Ad Watch: Torlakson ad exaggerates facts to undermine opponents

Ahead of Tuesday’s primary election, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson launched a television campaign sharply criticizing his two challengers, former charter schools executive Marshall Tuck and schoolteacher Lydia Gutierrez. Following is the text of the 30-second ad and an analysis by Alexei Koseff of The Bee’s Capitol Bureau.

Narrator: Three candidates for California’s top teacher: Republican Lydia Gutierrez campaigned to outlaw all abortions and against gay rights. Wall Street banker Marshall Tuck ran a chain of schools that spent millions on his salary, TV ads, parties and trips instead of helping kids. The Times said 80 percent of teachers gave Tuck an F. The right answer for California’s schools? Democrat Tom Torlakson, a teacher who puts students first. Tom Torlakson for superintendent of public instruction.

Analysis: Torlakson’s ad lacks crucial context and exaggerates the facts to give the impression that his opponents are unsuited to serve in the job he holds.

The ad appears to be aimed at Democrats, even though the position is nonpartisan. It calls Gutierrez a Republican and Torlakson a Democrat and criticizes Gutierrez for her stands against abortion rights and gay marriage, even though those issues are somewhat removed from overseeing the state’s schools.

Tuck, who is also a Democrat, worked on Wall Street for two years out of college as an investment banker at Salomon Brothers but subsequently volunteered teaching abroad, went to business school and served in a management position at a Silicon Valley software company before entering the education sector in 2002 as president of the Green Dot charter schools operator.

He most recently served for six years as head of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit network of 17 low-performing campuses that were taken over by the city beginning in 2008. This initiative of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is the chain of schools referenced in the ad.

At the partnership, Tuck earned a salary of $165,000 per year plus benefits, totaling just more than $1 million for his tenure at the organization. During that time, it spent more than $360,000 on travel, including trips to New York and Chicago for teacher training workshops, as well as a staff retreat at Disneyland. In May 2013, the partnership spent $225,000 to produce a fundraising gala.

But these expenses were paid from the partnership’s annual operating budget, which has ranged from $4.5 million to more than $12 million and is funded by donations and grants. Public funds are used only to operate the schools.

A television ad campaign encouraging viewers to get involved with the partnership aired on Fox Sports West in the spring of 2010. Production costs and airtime were donated by the network, though the partnership has paid several hundred thousand dollars for other promotional efforts, such as teacher recruitment, over the years.

In June 2009, at the end of its first year of operation, faculty at eight of the 10 schools under its control gave the partnership a vote of “no confidence.” It was not a referendum on Tuck specifically, and the vote came amid a standoff between teachers and Villaraigosa over layoffs sweeping the city. None of the schools have since left the partnership.

Torlakson refers to himself in the ad as a teacher, but he has held elected office for more than three decades, including 14 years in the Assembly and state Senate. He taught high school science in Concord from 1972 to 1981 and a community college political science course in Pittsburg from 2008 to 2012. Torlakson maintains a lifetime teaching credential.