School & District Management Opinion

California K-12 Schools Chief Race Is a Study in Contrasts

By David Menefee-Libey — October 31, 2014 6 min read
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California voters are only days away from choosing between incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and former charter school administrator Marshall Tuck. The contest has gotten considerable attention in California and nationwide, and for good reasons.

On the surface, the Torlakson-Tuck race is a clash between deep-pocketed teacher unions and well-heeled corporate reformers. Underneath, the two candidates differ on how best to improve student learning, the role of charters and quasi-public providers, and how to put a winning coalition together. It adds up to a potentially serious challenge to ‘On California’s’ ideas about what we call California Exceptionalism, the state’s pathway toward education reform.

First, a note about the money. The candidates themselves aren’t spending much (in California terms), but John Osborne at EdSource reports others are spending tens of millions of dollars to influence the outcome. Really? More than $24-million to win a non-partisan contest for an office with few staff, a small budget, and little more than a bully pulpit?

Well, yes. You can check it out for yourself. For example, the California Teachers Association will spend more than $5 million to re-elect Torlakson. Tuck, according to Osborne, is supported by “30 donors who gave on average $267,000 each, including real estate developer William Bloomfield, Jr., Broad Foundation founder Eli Broad, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Emerson Collective Chair Laurene Powell Jobs.”

Money tells only part of the story.

But the money only points us toward the real story. At its core, this is a contest between two approaches to education politics in California and, I would argue, nationwide. On one side is incumbent Torlakson, a former teacher and 14-year legislator deeply involved in the state’s education policy-making for decades. His way of pushing for the improvement of student learning has been to focus on capacity-building, attending to the practical, day-to-day work of schools, teachers, and children. His preferred system for delivering education is the public sector, the state’s districts and schools and classrooms in all their byzantine democratic complexity. His politics focuses on the slow, long-term work of electing public officials, building legislative coalitions, passing laws, and engaging in Democratic party politics. In exceptional California, this is a politics that, in contrast to many other states, welcomes the participation of unionized teachers, who have endorsed and supported him.

Torlakson sees California’s education system as underperforming, but improving and capable of continued improvement. He is running for re-election on what he sees as a record of progress on NAEP and other indicators, and a promise to continue building the capacity of California’s teachers, schools, and districts to educate the state’s children.

On the other side is challenger Tuck, the former president of Green Dot Charter Schools and then a leader of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, 16 schools within the behemoth Los Angeles Unified School District. Tuck’s way of pushing for improvement of student learning has been to focus on accountability, assessing the outcomes of various teachers and schools, choosing those that produce the best scores, and getting rid of those that score worst. (This is an approach we have sometimes called ‘corporate’ here in ‘On California,’ partly because of its lead sponsors and partly because its methods so resemble corporate management consulting.) His preferred system for delivering education focuses on individual schools, especially charter schools, and trying to replicate what management consultants call ‘best practices.’ His politics focuses on challenging and disrupting the existing system, mobilizing parents, business and foundation leaders to demand policy change from policy makers, largely as an outsider to the usual channels of elections and legislatures. This is a politics that openly opposes teacher unions, and more closely resembles the approaches of President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a politics which until now has often been overshadowed in California.

Tuck sees California’s education system as in crisis, unresponsive to the needs and rights of at-risk children, and incapable of reform from the inside. He is challenging what he sees as a complacent incumbent unwilling to challenge an unchanging status quo. His is the politics of resistance, with a far greater role for private actors.

The Vergara case shows that party counts for something, but not everything.

This overstates the contrast in some ways. Both candidates are Democrats, after all. And when my colleague Charles Taylor Kerchner interviewed Torlakson and Tuck last May for ‘On California,’ he found many areas of policy agreement between challenger and incumbent. Both supported Proposition 30, which in 2012 raised taxes and restored funding lost after the 2008 financial crisis. Both supported the state’s commitment to the Common Core State Standards. Both supported the state’s groundbreaking school finance reform, built around a Local Control Funding Formula that directs money to schools on a per-pupil basis with additional money for low income, non-English speaking, and migrant students.

But the Vergara decision in June has provided a means for voters to see the deep differences between Tuck’s politics of resistance and Torlakson’s politics of capacity building. We have written at length about the decision, what it says and what it doesn’t say about California schooling.

The case has gained national attention, and has become something of a Rorschach test. Those who embrace the politics of resistance and disruption tend to like it, while those who embrace the politics of capacity building tend to see it as a sideshow at best, and a potential disaster at worst. The two sides see different things.

This case, more than anything else, distinguishes the two candidates: Tuck welcomed the Vergara decision, and sees it as a lever to move an immovable and indefensible system, while Torlakson decried the court decision as disruption of a fragile but improving system.

What next?

So where will this lead after Election Day? It’s easier to judge what will happen if Torlakson wins than if Tuck is successful. Torlakson has said his goal is to hold the Democratic coalition together, including the California Teacher’s Association, the state’s largest and most powerful teacher’s union. He plans to push forward legislation based on a reform document called Greatness by Design that would revamp the state’s teacher education system and labor market.

Torlakson would also stay the course in helping to implement the large policy changes enacted in the past four years. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), possibly the most dramatic change in school finance the country has seen in the last 40 years, will continue implementation over the next five years, if it is allowed to do so. Implementing the accountability system that connects finance and school improvement will remain a huge task, as recent reports show.

He would also continue oversee implementation of the Common Core of State Standards and the state’s use of the Smarter Balanced assessments, which are to be administered for the first time next spring.

Tuck would start from ground zero. He has no base of power in Sacramento, and his relationship with Gov. Jerry Brown, who holds the purse strings and the veto pen, is unknown. Ditto the legislature and the California State Board of Education and its powerful president, Michael Kirst.

He would also inherit the implementation tasks for Common Core and the LCFF, where Kirst and the State School Board hold the policy reigns.

The big question is what would happen with the unions after a Tuck win. If he follows the lead of some of his backers into a test-and-punish-teachers agenda, he will face serious political opposition from day one, not only with the unions but with many of the state’s school superintendents. If he becomes more pragmatic once the campaign is over and he becomes an office-holder, he might be able to forge working agreements. It’s impossible to tell.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.