Marshall Tuck is an optimist. He must be to talk so confidently about when – not if – he becomes California’s next superintendent of public instruction.
Though he entered the race an underdog, Tuck, a former schools executive from Los Angeles, held a small lead over incumbent Tom Torlakson when the first public poll on the race was released last month, showing a field still dominated by undecided voters.
But he faces an uphill battle to actually win in November – in a nonpartisan race, with little name recognition, pushing a platform of educational change opposed by the state’s Democratic establishment and especially by the powerful political machine that is the California Teachers Association.
Over a glass of orange juice on a recent afternoon, Tuck was undeterred. He spoke passionately about his life and campaign, physically leaning into the conversation and motioning vigorously with his hands.
His excitement for overhauling public education in California has channeled a broad base of support, from communities with low-performing schools, wealthy businessmen, newspaper editorial boards across the state and more recently Hollywood celebrities.
“Just the belief system was something that unified the people I represent,” said Monica Garcia, who serves East Los Angeles on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education. “The belief that kids of poverty and kids of color can achieve levels with appropriate support.
“His energy and his passion would welcome anyone to that conversation.”
But Tuck’s vision also has made him a divisive figure, subject to attack ads and villainous characterizations, especially as he stakes his campaign on the recent court ruling declaring California’s teacher tenure and dismissal laws unconstitutional.
Some teachers who worked under him in the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a network of low-performing campuses taken over by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and run by Tuck for six years, describe an uncompromising manager who prescribed his measures for success on their programs despite a limited background in education.
“We weren’t being treated respectfully, and we weren’t being allowed to make reforms that we thought could work,” said Kirti Baranwal, who taught English and history at a Partnership school for three years. “There were all kinds of broken promises.”
Tuck, a Democrat, wants voters to know he is not the anti-union corporate reformer his opponents might have you believe.
“Union vs. business – it’s a natural frame. I think it’s the wrong frame,” he said. “We will never get there in this state for all kids until you have the governor, the Legislature, state superintendent, teacher union leadership, business leadership on the same team. On Team Kid.”
Tuck, who is 41, has taken a circuitous path to education. Many of the attacks on his candidacy focus on that background, making pejorative references to him as a Wall Street banker.
He did begin his career in finance, following a comfortable Irish Catholic upbringing in Burlingame. After graduating from UCLA, he worked for two years in mergers and acquisitions at Salomon Brothers in Los Angeles. His goal, he said, was to get rich and eventually use that wealth to help others.
But he found that the long hours and intense work environment devoid of personal relationships made him miserable. He said concern from his family and friends eventually helped him realize he had to “get off this path.”
“The work I was doing was so far removed from my heart and my values, it just wasn’t making sense to me,” he said. “The idea of doing this for 25 years – I didn’t care that much about making a lot of money.”
Charter schools a draw
Tuck returned to his alma mater in 1997 to look for service opportunities, settling on a program that would allow him to work on several short projects around the world. Three months spent teaching at a rural school in Zimbabwe were the most formidable, confirming for him that “success is not about material wealth, but how many people can I help in my lifetime.”
His next stop was Harvard Business School, where Tuck said he wanted to study the nonprofit sector to “substantially improve” how it is run. After graduation, he headed home to Silicon Valley, where he worked for two years as an executive at an enterprise software company, Model N.
Tuck said he was trying to gain financial stability, to pay off $150,000 in debt from the three years of travel and business school, before moving into a career more focused on service.
“Frankly, I was also still a little insecure to make that final jump,” he said. “My path to being a 1 percent guy was there.”
But Tuck said he kept looking for an exit into the education sector, where he felt he could make the biggest impact. He was drawn by the nontraditional nature of charter schools, he said, which are exempt from many state laws governing school districts and spoke to his entrepreneurial interests. In 2002, Tuck joined Green Dot Public Schools, one of the early charter operators in Los Angeles, as the chief operational officer.
Beginning with one high school renting classrooms on a night school campus, Green Dot focused on low-income neighborhoods with failing schools, seeking to offer parents a small, college preparatory-focused alternative. Today the nonprofit runs 21 independent schools – 14 high schools and seven middle schools – in the Los Angeles area, and is expanding to other states.
“He got the passion of it right away,” Green Dot founder Steve Barr said. “There was never anything we would do that Marshall would shy away from.”
His first task was to persuade parents, many of them immigrants, to try an untested educational product.
Barr remembers Tuck canvassing impoverished neighborhoods that others might be afraid to visit to find students for their schools, staying late the night before a new campus opened to finish putting together desks, and offering to pay the funeral expenses for the family of a student who had died.
He credited Tuck’s Catholicism and its message of service.
“With Marshall, there was something strong, but it was unspoken,” Barr said. “I’m skeptical of religion as anybody, but I love being around Catholic people who really walk the walk.”
‘Not just a test score’
Tuck’s four years at Green Dot caught the attention of Villaraigosa, who selected him to lead the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.
The effort was an experiment born of Villaraigosa’s failed attempt as mayor to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District. Instead, he formed a nonprofit that, in collaboration with the district, targeted struggling schools in low-income communities for intervention. If staff voted to opt in, the Partnership offered an alternative approach to improving student achievement, promising a collaborative role in shaping curriculum and running their schools. By the end of the first year, the Partnership oversaw 10 campuses in Latino and African American neighborhoods.
