The expensive race for California superintendent of public instruction may have the biggest education impact of any election Tuesday.
Regardless of its outcome, the race will send shockwaves across the country and set the national tone for how strong unionized teachers remain in an era of rapid change for public education.
The showdown is between incumbent superintendent Tom Torlakson and challenger Marshall Tuck, both Democrats. Torlakson easily won the primary over the summer, taking 46 percent of the vote to Tuck’s 29 percent (California uses a nonpartisan primary in which the top two candidates advance to the general election, regardless of party).
Since then, however, the gap has narrowed tremendously, and the final outcome is completely uncertain. The final polls prior to Election Day show the candidates tied with 28 percent support each, while an incredible 44 percent of voters are undecided.
Torlakson is a pro-union Democrat, an individual representing the symbiotic relationship between Democrats and organized labor that has existed since before the World War II. A former science teacher, Torlakson spent years in California’s State Assembly and Senate, where he helped boost funding for after-school programs and low-performing schools by billions of dollars. As the state’s top education official, he has helped lead the legal battle against the Vergara v. California decision that gutted California’s tenure law and other generous job security protections that have made it excruciatingly difficult and costly for teachers in the state to be fired. He opposes using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, is skeptical of charter schooling, and favors traditional union goals such as reducing class sizes.
Tuck, on the other hand, represents every trend in the Democratic Party that teachers fear. Unlike Torlakson, Tuck has never been a public school teacher, and his primary experience is as an administrator for various charter school efforts. He supports the Vergara court ruling, wants to tie teacher pay to performance and has pledged to shake up California schools that he says have grown too comfortable with poor performances on standardized tests. More broadly, he embodies a new movement in the Democratic Party, one willing to question whether the interests of teacher unions and students perfectly coincide. A win by Tuck would be an electoral vindication for Democrats who take up the mantle of aggressive school reform rather than the pro-union status quo.
Tuck also represents the growing role of business leaders in influencing educational policy. His campaign has been substantially helped by the generosity of a few big donors from the business world. Billionaire Eli Broad, the founder of SunAmerica and a major proponent of education reform, has given him at least a million dollars. Other big donors include former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, Silicon Valley investor Arthur Rock and Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. Among teachers, distrust for the intentions of these current and former moguls runs high, with many arguing the money comes not from altruism but rather from a desire to expand the operations of for-profit standardized testing companies, charter schools and technology firms.
Tuck’s business ties have been furiously attacked, with one ad from the American Federation of Teachers labeling him a “Wall Street banker” (he worked in finance for a short period after college) and saying he would “turn our schools over to for-profit corporations.”
Tuck may have Wall Street on his side, but teachers have ensured he has no money advantage. The 325,000-member California Teachers Association and several other labor groups groups backing Torlakson have spent nearly $14 million to support his candidacy directly, along with another $7 million on issue ads that reflect positively on him.
They’ve also spent close to $3 million on ads attacking Tuck. Altogether, spending in the race has surpassed $30 million, more than any other race in the state and among the most expensive non-gubernatorial state elections in the country’s history.
In this deep blue state, the final outcome of the race will be a critical bellwether about the state of education reform in the United States.
For decades, teachers unions have provided Democratic candidates with money and volunteer muscle, helping them to win office and in return being rewarded with the strong pensions, benefits and job protections that offset relatively low salaries. Should Torlakson hang on, it will show that the public education establishment, despite all the attacks upon it from reformers, remain a tremendous force to be reckoned with and a potential kingmaker in Democratic politics. Should Tuck triumph, however, it will represent an overthrow of the old order, a changing of the guard that could last for years.
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