School & District Management Opinion

Incumbent Tom Torlakson Wins California Superintendent’s Race

By David Menefee-Libey — November 05, 2014 5 min read
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Tom Torlakson (blue) prevailed in most coastal counties, including Los Angeles, while Marshall Tuck (orange) won in more conservative counties. Map from California Secretary of State.

Incumbent State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson will keep his job for another term. Despite late polls showing a close race, the 65-year-old former legislator won handily against challenger Marshall Tuck, who ran as a stalking horse for the corporate reform movement in the state.

Tuck’s loss should prompt some strategic rethinking on the part of the party’s Democrats for Education Reform faction, which contributed to his campaign.

Though Torlakson lacked the endorsement of Gov. Jerry Brown, he ran as a Democratic standard barrier in the nominally non-partisan race. He had the support of most educators, many of the state’s school superintendents, and the Democratic Party.

A Substantial Margin of Victory

Torlakson can celebrate his 52% to 48% win, but his margin of victory was substantially less than Brown’s, who defeated Republican Neel Kashkari 59% to 41% in a landslide win.

Tuck was able to bring substantial attention and voter interest to the race. He racked up editorial endorsements from virtually all the state’s major newspapers, and the race gained national attention. But overall, relatively few voters turned out for Tuesday’s election. The vote total was only about 60% of that in 2010.

Tuck became an attractive and hardworking candidate, carrying forward the corporate reform banner of testing and teacher accountability. He was appealing enough to entrepreneurs and wealthy venture philanthropists that they ponied up more than $14-million for his campaign. He followed the classic reformer campaign strategy of declaring the state’s public schools to be a failure.

He saw the Vergara decision’s overturning of teacher due process and seniority protections as the pathway to greater student achievement. Conversely, Torlakson applauded the decision’s appeal, and a keystone of the campaign had Tuck criticizing his opponent for abandoning the state’s children by not supporting the lower court decision. Torlakson said he would stand with the state’s teachers. (In fact, the appeal was not Torlakson’s decision to make. Under the state constitution, the attorney general, acting for the governor, is required to appeal a trial court decision that would challenge the constitutionality of a statute. An appellate court ruling would be required for the Vergara decision to be enforced.)

The ‘Vergara’ Effect

But in the end, Vergara proved not to be a big enough wedge issue. Public school teachers were among those who cared most, and they voted heavily against Tuck. Their unions both bankrolled the opposition to the tune of $11-million. Their leaders were overjoyed at his defeat. Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association, celebrated the victory with predictable rhetoric about “millionaires and billionaires” pitted against teachers and support staff. But it was the following paragraph in Vogel’s statement that suggested the importance of the victory:

“We look forward to continuing to work with Tom to ensure learning over testing and the proper training and professional development for all educators as the state continues to implement the Common Core State Standards and the Local Control Funding Formula, and gets ready for the new assessment system.”

Keeping the Coalition Together

In other words, Torlakson’s victory keeps together a coalition that has work yet to accomplish. Despite reservations expressed by other unions, including its own parent organization, the CTA has remained a visible supporter of the Common Core and the state’s new funding and accountability system.

Tuck ran as a Democrat, but his results tracked those of Neel Kashkari, Brown’s Republican opponent in the gubernatorial race. Of the counties with substantial population, Tuck won a majority in every populous county that Kashkari carried. In addition, Tuck carried Ventura and Sacramento counties, and he received the endorsement of Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson.

Tuck pulled within one percentage point in Los Angeles County, where he was best known, and won in the more conservative counties surrounding Los Angeles and San Diego County. Torlakson piled up large majorities in the Bay Area counties, winning 71% of the vote in San Francisco. From Santa Barbara north to the Oregon border, every county touching the Pacific Ocean went for the incumbent.

Torlakson gets office space on the Capitol Mall for the next four years, but it is Brown who remains in the pilot’s chair as the undisputed king of education policy. He led the campaign for 2012’s Proposition 30, which raised taxes and restored much of the school funding lost after the 2008 financial crisis and recession. Brown and state school board president Michael Kirst engineered the passage of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), the most dramatic change in school finance in decades. Since then, he has vetoed much of what the heavily Democratic legislature has passed, and the threat of veto is so substantial that legislators with education ideas in mind check with the governor before even dropping a bill into the hopper.

A Dissappointment for Corporate Reformers

Overall, this election must be a disappointment to corporate reformers, who are in some retreat nationwide at this point. Last month, in the aftermath of his resignation, former Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy worried that “reform” superintendents were being driven from office in cities across the country. Perhaps more important, the public is beginning to push back against the standardized testing at the heart of corporate reformers’ teacher accountability program. We await their next move in the aftermath of this defeat.

In contrast, this outcome reinforces what we have called California Exceptionalism. The state has deviated from the federal “Race to the Top” agenda, particularly the emphasis on accountability by linking teachers to student test scores. It has placed a large bet on grassroots accountability and multiple measures, some of which can be determined by schools and districts. It is looking for ways to build capacity in its teacher corps, and a plan to do so awaits legislative attention, which one hopes can come soon now that the election is past.

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.