California’s education reformers had high hopes for Marshall Tuck’s insurgent campaign against State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. The 41-year-old former investment banker and charter school president tried to paint the 65-year-old incumbent, former legislator, and fellow Democrat as a creature of the state’s powerful teachers’ unions. Tuck wasn’t wrong, though both candidates spent a great deal of energy and money attacking one another’s character. And the race did expose a growing fissure between traditional union-aligned Democrats and an emerging faction of pro-business, pro-reform Democrats. But the biggest difference between Torlakson and Tuck—their respective plans for reforming the state’s tenure and dismissal statutes—didn’t galvanize voters.
The day before the election, a Reuters analysis called the nominally nonpartisan state superintendent’s race the “most expensive political contest in California . . . for an office nobody’s heard of.” The candidates and their allies poured more than $30 million into the election—more than three times what Governor Jerry Brown and his Republican opponent, Neel Kashkari, spent on their campaigns combined. The California Teachers Association alone spent $11 million, including at least $2 million on independent radio and TV ads touting Torlakson and denouncing Tuck. Meantime, about a dozen well-heeled education reformers, including Los Angeles real estate developer Eli Broad and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, contributed nearly $10 million to an independent campaign committee backing Tuck.
Yet in the end, Torlakson bested Tuck by a margin of 181,489 votes out of more than 4.3 million ballots cast. Not a landside, but not a nail-biter, either. What happened?
Tuck’s candidacy hinged on two issues: tenure reform and greater local control, especially for charter schools. He hammered Torlakson for supporting the state’s appeal of Vergara v. California, the class-action lawsuit in Los Angeles that seeks to void the state’s tenure, seniority, and dismissal rules. L.A. Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu had ruled in June that students and newly hired teachers “are unfairly, unnecessarily, and for no legally cognizable reason (let alone a compelling one), disadvantaged by the current [law].” Torlakson called Treu’s ruling “an attack on teachers” throughout the campaign. Tuck said Torlakson’s eagerness to appeal the decision showed that he put union interests over the interests of children.
But polls showed that Vergara resonated weakly with voters. Though 42 percent of likely California voters ranked education as their top priority this year, and the vast majority of voters surveyed after Treu’s ruling agreed that the state should do away with “last hired, first fired” seniority protections, nearly 60 percent said they didn’t know what the lawsuit was about. Reformers may not like to hear it, but Governor Brown wasn’t wrong when he dismissed tenure reform in the campaign’s waning days as an “ephemeral” issue. Nor was Torlakson wrong when he said, “I think [Tuck] is focusing inappropriately on one lawsuit, one set of issues around that.”
Tuck also touted his experience as president of the Green Dot chain of charter schools. He voiced his support for California’s landmark parent-trigger law, which lets parents at failing schools petition to force their school district to implement certain reforms, including charter school conversion. Here again, though, voters don’t completely understand charter school reforms. And the CTA and its lesser partner, the California Federation of Teachers, have opposed parent-trigger campaigns and generally consider the charter movement to be “privatization,” even though California’s charters are nonprofit organizations that must adhere to the state education code. The teachers’ unions and their surrogates, such as Diane Ravitch, used Tuck’s charter school ties to paint him as a racist, a bigot, and a tool of “the power elite.” Their attacks bordered on defamation, but they worked.
Outside those contentious but narrow policy questions, Torlakson and Tuck didn’t differ much. Both expressed enthusiasm for the Common Core State Standards, despite their declining popularity among Californians. The PACE/USC Rossier School of Education poll in June found just 32 percent of voters supported the standards, while 42 percent opposed them—a sharp drop over the previous year’s survey, which found majority support. Yet Tuck chose to distinguish himself from Torlakson by accusing the incumbent of implementing the standards too slowly.
On school funding, both candidates agreed that the state should spend more on public schools—apparently, the 1988 constitutional amendment requiring the legislature to earmark at least 40 percent of the general fund for elementary and secondary education provides too little money. Tuck himself told an Education Week reporter last month that on questions of compensation and professional development, “I have tons of alignment with CTA’s agenda.” At bottom, Tuck and Torlakson shared the belief that whatever ails public education, greater government intervention can cure it. They simply disagreed over the means. And with 40 percent of voters still undecided days before the election, it’s easy to see why voters chose to play it safe with the incumbent.
Before Election Day, education policy wonks speculated that the outcome of the Torlakson-Tuck fight could resonate into 2016. Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Morain argued, “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. . . . The question is when, not whether, that divide will become a problem for the Democratic Party.” Not this year. The status quo holds, for now.