Torlakson declares victory over Tuck for California schools chief

Incumbent Tom Torlakson declared victory early Wednesday over challenger Marshall Tuck in the closely contested race for state superintendent of public instruction.

With 82 percent of precincts reporting, Torlakson led 53 percent to 47 percent.

“We knew it wouldn’t be easy,” Torlakson said in a statement. “They were strong, but we were stronger. They were tough, but we were tougher. After all, we’re teachers – we did our homework.”

The contest drew more than $20 million in outside spending, more than for any other elected office in California this fall. Billionaire philanthropists looking to overhaul California’s low-ranking public schools squared off against powerful teacher unions defending their job protections, with both sides spending heavily on television attack ads and nasty mailers.

The state superintendent race is usually a low-key affair: The office is nonpartisan, down-ballot and holds limited authority over creating actual education policy in California. But it has a powerful bully pulpit – the perfect arena for a symbolic battle over the direction of public education.

Questions over whether the public education system is properly serving its most vulnerable students have increasingly cleaved Democrats at the state and national level. A party establishment traditionally aligned with organized labor now faces political newcomers pushing for greater school choice and teacher accountability, among other changes.

Torlakson, a former teacher and state legislator, received the support of the California Democratic Party and heavyweights like U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Tuck, who had never run for office before, attracted endorsements from his former boss, ex-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Much of the debate centered on Vergara v. California, a lawsuit alleging that the state’s teacher tenure and dismissal laws protect bad teachers and disproportionately deprive low-income and minority students of a quality education.

Tuck built his campaign on the case, galvanizing supporters after a judge declared the policies unconstitutional in June. He wielded the ruling against Torlakson like a bludgeon, spending most of his public appearances urging California to reject the “status quo” and get behind the decision.

His position made Tuck an enemy of the California Teachers Association, which also opposes other policy changes Tuck advocated, such as using student test scores in teacher evaluations. The union poured millions into an offensive against him throughout the year.

Torlakson, a close ally of the teachers union, asked the state to appeal the ruling, drawing criticism from Tuck and others that he was a “wholly owned subsidiary of the CTA.”

Torlakson said the case was an attack on teachers, who should not be blamed for the failings of the education system. He pushed for more school funding and was the rare politician to speak out in favor of extending tax hikes voters approved in Proposition 30 when they begin to expire in two years.

David Menefee-Libey, a professor of politics at Pomona College, said that no matter the outcome of the race, momentum will continue for educational changes in California.

“The public response to the Vergara case has created a certain amount of pressure for finding an approach to education in California that can build a broad majority support,” he said. “So the sharp drawing of lines between these two factions may not be the future anymore in this state.”

Call The Bee’s Alexei Koseff, (916) 321-5236. Follow him on Twitter @akoseff.