reformers, saw his effort as a turning point. The Tuck campaign, they said, put unions on the defensive by showing how students are harmed by rules that make it more difficult to fire and lay off ineffective teachers.
Torlakson's margin of victory, compared with four years ago, dropped from 10 to 4 percentage points, a sign of progress, said RiShawn Biddle, a Maryland education analyst who endorsed Tuck.
"Reformers can be heartened by the fact that Marshall Tuck helped them gain plenty of ground for the possibility of future success," Biddle said.
Elsewhere, union setbacks included the races for governor in Wisconsin and Florida, along with numerous congressional races that left both houses under GOP control.
The losses were not a renunciation of unions, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Rather, she said, the results were a side effect of an electorate that expressed discontent by voting against Democrats.
In races where education was the main issue, such as the Torlakson-Tuck contest, union-backed candidates and measures fared better, she said. Voters, she said, still side with teachers on issues such as the need to lower classes sizes, limit standardized testing and provide more funding for schools.
In California, Torlakson's reelection initially seemed inevitable: He was the Democratic incumbent in Democratic California, with party and institutional support as well as backing from the California Teachers Assn., among the state's most powerful interest groups.
But days before the election, Torlakson held only a slim lead, making the race a statistical dead heat, according to a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll. And there were nearly as many undecided voters — 28% — as there were voters favoring either candidate.
To win, Tuck needed those undecided voters to break his way and to cobble together Republicans with urban minority Democrats — who might concur that schools are in crisis, said Michael Madrid, a fellow at USC's Unruh Institute of Politics.
Instead, many of those voters picked Torlakson or avoided choosing. About 850,000 who voted in the far less competitive governor's race skipped voting for state superintendent entirely.
It wasn't for lack of messaging.
Both sides had more than $10 million to spend, surpassing any other face-off between candidates in the state. Some estimates put the spending in the race at $30 million.
The election attracted national attention — and campaign dollars — as a proxy battle. Teachers unions provided most of the funding for Torlakson. Tuck's coalition was funded primarily by a small number of large donors, including the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, the heirs to the Wal-Mart Stores family fortune, former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad.
"Our schools are not for sale to the highest bidder," said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, echoing a theme of the anti-Tuck campaign, which emphasized his brief employment on Wall Street rather than his much longer career managing schools.
The campaign rhetoric from both sides obscured the fact that the nonpartisan superintendent's office has little authority — and that the candidates largely agreed on some fundamental issues, such as new learning standards and how schools should be funded.
Tuck traveled up and down California highlighting a notable difference: the recent court ruling in Vergara vs. California. In that case, which attracted nationwide attention, an L.A. County Superior Court judge struck down key teacher job protections.
Tuck, 41, said the ruling would promote the civil rights of students by improving the teacher workforce. Torlakson joined the governor and other state officials in filing an appeal.
"We have a status quo fighting change, and without change our kids are in trouble," Tuck said. "I didn't win, but I came really close."
In a statement, Torlakson, 65, a former teacher, suggested that Tuck's backers have made instructors feel more like targets than participants in making schools better.
"We are all committed to making our schools better and helping our students achieve their dreams," Torlakson said. "No one wants that more than California's teachers. But teachers cannot do it alone — and we cannot do it under siege."
Times staff writer Stephen Ceasar contributed to this report.