Among California’s eight statewide constitutional offices, the superintendent of public instruction is a peculiar case.
Officially the state’s only nonpartisan elected position, the head of public schools has nonetheless been a safely Democratic seat for decades, thanks at least in part to the backing of California’s powerful teachers unions.
That bodes well for incumbent Tom Torlakson, a former Democratic legislator from Contra Costa County elected as state superintendent in 2010, who could ride a wave of strong labor support to reelection as early as the June 3 primary.
But surging support from advocates of educational change, the private sector and newspaper editorial boards for one of Torlakson’s two challengers – former charter schools executive Marshall Tuck – has given a jolt to the race in the midst of a relatively quiet 2014 election season.
“This is going to be a low-turnout primary,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, “and low-turnout primaries can take unusual turns.”
The emergence of Tuck has made the state superintendent race into a potential proxy for a larger national debate over education policy that has pitted school unions against wealthy education advocates pushing for changes opposed by teachers. Weeks before the primary, it already has drawn millions in union spending and interest from high-profile players including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, one of Tuck’s mentors.
It will be an uphill battle for Tuck, a political novice making his first run for public office. He is campaigning to turn around California’s perennially low-ranking schools through new practices, such as greater curriculum flexibility for local districts, a longer review period before teachers obtain tenure, and increased parent participation in Sacramento policy-making.
“It became very clear to me … that there were way too many barriers in Sacramento that made it difficult for principals and teachers to do their jobs,” Tuck said. “Without changing the politics of education in Sacramento, we’ll never educate all kids.”
Torlakson disputes that characterization. He points to a new school funding formula that provides additional money to districts with a large population of low-income and English-learner students and the adoption of the Common Core curriculum standards as recent successes for California.
Torlakson said that, in a second term, he would focus on continuing to make those programs work, as well as developing California’s early-learning, career technical education and after-school programs as the state emerges from years of budget cuts.
“We’ve been moving forward in the right way,” he said. “It’s not time to take a step backward.”
Tuck faces several challenges in his quest to unseat Torlakson: He’s virtually unknown outside of Los Angeles, where he most recently worked under Villaraigosa to lead the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit that took over 17 of the city’s lowest-performing campuses beginning in 2008. Villaraigosa endorsed Tuck last month.
Several of Tuck’s proposals, including using student test scores in teacher evaluations and eliminating seniority-based layoffs, are strongly opposed by teachers.
While Tuck also identifies as a Democrat, he isn’t the establishment candidate. Torlakson has secured the support of the California Democratic Party and many of its leading figures.
Tuck said he is challenging an incumbent from his own party because it didn’t make sense to wait for the “politically perfect” moment to run for state superintendent.
“Californians have had enough of being where we are,” he said. “I know that there’s a real environment for change.”
The third candidate in the race is Republican Lydia Gutierrez, a teacher from Long Beach who has been an outspoken critic of the Common Core standards. She mounted an unsuccessful state superintendent campaign in 2010 and has maintained a low profile this time, raising only a couple thousand dollars so far.
“If Gutierrez appeared on the ballot as a Republican, Gutierrez would have a huge advantage” over Tuck, GOP consultant Rob Stutzman said.
With little name recognition and no party guidance, however, voters who would normally flock to Gutierrez might instead turn to a higher-profile candidate such as Tuck who could still offer an alternative to the Democratic establishment, especially in a top-two runoff.
“We’re entering a new era of politics for Republicans where they’re probably going to want to consider independent or moderate Democrats,” Stutzman said. Tuck would “have a pretty broad coalition of support if he were to make the runoff in November.”
As a nonpartisan office, the state superintendent of public instruction race can uniquely be won in the primary if a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. No public polling exists to show how the candidates are faring with the electorate, so the June primary could be the first indication of whether a real race is shaping up for November – or whether there will be one at all.
Democratic political strategist Garry South expects the small field will allow Torlakson to win the primary outright. “There’s not enough candidates in the running, in my view, to pull enough votes away from Torlakson to keep him below 50 percent,” he said.
And even if he does make the runoff, the odds are not in Tuck’s favor, “due to the size of California and the great expense of communicating to 18 million registered voters” in some of the nation’s most expensive media markets.
“Where does Marshall Tuck get five or six million dollars to run ads?” South said.
Tuck has raised about $1 million so far, compared with at least $1.27 million raised by Torlakson. But if Tuck can “effectively seize on the general sense that people have in California … that there’s a teacher tenure problem and a teacher discipline problem,” South added, he could be a real contender.
The business community, which has poured big bucks into education overhaul efforts in recent years, could give Tuck a boost: Many of his top donors are members of Silicon Valley technology and investment firms, and he has received $15,000 in contributions from former financial executive Eli Broad and employees of his educational advocacy foundation.
In early May, Los Angeles businessman Bill Bloomfield, a major Republican donor, reported spending nearly $370,000 on slate mailers for Tuck as part of an independent expenditure.
“Marshall Tuck is going to get a lot, a lot, a lot of money from corporate reformers,” said David Menefee-Libey, a professor of politics at Pomona College who specializes in education policy. “He will have the resources to test how receptive voters are to this corporate reform method.”
But the biggest factor in the race will likely remain organized labor, which also can deliver dollars and votes.
“When it comes to California education politics, the unions usually win,” Pitney said.
Labor unions have overwhelmingly backed Torlakson, in particular the influential California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers.
“You need supporters who can help get your message out,” said Delaine Eastin, California’s superintendent of public instruction from 1995 to 2003, who also recently endorsed Torlakson. “The advantage of having CTA on your side is you automatically have hundreds of thousands of teachers and many more who are retired … and many more who are family members of teachers.”
In addition to endorsing Torlakson, the teachers unions have poured millions into the primary. Last week, a committee funded primarily by CTA reported spending more than $2 million on radio ads, half in support of Torlakson and half in opposition to Tuck.
With that kind of support, the office of state superintendent of public instruction will remain “the political arm of CTA,” said Gloria Romero, a former Democratic legislator who ran unsuccessfully for state superintendent in 2010 on a reform platform. The race, she said, is “over before it even began.”
Call The Bee’s Alexei Koseff, (916) 321-5236. Follow him on Twitter @akoseff.