Editorial: California superintendent race a proxy war between unions and reformers

The donations have been pouring into the campaigns of the two candidates for California state superintendent of public instruction this week.

Big checks, many in $6,800 increments – the maximum allowed for an individual for this election.

Collectively, incumbent Tom Torlakson and challenger Marshall Tuck have raised donations and enjoyed independent expenditures worth about $6 million this year – and that’s just so far.

The donations keep coming. Like this one logged Thursday: $2,000 from the Newport Mesa Federation of Teachers for Torlakson. And this one on Wednesday: $2,000 from Peninsula venture capitalists Gary and Laura Lauder for Tuck.

When the dust settles from the Nov. 4 election, it may well be the second-most expensive race on the ballot after the governor’s contest.

It’s odd, but true. The race for a relatively powerless state job is the hottest one this year and the reason is simple: It is a proxy war between teachers unions and education reformers, both of whom have a lot to gain, a lot to lose and access to a lot of money to spend on a campaign.

The biggest prize for the side that wins is the fate of teacher protections challenged in Vergara v. California. In this decision in June, an L.A. Superior Court judge struck down as unconstitutional teacher tenure, seniority protection and rules that make it hard to terminate ineffective teachers. The judge says those protections are unfair to the students in the state’s lowest-performing schools, which are in the most impoverished neighborhoods.

Torlakson, a longtime Democratic legislator and former teacher, led the call for the state to appeal of the ruling, joining the California Teachers Association, which is also a party to the case. Torlakson has been a reliable operative for the teachers unions – the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers – during his first term.

Tuck, also a Democrat and former charter school operator, said he will withdraw his support for the appeal on his first day on the job and then lead the charge to come up with replacements for the provisions. He supports waiting longer before teachers are considered for tenure, something akin to the six to eight years for university professors.

Beyond Vergara, the future direction of public education is riding on this election. The position of state superintendent doesn’t have a whole lot of power; the appointed State Board of Education has more political power than the department chief. But what he will have is a powerful bully pulpit.

Tuck said Thursday in a speech to the Sacramento Press Club that he will use that to build coalitions with local school districts to go around the Board of Education to give districts more flexibility from rules and regulations. He cited, as an example, the 10 California school districts, including Sacramento, that bypassed the state and went directly to the feds to ask for a waiver of No Child Left Behind rules.

The state superintendent job isn’t the only front in the union-reformers war. Local unions have targeted superintendents who don’t toe their line. Sacramento’s teachers union managed to get rid of a reformer, Superintendent Jonathan Raymond, last year.

And another reform-minded superintendent, Los Angeles Unified’s John Deasy, is being targeted by that school board. Though he’s led an educational turnaround of the state’s largest school district, Deasy will likely be shown the door.

The Sacramento Bee editorial board has endorsed Tuck because we believe that teachers unions have a chokehold on the state’s public education system and that’s been detrimental for everyone, including teachers. The amount of money being spent by the unions on Torlakson, which is more than twice what Tuck has raised, shows how important it is to break that hold on Nov. 4.