The two runoff candidates for the nonpartisan job of California's superintendent of public instruction are Democrats, but they have clearly differentiated viewpoints about public schools. Of the two, political newcomer Marshall Tuck is the one with the vision and sense of urgency that California's schools most need right now.
Their contest is more than a campaign for a historically low-profile job that comes with little authority. It's also a prime example of the strange rift in education, in which liberal Democrats are sharply divided on such issues as charter schools, job protections for teachers, the authority of the federal government in schools and the value of standardized test scores.
Both sides have their points. Reformers — the supporters of charter schools, for example, and of making student test scores a major factor in teachers' job evaluations — say that for too long, unaccountable school districts have been willing to accept dismal failure in schools serving poverty-stricken students. Teachers unions and their allies have a valid argument that reformers have gone overboard with their emphasis on supposed panaceas such as using test scores to close schools and evaluate teachers.
The ideal candidate for this job would emphasize energy and innovation for schools and would not accept the idea that socioeconomically disadvantaged students can't do much better academically. The next superintendent should also steer away from reflexively blaming teachers and their unions for low academic performance. Such leaders are hard to find in the polarized world of school politics, and neither of the current candidates for state schools chief fits the description very well.
But Tuck, a former executive at two groups of reform-oriented schools, comes closer. We disagree with him on some things. He is, for example, a bigger fan than we are of the Vergara lawsuit, which resulted in a judge declaring the state's teacher tenure system unconstitutional. But Tuck also has many smart new ideas, including small grants to highly respected teachers to produce online videos that help coach other teachers and model outstanding instruction. His innovative thinking would help schools make the most of the state's new, fair-minded funding formula and would ease the transition to Common Core curriculum standards.
Tom Torlakson, the incumbent and a former teacher and legislator, has the strong support of the California Teachers Assn. and other labor groups. Not surprisingly, he has generally been unwilling to incur their wrath. He has been a competent administrator rather than an inspiring education leader. Tuck is the better candidate for the changing landscape of school improvement.