Two Democrats in Deadlock Race to be California’s Next Chief of Schools

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If dollars reflect influence, one might think that the California Superintendent of Public Instruction is three times as powerful as the Governor.

The two candidates in a deadlock race for the Superintendent seat--incumbent Tom Torlakson and challenger Marshall Tuck--have together spent over $30 million. Combined spending in the Governor’s race between incumbent Democrat, Jerry Brown, and Republican challenger Neel Kashkari pales in comparison at $10.1 million.

Leading up to the state’s local and state elections on Nov. 4, a final field poll shows Torlakson and Tuck each with 28 percent of likely voters--meaning a substantial 44 percent are still undecided. It is by far the closest race in the state.

That’s a lot of money and drama for a ceremonial position with limited powers to influence policy and expenditures. The job description has all the makings of a chief spokesperson tasked with “the less glamorous role of administering the department” and enacting policies set by the state legislature and Board of Education, according to the Los Angeles Times. EdSource lightly jabs this as “the race that will determine who gets the biggest megaphone on education issues.” (More on the job description here.)

All the hullabaloo has focused on what has been portrayed as an ideological clash between two constituencies with deep pockets: teacher unions and corporate reformers.

Torlakson, the superintendent since Jan. 2011 and a former state senator and teacher at Mt. Diablo Unified School District, favors steady and incremental progress, pointing to the state’s recent 80 percent high school graduation rate as one of the accomplishments he’s overseen. He preaches patience with the system and enjoys support from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and the California Teachers Association, one of the largest spenders in California politics.

Tuck appeals to those impatient with the status quo and seeking to, in Silicon Valley lingo, “disrupt” the system. He’s a Harvard MBA-toting, former software and finance man who served four and a half years as President and COO of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter network, and founded the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools to turn around low-performing schools. He’s backed by people often billed as “corporate education reformers,” including Laurene Powell Jobs, Eli Broad and Ron Conway. Tuck also counts "every major California newspaper" and Hollywood celebrities on his side.

This “insider versus outsider” battle is perhaps most viscerally reflected in their stances on Vergara v. California lawsuit, which ruled teacher tenure to be unconstitutional. Tuck applauded the ruling as “a major victory for kids.” Torlakson, with support from current Calif. Governor Jerry Brown, has appealed the decision.

As part of his plan to reform the teaching profession, Tuck wants to tie student test scores more closely to teacher evaluations, one of conditions for the state to get a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law. Torlakson and Brown have opposed linking tests to evaluations on a statewide level, preferring instead to let local districts to create their own evaluation systems and apply for waivers themselves. (Eight districts have received them.)

The two candidates agree generally on some issues, such as better support for Common Core implementation and local district control over funding and spending. Both Tuck and Torlakson also acknowledge the role that technology can play to support teachers and improve student outcomes. In 2012, Torlakson appointed an Education Technology Task Force to identify the state’s needs and make recommendations.

An added twist is that both Tuck and Torlakson are registered Democrats (The Superintendent position is a nonpartisan seat.) The New York Times says this bitter race could engender a broader, national rift within a party that has long championed the cause of unions.

They say war and politics make strange bedfellows. In this race, it’s turned political bedfellows into enemies.

UPDATE (7:40AM PT NOV 5): Torlakson will remain the California Superintendent, edging Tuck 52%-48%. Most major urban counties elected to go Torlakson--even Los Angeles, considered to be Tuck's home base.

 

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