The race to be California’s schools chief is typically sleepy: Incumbents have little power but usually waltz to reelection.
This year’s contest, however, is one of the tightest and costliest on the statewide ballot, the reflection of an emerging fault line in the Democratic Party over education policy.
Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson is in the fight of his life against upstart challenger and fellow Democrat Marshall Tuck.
The battle has drawn national attention, along with millions of dollars from traditionalist teachers unions on one side and from those who want to wholly overhaul the way schools are run on the other.
The result could reverberate far beyond California.
“The politics and the symbolism are tremendous, both for the [unions and] the reformers,” said Dan Schnur, executive director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. “Whichever side wins this relatively low-profile office gets a huge leg up in the broader debate over education policy.”
Torlakson, a former teacher and state legislator, was elected to the nonpartisan superintendent post in 2010. Seeking a second term, he points to his work helping schools weather the recession, pushing the state’s high school graduation rate to a record high and pressing for historic funding increases and more local control of the money.
“I’m a teacher, I have that in my genes,” the silver-haired incumbent said in a recent interview. “I love the work I’m doing. It’s the toughest work I’ve ever done. We’re going to work hard to keep improving things. We know there’s a lot of work to do and we know that it’s not a time to take a risk on the unknown.”
Torlakson questions Tuck’s motives, calling him an investment banker with no classroom experience who is backed by wealthy donors, including some who favor vouchers and for-profit charter schools.
Tuck counters that he worked in banking for two years after college before turning to education. The fast-talking 41-year-old, who looks younger than his years, spent the bulk of his career leading charter schools and traditional public schools in Los Angeles that were taken over by then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Those experiences showed him how shackled schools are by state bureaucracy, he said, and how to improve the lowest-performing, most violent schools in the city.
“If you’re happy with California public schools, vote for the incumbent and vote for the status quo,” Tuck said in an interview. “If you think our kids can do better and we need major change in our schools, vote for someone who’s actually delivered that.”
Tuck was not expected to have a chance in the race. The last incumbent state superintendent who sought a second term — Jack O’Connell in 2006 — received more than 50% of the vote in the primary, winning reelection and avoiding a runoff.
A recent survey by the Field Poll showed the race between Torlakson and Tuck was a statistical tie — the closest statewide contest this fall.
“Most education policy insiders didn’t expect it to get this close,” said Hilary McLean, an education consultant who worked for O’Connell.
Several factors altered that calculation. The Democratic Party, long aligned with teachers unions, is experiencing an internal debate about teacher tenure, seniority, evaluation and dismissal policies that unions fear could undermine their members.
Additionally, the top of the statewide ticket lacks excitement — there is no billionaire or global celebrity on the ballot, and Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to easily win reelection.
The lack of buzz elsewhere, coupled with a high-stakes court decision over the summer, paved the way for heightened attention on the superintendent race.
In June, a Los Angeles judge ruled that some teacher tenure rules violated the equal education rights of the state’s poor and minority children by disproportionately saddling them with inadequate instructors.
Tuck hailed the ruling as a victory for students in chronically underperforming schools, while Torlakson appealed the decision; state teachers unions also appealed.
“I’m tired of the blame game,” Torlakson said, arguing that tools exist for eliminating poor instructors and that the ruling infringes upon teachers’ due-process rights. “Teachers are the solution, not the problem.”
Tuck, for his part, vows that if elected his first act will be to withdraw the court appeal.
“When we have students that have to file lawsuits to get a quality education, and the people who are elected to lead and fight for students are actually fighting against students in court, that’s when you know you need fundamental change,” Tuck said at a recent news conference, where he was flanked by some of the families that filed the lawsuit.
The divergent views have prompted major donors to go all in. The candidates entered the final weeks of the campaign with less than $200,000 in their respective bank accounts. But separate efforts launched to help prop up their campaigns involve millions.
Torlakson has the backing of the California Teachers Assn., arguably the most powerful interest in Sacramento. A group formed by the union has raised $2.6 million to tout him.
The union is also spending more than $3 million on “issue advocacy” ads that do not explicitly urge people to vote for Torlakson but paint him in a flattering light.
CTA president Dean E. Vogel said the union wants Torlakson reelected because of his track record: advocating for the temporary tax increases voters passed two years ago that raised school funding; eliminating outdated testing systems; and appealing the tenure ruling.
“Torlakson has been there in the trenches,” Vogel said. “On the other hand, you’ve got Marshall Tuck, who’s got relatively no experience in these issues….He hasn’t been a teacher, he hasn’t been actively engaged.”
Vogel said most troubling were the wealthy individuals who are backing Tuck, among them people who promote privatization of public schools.
In the last three weeks, a group supporting Tuck has raised more than $8 million. Donors include Manhattan Beach businessman William Bloomfield, who gave $2 million; Los Angeles entrepreneur Eli Broad, who gave $1 million; and Doris Fisher, co-founder of The Gap, who contributed $950,000.
Tuck said he doesn’t agree with some of his supporters’ stances — for example, he opposes school vouchers — but he was proud to have support from those with diverse viewpoints.
“The fact that you have some people who have a lot of money who want to improve schools, to me, is a good thing,” he said. “There are a lot of people who have a lot of money who aren’t spending a second thinking about other people’s kids.”