Really, this editorial shouldn't exist. There should be no race for state superintendent of public instruction because it shouldn't be an elected position. The state Department of Education should be led by an appointee of the governor, just as the U.S. secretary of Education is appointed by the president to carry out the executive role of overseeing schools.
The superintendent has little of the power that usually comes with being an elected state officer. The governor sets overall policy goals in education. The Legislature passes laws on the subject. And the state Board of Education, appointed by the governor, implements the laws by framing and adopting regulations. That leaves the superintendent with the less glamorous role of administering the department. It takes creativity, force of personality or a strong relationship with the governor or Legislature to exercise real leadership.
Three candidates are running for the nonpartisan office, two of whom have at least one of those qualities. None has them all. The candidate who will bring a fresh eye and the most useful new ideas to the job is Marshall Tuck, a veteran of the school reform movement.
Tuck faces an uphill battle against incumbent Tom Torlakson. The third candidate is Lydia Gutierrez, a teacher in the Long Beach schools, who lacks the educational sophistication and leadership skills required for state office.
Torlakson has been an able administrator, and after years as a state legislator, his relationships in Sacramento give him some influence on lawmaking. He deserves praise for his role in the state's smooth implementation of the Common Core curriculum standards. But he has not brought much vision or leadership to his role. The biggest education accomplishment of recent years — the "Local Control Funding Formula" that simplifies the state school aid process and drives more money to disadvantaged students — was the brainchild of Gov. Jerry Brown.
Torlakson, who is seldom willing to ruffle the powerful California Teachers Assn., has been mostly silent on school reforms that needed his voice. Those include limiting teacher tenure protections so that firing the worst teachers isn't so expensive and time-consuming, and changing teacher layoff and assignment rules so that impoverished students get their fair share of effective teachers. These are areas where Torlakson could have exploited his relationship with the Legislature to push for change.
In contrast, Tuck's strong history as a reformer, and his previous background as a businessman rather than as a teacher, make him unpopular with the teachers union but more likely to push for change. And it's unfair to assume that he'll be unable to work with unions; both of the school organizations he ran were union shops.
Tuck was a hands-on and effective chief executive at the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's collaboration with the L.A. Unified School District to run a group of struggling public schools. Not all of the schools made substantial progress, but overall, dropout rates fell markedly and academic achievement rose. Before joining the partnership, Tuck was president of Green Dot Public Schools, one of the nation's most highly regarded charter school organizations.
More important, Tuck has innovative ideas about using the superintendent's post to help both teachers and students. He wants to make the department's difficult-to-navigate website a place where the public can easily become informed about schools. He advocates giving public schools some of the same freedoms charter schools enjoy from the often stultifying education code, by allowing them to apply to the state Board of Education for waivers. And he would award mini-grants to particularly effective teachers so they could share their best work with others, perhaps via videos on the department website.
Tuck is an advocate of a wide range of reforms, some smart and some more troubling. We don't agree with him on everything, including his support for the Vergara lawsuit that seeks to have teacher tenure protections declared unconstitutional. But all in all, Tuck would be a force for overdue change at a time when the Legislature has been too resistant to reforms that might upset union campaign contributors.