Dan Morain

When will school reform become a wedge issue for Democrats?

Marshall Tuck is an underdog challenger in this year's race for state superintendent of public instruction.
Marshall Tuck is an underdog challenger in this year's race for state superintendent of public instruction. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Before an audience primarily of African Americans at the Guild Theater near where he grew up in Oak Park, Mayor Kevin Johnson invoked the 15th Amendment right to vote, spoke of economic empowerment and praised Marshall Tuck.

Tuck is the 41-year-old UCLA-Harvard-educated son of a lawyer who grew up in the wealthy Peninsula burg of Hillsborough and eschewed a Wall Street career in the hope of changing public schools for the better.

He’s also the latest embodiment of what Democratic leaders should fear, a wedge between their most influential donor, the California Teachers Association, and their most loyal voters, African Americans, Latinos and Asians.

“Oftentimes, kids who look like us are trapped in failed, underperforming schools. It is up to us to turn that around,” Johnson told the gathering two weeks ago, as he introduced Tuck, who is running for California superintendent of public instruction.

California’s campaign for governor is all but nonexistent. Democrats likely will sweep partisan down-ballot races. But the latest Field Poll shows Tuck and incumbent Tom Torlakson in a dead heat with more than 40 percent of the electorate undecided, which explains the flood of attack ads in the final days.

The Torlakson-Tuck race will cost more than any candidate contest in California in 2014, $30 million and counting. That’s three times the sum being spent in the gubernatorial race between Jerry Brown and his Republican challenger, Neel Kashkari.

The California Teachers Association has spent $11.2 million in independent campaigns to re-elect Torlakson. Advocates pushing for changes in public education see an opportunity to exchange a union-backed candidate for one who embraces charter schools. They’ve spent $10 million on Tuck’s behalf.

“It is the civil rights issue of our time,” said Bill Bloomfield, a wealthy 64-year-old who has given $2.25 million to the pro-Tuck independent campaign.

You might not know it from the frenzy of anti-Tuck ads, but Tuck is a Democrat, like Torlakson. Tuck doesn’t question the need for public education. His mother was a teacher. But he does support the notion of charter schools and the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California.

The Vergara plaintiffs, public school students, are challenging union-backed teacher seniority rules that result in young teachers, who tend to work in the toughest schools, losing their jobs first when the economy sours. Torlakson sided with the union and is appealing the ruling. Tuck promises to drop the suit, though that decision would not rest entirely with him if he were to win on Tuesday.

In reality, the superintendent doesn’t have vast power. The State Board of Education, made up of appointees of the governor, makes many decisions about schools.

The California Teachers Association has controlled the superintendent’s office for years. A Tuck victory would embarrass the union and could embolden other Democrats to challenge the union’s primacy.

Torlakson, 65, is a nice enough guy. But his campaign money illustrates the clout of his main patron.

Unions account for nearly half of the $2.4 million that Torlakson has raised directly into his own campaign. Unions other than the CTA have given another $5 million to the independent expenditure campaign for Torlakson. Tuck has received no labor money. Almost all the major Sacramento players have given to Torlakson, including Democratic legislators, Chevron, AT&T, PG&E and tribes that own casinos. Tuck has received none.

Tuck has raised more than $2 million, but his donors, several of whom are Democratic heavyweights, don’t spend time prowling Capitol halls. Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr and Napster founder Sean Parker each gave $6,800 to Tuck’s campaign. Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, gave him $13,600, and another $500,000 to the pro-Tuck independent expenditure campaign.

This is a year in which teachers unions are especially ambitious. The National Education Association, CTA’s parent, is spending more than $40 million to help Democrats in federal campaigns and in gubernatorial races in several states. This also is a year in which emboldened teacher unions are challenging some of the most powerful Democrats in the nation.

At its July convention, the National Education Association called for the resignation of President Barack Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan. The union denounced the administration’s “failed education agenda” and attacked its support of “high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores.”

“I get it that there are people who want to paint the CTA as opposed to any innovation,” CTA President Dean Vogel said. “We’re not anti-reform, we’re just anti-stupid reform.”

Vogel takes issue with “the corporate Democrats” who “buy hook, line and sinker” the notion that the expansion of charter schools and more testing will help students.

You need not look too far to find an example in which the California Teachers Association is aligned with big business on behalf of an establishment Democrat. In a South Central Los Angeles Assembly race, the union is backing Carson City Councilman Mike Gipson. A political action committee funded by the oil, tobacco, casino and insurance industries also is backing Gipson.

Liberals including producers Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and actor Matt Damon are backing Gipson’s opponent, first-time candidate Prophet Walker. Like many sons of South Central Los Angeles, Walker, 26, spent five years in prison for robbery and assault. Unlike many others, however, Walker bettered himself by getting a community college degree from behind bars, and, upon his release, attended college and is working as an engineer.

Vogel said he wasn’t aware of the details of the Gipson-Walker endorsement. Such decisions are made by local union leaders, he said. They must be proud of their candidate. Gipson sent a mailer this weekend depicting Walker wearing a hoodie and aiming a gun. I’ll think about that mailer, and who paid for it, the next time I hear some Democratic legislator or educator speechify about society’s responsibility to rehabilitate criminals.

As the campaign closes, Kevin Johnson will do what he can for Tuck, including making phone calls, though maybe not to the tonier parts of the state.

“In today’s society, you have far too many kids whose future is decided by the neighborhood where they live and the color of their skin,” Johnson said a few days after the Guild Theater event.

On Tuesday and for years to come, Democrats will retain control of California politics. Public school unions will be fundamental to Democrats’ success. But there will be a cost. Teachers unions have not been a force for change for the better. That’s fine in El Dorado Hills and Davis, where schools work. It’s a problem in inner cities. The question is when, not whether, that divide will become a problem for the Democratic Party.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.