School & District Management

Calif. Primary Narrows Field for Top Schools Job

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 15, 2010 4 min read
Dawn Cooper takes a few minutes to look over the voters guide while waiting to vote at the Central United Methodist Church in Sacramento, Calif., June 8. Primary voters in California and South Carolina chose candidates who will compete in the fall for the position of state schools superintendent.

The race for state schools chief in California will extend to the state’s general election in November, after none of the three leading candidates captured a simple majority to claim the nonpartisan office in the June 8 primary.

The top two vote-getters—Larry Aceves, a retired superintendent who led the pack with 18.8 percent of the vote, and Tom Torlakson, a state assemblyman who received 18 percent—will vie to replace outgoing state chief Jack O’Connell. The third-place candidate in a field of 12, state Sen. Gloria Romero, failed to make the cut, with 17.2 percent.

That Mr. Aceves, who has never before run for public office, emerged as the leading vote-getter was somewhat of a surprise, though he had substantial financial backing through an independent expenditure committee set up by the Association of California School Administrators.

For months, the campaign to replace Mr. O’Connell had been widely cast as a fight between the California Teachers Association, which backed Mr. Torlakson, and EdVoice, a nonprofit education reform group that supported Ms. Romero. All along, Mr. Aceves pitched himself as outside the union-vs.-reformer battle and touted his decades-long experience as a district superintendent.

The CTA, along with the California Federation of Teachers, sank money into radio spots for Mr. Torlakson, while EdVoice, with money from wealthy supporters, bought television ads for Ms. Romero.

In an interview with Education Week a day after the primary, Mr. Aceves said his status as a newcomer to elective politics and his years of experience actually running schools put him over the top, even against better-known, better-financed opponents.

“I think that people had the feeling that, yes, it is time to put someone in this job that knows about what goes on inside classrooms,” Mr. Aceves said.

Without naming names, Mr. Aceves said a campaign that stressed the dysfunction of California’s schools and the need for radical change may have misfired with voters. Ms. Romero ran on a message of being a pro-charter, aggressive reformer.

“The idea that we are going to blow things up and fire people, that didn’t sit well with people,” he said. “A lot of people love their schools and the teachers that their kids have.”

But Mr. Aceves stressed that the status quo isn’t acceptable either. He said all players in the state’s education realm, especially the teachers’ unions, are going to have to be willing to make changes that may be hard to swallow.

How much change anyone in K-12 will be asked to make may end up depending much more on who ends up in the governor’s office. In the June 8 Republican gubernatorial primary, Meg Whitman, a former chief executive officer of eBay, won decisively over Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner—a founder of EdVoice. She will take on Democratic state Attorney General Jerry Brown in November.

Palmetto State Race

In South Carolina, where the state chief’s race is a partisan one, Democrat Frank Holleman, who was a top aide to former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, won his June 8 primary with 56 percent of the vote. Whom he will face in November won’t be decided until June 22 when the top two Republican vote-getters—a college president and a home-schooling mother—duke it out in a runoff.

Newberry College President Mick Zais advanced to the Republican runoff against home-schooling mother and small-business owner Elizabeth Moffly.

While most state political posts are controlled by Republicans, Democrats have served as South Carolina’s chief educator since 1998. State schools chief Jim Rex, the only Democrat left in statewide office, stepped aside to run for his party’s nomination for governor. He lost that bid.

Mr. Holleman, who served as chief of staff and deputy U.S. secretary of education during President Bill Clinton’s administration, also is a former chairman of the state Democratic Party. He thinks the use of vouchers or tax credits to pay for private schools is detrimental to public education.

Almost all the Republican candidates, by contrast, support vouchers or tax credits, with Mr. Zais being the most vocal supporter. While he wants to expand early childhood education, Mr. Zais also opposes extending kindergarten to 4-year-olds and doubts its long-term benefits.

Mr. Zais retired from the U.S. Army as a brigadier general in July 2000 after 31 years that included service in South Korea and Vietnam. He taught leadership classes at West Point and is Republican Gov. Mark Sanford’s appointee to the state Commission on Higher Education and the Southern Regional Educational Board.

Ms. Moffly, a native of Charleston, W.Va., says state standards are unnecessarily high, contributing to the dropout rate and hurting students’ chances for college acceptance. She wants to reduce the number of credit hours needed to graduate high school from 24 to 19, and put letter grades on a 10-point scale. She also wants to realign standards through 3rd grade, saying children are unfairly expected to do what used to be 1st grade work in kindergarten.

It is Ms. Moffly’s second attempt at the job after placing fourth in the 2006 GOP primary. She attended two colleges but did not graduate, and is president of Moffly Construction and other Charleston County businesses, including a horse farm and commercial fishing dock.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2010 edition of Education Week as California Set for November Face-Off to Pick Schools Chief


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