California schools superintendent race heads to runoff

The costly and ideologically charged race for state superintendent of public instruction will continue to November.

Despite a big push of support by the California Teachers Association in the final weeks of the campaign, incumbent Tom Torlakson fell short of clinching re-election for the nonpartisan office in Tuesday’s primary. While election officials still must count tens of thousands of ballots, Torlakson had 46.9 percent of the vote, well below the simple majority needed to avoid a top two runoff.

He will face former charter schools executive Marshall Tuck in the general election. Tuck received 28.6 percent of the vote, edging out schoolteacher Lydia Gutierrez, who received 24.4 percent.

With multiple challengers in the race, Torlakson spokesman Paul Hefner said his campaign had anticipated a runoff. But Torlakson’s commanding lead over opponents bodes well for November, he added.

“We view last night as a real vote of confidence for Tom and the work he’s doing,” Hefner said.

The state schools chief race was one of the most expensive of the primary, attracting more outside spending than any other so far this year.

Though both Torlakson and Tuck are Democrats, they fall on opposing sides of several controversial issues involving teacher evaluation and hiring practices that have drawn interest from education activists looking to overhaul California’s public education system – as well as immense pushback from unions.

Torlakson was heavily backed by organized labor, which provided the majority of the more than $1.3 million he raised for his re-election effort leading up to the primary. Independent spending efforts, primarily by the CTA, put more than $2 million into ads supporting Torlakson and attacking Tuck’s record.

But the millions spent by CTA didn’t secure Torlakson a primary victory, said Tuck spokeswoman Cynara Lilly.

“It’s clear that voters are ready for a change to the status quo,” she said.

Tuck, who most recently served as head of the Partnership for Los Angeles, a nonprofit network of 17 low-performing campuses taken over by the city beginning in 2008, drew the ire of teachers unions for campaign proposals that would include test scores in teacher evaluations, eliminate seniority-based layoffs and increase the tenure process beyond the standard two years.

But he also galvanized backers in the private sector, who have become increasingly interested in school overhaul efforts in recent years. Tuck has raised more than a million dollars for his campaign, much of it from Silicon Valley and the finance industry.

In addition, Los Angeles businessman Bill Bloomfield and his associates spent $1.7 million in independent expenditures on behalf of Tuck.

Gutierrez, a Republican who has been a vocal critic of the new Common Core standards and supports increasing technical training in high schools, raised little money and maintained a low profile throughout the primary season.