School & District Management

California Chief’s Win a Bright Spot for Teachers’ Unions

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 12, 2014 6 min read
California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson bested opponent Marshall Tuck by a few percentage points to gain re-election.
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California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s narrow re-election victory over challenger Marshall Tuck in the highest-profile election for state K-12 chief this year gave teachers’ unions a big political win over their critics, after tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions supercharged that race.

Mr. Tuck, a former leader of a Los Angeles charter school network, had pledged to fundamentally overhaul California schools and give them more freedom from the state education code. He criticized California students’ relatively poor showings on national assessments in reading and math.

But Mr. Torlakson, who was backed heavily by the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, successfully argued that significant changes already underway represented the right direction for the state’s public schools. Those changes include the new “local-control funding formula,” which shifts power from the state to districts.

Mr. Tuck also failed in his effort to use the Vergara v. California ruling—in which a state judge declared this year that teacher-tenure laws backed by the unions were unconstitutional—as a wedge issue, said David N. Plank, the executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a think tank at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

“They’ll try again,” Mr. Plank said of union critics and others who backed Mr. Tuck. “But they had a very favorable set of circumstances this time, and it was not sufficient to get them through.”

Elsewhere, Republicans were poised to win the remaining six elections for state superintendent that took place this year. The California race, the only one that featured an incumbent, was nonpartisan, although both Mr. Torlakson and Mr. Tuck identify themselves as Democrats.

Several successful candidates made opposition to the Common Core State Standards a central part of their campaigns, although the standards weren’t a major issue in California.

Unions Win Out

In California, Mr. Torlakson, who was first elected in 2010, received 52 percent of the vote, while Mr. Tuck, who ran the Green Dot network of charter schools in Los Angeles as well as a turnaround district of regular public schools in the city, got 48 percent, according to the latest returns the day after the Nov. 4 election.

The race reflected national tensions within the Democratic Party over K-12 policy, and the proxy war between the two groups got hot enough for total spending on the race to top $30 million.

Unions and others backing Mr. Torlakson criticized Mr. Tuck for backing the plaintiffs in the Vergara case and said the case would wrongly undermine teachers’ job security. They and Mr. Torlakson also pointed to Mr. Tuck’s background as a Wall Street investment banker as a sign that he would radically upend public schools in ways favored by his backers in the corporate and philanthropic worlds, such as Eli Broad, the co-founder of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and William Bloomfield Jr., a real estate developer.

Those in Mr. Tuck’s camp, in turn, accused Mr. Torlakson of presiding over a stagnant, low-performing education system and of being a tool of unions that place a priority on protecting their political power over the interests of students.

But the big spike in spending on the race and the attention that the Vergara case brought to the contest did not translate into an increased turnout. On the contrary, the total number of votes cast in the chief’s election plummeted from 7.7 million in 2010, when Mr. Torlakson defeated Larry Aceves and Diane Lenning, to 4.4 million in the Nov. 4 election. (Turnout was also down in the governor’s race and other statewide contests.)

Mr. Tuck won areas with relatively large shares of Republican voters, including Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties in Southern California. But Mr. Plank said the challenger failed to build enough of a constituency to overpower Mr. Torlakson’s union backers.

“Had the challenge been successful, I think it would have energized Democrats for Education Reform and similar groups across the country,” Mr. Plank said.

Claims of Progress

But DFER, a national group with 13 state affiliates that supports school choice and the use of test scores in teacher evaluations, among other positions, insists that despite Mr. Tuck’s defeat, the race did provide the group with momentum, since the campaign put issues like teacher tenure, which hitherto had been obscure for the public, on the table.

Joe Williams, the executive director of DFER, told reporters on a conference call last week that California unions spent “a lot of money to win a race that should have been a gimme for them.”

“We’re very much on the cusp, and education reform is an issue that’s firmly on the table,” Dan Chang, the head of an independent campaign committee that backed Mr. Tuck, said on the same call.

The win for Mr. Torlakson, an ally of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and state school board President Mike Kirst, means the state’s new funding formula and its oversight of districts’ implementation of the common core will proceed as before, although it’s unclear to what extent Mr. Tuck would have tried to alter those policies.

There will also be no push from Mr. Tuck for the state to seek a waiver from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, one of his campaign pledges—Mr. Torlakson and others oppose seeking such a waiver.

GOP Dominance

Mr. Torlakson was the only incumbent state superintendent on the ballot in last week’s general elections, and the six GOP victors (or those poised for wins) in many cases had experience working in schools and districts, despite some of their attacks on what they see as the K-12 establishment.

For example, Richard Woods, the Republican winner of the Georgia superintendent’s race, worked as a teacher and school administrator. He defeated a Democratic rival, Valarie Wilson, who had been endorsed by current Republican Superintendent John Barge and had kept close to Mr. Woods in the polls in a state that typically favors the GOP. (Mr. Woods had defeated Mr. Barge’s deputy, Michael Buck, in the Republican primary.)

After several months running on his opposition to the common core, Mr. Woods also pushed for a moratorium on high-stakes testing in the state because of its impact on classroom learning and teachers.

“He gave an interesting road map for this anti-federal, anti-common-core, anti-testing message, [and] linking all those together seems to appeal to a broad swath of people,” said Michael McShane, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington that supports market-based policies.

Jillian Balow, the GOP victor for state chief in Wyoming, has been critical of the common core. And Diane Douglas, the Republican who was poised as of last week to win the chief’s position in Arizona, opposed the common core in very strong terms. Both have experience in the K-12 field—Ms. Balow formerly worked at the state education department, while Ms. Douglas served on a school board.

Arizona Showdown

Arizona’s Ms. Douglas has been particularly vocal about her belief that the common core represents the diminution of local control over public schools. She defeated incumbent Superintendent John Huppenthal during the GOP primary in part by stressing his prior support for the standards.

The apparent winner of the Idaho chief’s race, school administrator Sherri Ybarra, a Republican, has generally backed the standards. Molly Spearman, a Republican who worked in the South Carolina education department and leads the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, won that state’s race for schools chief, but the state has already shifted away from the common core.

A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as California Chief’s Win a Bright Spot for Teachers’ Unions

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