Opinion: The big special interests in the race for California schools chief


A curious press release came from the campaign for Tom Torlakson for state superintendent of public instruction. Torlakson is the incumbent, running against a strong reform candidate, Marshall Tuck, who so far has been endorsed by this paper as well as the Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle and U-T San Diego, among others.

The release attempts to make Tuck look bad by noting that he has received contributions from some donors who also have contributed to Republicans.

It also says, as though it has discovered a scandal, “Disclosure of the payments come as independent expenditures for Tuck have topped $1 million, including $350,000 by a group funded in part by Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad.”


Not mentioned is that independent expenditures on behalf of Torlakson have topped $2.5 million, all of it from the powerful California Teachers Assn. About $1.3 million went for ads supporting Torlakson, and an equal amount to ads attacking Tuck. (Tuck also has filed a complaint with the state Fair Political Practices Commission, contending that the CTA paid close to $2 million for what it calls issues ads on TV, but that Tuck says are thinly disguised campaign ads that exhort viewers to “tell Torlakson to keep fighting for local control of school funding decisions.” Those ads were not reported as independent expenditures in the campaign. And actually, pretty much everyone in the state, including Tuck and Torlakson, have supported moving more control to the local level.)

Broad is well known as a big believer in education reform. He has donated to public and charter schools and to political campaigns that fulfill his vision of what modern education should look like; it’s not at all surprising that he and others who want to see some big changes in how schools are operated would donate to Tuck.

And the CTA is well known as the group that has adamantly resisted even the most moderate and sensible of changes, such as giving principals more than a year and a half before deciding whether a new teacher should receive the extraordinary protections of tenure, or making it even a tiny bit easier to fire even the worst teachers, the ones who barely bother to show up to class.

It is, of course, the CTA’s job to get the best possible situation for teachers, who in general do a very tough job for too little pay. But that also means that unions are going to protect their members even when that might not be in the best interests of students and the state. Yet in this state, little happens without the CTA’s stamp of approval. That’s how heavily the union contributes to political campaigns, and not just for the state schools chief. It is no surprise that Torlakson is generally seen as the guy who carries the CTA’s water.

No matter which candidate best reflects the voters’ educational beliefs, it’s clear which candidate is most associated with big-money special interests. Broad might have education philosophies that irritate some people, but he doesn’t stand to gain personally in any way by helping place a reform candidate in office. In contrast, the CTA and its members have a direct self-interest in helping to elect candidates who are allied with their agenda. And the union’s money is so big that it completely dominated school campaigns until the billionaire reformers entered the picture.