While Tuesday night was grim for liberals, embattled teachers unions have won a big victory in California.
Incumbent state school superintendent Tom Torlakson repulsed a strong challenge from reform-minded charter school executive Marshall Tuck, defeating him by a margin of about 52-48 percent.
“We knew it wouldn’t be easy,” Torlakson said in a statement claiming victory. “They were strong, but we were stronger. They were tough, but we were tougher. After all, we’re teachers — we did our homework.”
Both candidates were Democrats but represented strikingly different visions of how to improve America’s public schools. Torlakson is a classic pro-union Democrat, favoring high levels of deference and job security for teachers. His vision of public education sees little need for merit pay, large charter school networks or aggressive teacher accountability measures. He has appealed last summer’s Vergara v. California court ruling, in which a state judge threw out California’s generous tenure and job security rules for teachers, ruling they kept incompetent teachers on the job and resulted in unconstitutionally poor education for minority and low-income Californians.
Tuck, on the other hand, represented a new strain of Democrats who are far more skeptical of the teacher unions’ agenda. He supported the Vergara decision, and pledged to implement merit pay for teachers and continue to promote the expansion of charter schools. A Tuck victory would have signaled a major shift in Democratic priorities on education, showing blue-state voters were ready to embrace aggressive reforms opposed by the teachers who have typically dictated the party’s tone on the issue.
Tuck’s candidacy was viewed as threatening not just by the powerful California Teachers Association (CTA), but also millions of unionized teachers nationwide. The CTA, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and others spent over $20 million directly and indirectly supporting Torlakson and opposing Tuck, who they savaged as a “Wall Street banker” (he was a financial analyst in his twenties) beholden to the interests of the for-profit education industry.
The result is a disappointment for wealthy philanthropists such as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and SunAmerica founder Eli Broad, who spent millions backing Tuck’s candidacy in an effort to break down institutional opposition to aggressive school reform. Despite their massive backing as well as the endorsement of essentially every major newspaper in the state, Tuck couldn’t mount enough momentum to break the CTA, whose 325,000 members have long been one of the most powerful political blocs in the state. Far from being impotent, Tuesday’s result shows that teachers remain a tremendously powerful force in state politics, able to win elections in the face of tremendous hostility.
Tuck’s supporters can take heart, however, in the fact that they gave the CTA a serious scare in a race that originally was not remotely competitive. He finished second by almost 20 percent in last summer’s three-way primary, but made the final race competitive enough that it morphed into one of the most expensive down-ballot affairs in American history.
Ultimately, though, Tuck was unable to convince enough voters that California’s educational situation called for a substantial change in vision. Going into Election Day over 40 percent of voters were undecided, and a significant majority decided to side with Torlakson’s status quo over the dramatic change promised by Tuck.
Low turnout in the race hurt Tuck as well. In a state with nearly 18 million registered voters, only five million, less than a third, voted for superintendent. Lower voter totals allowed teachers, with their high numbers and high turnout, to have a stronger effect on the final outcome.
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