Dan Walters

Torlakson-Tuck contest is just one front in war over California public education

Even at a superficial level, the contest between two Democrats for the supposedly nonpartisan office of state superintendent of schools is interesting.

Tom Torlakson, a onetime teacher and state legislator, is being challenged by a generation-younger Marshall Tuck, a former charter school chain executive.

However, their running debate over the direction of California’s 6 million-student public school system is merely one front – albeit an important one – in a years-long war over education policy, almost entirely within the Democratic Party.

Torlakson marches in lockstep with the California Teachers Association and other elements of the long-dominant public education establishment, which contend that our educational shortcomings can be resolved by increasing our relatively low level of per-pupil spending.

Tuck indirectly represents a loosely knit, odd-bedfellows coalition of wealthy Democrats such as Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad, Silicon Valley tycoons, civil rights groups and parent organizations.

They don’t deny the need for more money but worry aloud that without reform, it could just be pumped into higher salaries for unionized teachers without improving outcomes. They want more parental involvement, fewer restrictive work rules, more rigorous testing and more accountability.

Their war has been fought in the Capitol over such issues as teacher employment rights, parental takeovers of ill-performing schools and testing, in the courts over a variety of civil rights lawsuits, and in the state Board of Education over implementation of Gov. Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula.

In the latter, countless hours are devoted to whether just one word – “principally” – should be written into rules governing how extra money will be spent to boost poor and “English-learner” students.

A Los Angeles judge’s ruling that teacher tenure rules illegally deny poor students equal educations is a flashpoint, as is another judge’s recent decree that the state must intervene in one troubled Los Angeles high school where many students just sit around without classes for hours on end.

Academic testing is still another conflict, not only how it should be conducted, but whether it should be used to hold teachers and administrators accountable for results.

Brown, the state’s top Democrat, is caught in the middle.

An advocate of charter schools as mayor of Oakland, Brown has sometimes sided with the establishment and sometimes with reformers. The other day, he made an appearance with Torlakson about physical fitness in schools but didn’t even mention the superintendent’s name.

The CTA and its rivals are spending millions on the Torlakson-Tuck contest, which is too close to call. Regardless of who wins, however, the war over California schools will continue.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.