In his campaign, Tuck touts raising test scores at the schools – an average of 9 percentage points in English proficiency and almost 14 percentage points in math proficiency – and boosting graduation rates from 36 percent to 57 percent.
But the Partnership also was marked at times by conflict with the local teachers union over recession-driven layoffs and tensions with teachers at the schools who felt their input was not being considered. Teachers passed a vote of no confidence at nine of the schools at the end of the first year, leading to independent mediation.
Several teachers who originally voted for their schools to join the Partnership, seeking more autonomy from district curriculum mandates and less emphasis on test-taking, said their enthusiasm waned.
“As teachers and parents and students, we just wanted to have an agency for what we thought would benefit our school community and benefit learning,” Baranwal said. “And time and time again, they would come in and make the decision.”
She said faculty-led efforts at her campus to build class libraries, clean the school and paint murals, establish small learning communities and expand teacher development were ignored by the Partnership administration. She said she left the school where she had taught for nine years frustrated that there was no place for “real teacher input.”
“It all just came back down to test scores,” Baranwal said. “It’s not allowing space for people to be looked at holistically. Teachers are not just a test score, students are not just a test score.”
Gillian Russom, a high school history and geography teacher whose campus ultimately spun off from the Partnership, echoed those concerns: “Again and again, we felt that he decided what he wanted to do and pushed it through in a very managerial style,” she said.
Joel Jordan, a former director of special projects for the Los Angeles teachers union, helped coordinate the votes for schools to join the Partnership. He said he was disappointed by what he felt was a focus on “going after the bad teachers, rather than developing the whole teaching corps,” encouraging competition, not collaboration.
“No one has been able to show ... that the Partnership schools were able to qualitatively change the learning level and development of students compared to LAUSD schools,” Jordan added.
While Partnership campuses have improved by an average of almost 72 points on the state’s 1,000-point Academic Performance Index, which measures test scores, the district as a whole rose almost as much during the same period. The Partnership schools averaged 683 on the 2013 index, compared to 750 for Los Angeles Unified.
That same year, the majority of Partnership campuses performed below average compared with California schools with a similar student demographic.
Running against the odds
Tuck defends the Partnership’s progress during his tenure. A survey last year showed 86 percent of staff believe their schools are moving in the right direction. Some people struggle with change, he said, but “the data says it all.”
Tuck lives in Mar Vista, a diverse neighborhood in West Los Angeles, with his wife, Mae, a vice president of marketing and communications at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. He reflects on his 3-year-old son, Mason, when considering how much the Partnership still has left to accomplish.
“I wouldn’t send my son to every single Partnership school today,” he said. “But I can tell you, in ’08, there’s zero chance I would have sent my son to any of them ... and I’m confident that in three or four years, it will be all of them.”
“That’s what’s possible. But it does take time. It’s hard.”
Tuck argues that the cumbersome California Education Code is holding back the Partnership schools, which are not charters. He focuses in particular on rules governing teacher tenure, which require administrators to decide whether teachers get lifetime job protections before the end of their second year.
The short time-frame leads to mistakes, he said, resulting in teachers “who shouldn’t be in the system that you can’t get rid of.”
He said low-income schools have accumulated a disproportionate share of ineffective teachers as parents in more affluent communities complain about their performance. Those teachers are able to stick around despite their problems, he said, because of seniority-based layoffs and onerous dismissal procedures.
Tuck’s argument was echoed in a June ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu in the case of Vergara v. California, which declared the policies unconstitutional.
Though the court case could be tied up in appeals for years, Tuck said he would try to tackle the issues it raises through legislation if he is elected. He also wants to offer exemptions from the Education Code to give districts more flexibility to determine curriculum and set spending priorities.
The California Teachers Association, which spent more than $1 million against Tuck in the primary, is working to make sure he is defeated. Though the office of state superintendent holds little direct authority over policy, the political stakes are enormous.
The race was the costliest of the primary cycle, and money is pouring in again. Tuck has raised more than $560,000 since August, much of it from technology and finance executives, while Torlakson has raised more than $480,000 in the same period, mostly from organized labor.
Meanwhile, an independent expenditure funded primarily by the CTA has stocked up another half million dollars so far. And it’s always possible that Los Angeles businessman Bill Bloomfield, whose committee spent $1.7 million on behalf of Tuck in the primary, could get involved again.
Ben Austin, a former policy consultant for Green Dot who served briefly on the State Board of Education, said Tuck is a threat to the tremendous influence of the teachers unions in Sacramento.
“There is plenty of common ground to be seized” on increasing school funding and autonomy for teachers, Austin said, but “not until they’re humbled.”
“If Marshall wins, that’s going to be an earthquake,” he added. “It’s going to force them to re-evaluate how they play their politics.”
Tuck says he has been mischaracterized as a union foe. He’s only ever worked in unionized schools, including during his time at Green Dot, he said, and he doesn’t think unions are bad, even if some of the policies they advocate are.
“I will work with them the day after, and I have no problem with it,” he said. “But I’m not going to cave on teacher tenure. I’m not going to cave on seniority-based layoffs.”
As for those long odds, Tuck is not intimidated. He speaks of two terms and the things that will take him eight years, or perhaps longer, to accomplish.
“The people who overthink about things never actually get anything done,” he said. “At some point you’ve just got to jump in and go figure it out.”