School & District Management Opinion

Two Democrats and a Wild Card Face Off for California Superintendent

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — May 14, 2014 5 min read
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Off-year primary elections in California usually have about as much excitement as watching paint dry. This June’s primary is different

Incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson faces what looks increasingly like a stiff challenge from investment banker-turned educator, Marshall Tuck in the non-partisan primary. Torlakson and Tuck represent competing education policy factions within the Democratic Party. The campaign could drive a wedge into what has been a solid coalition in support of Gov. Jerry Brown’s approach to education reform.

Torlakson, a former teacher and 14-year state legislator, was elected state superintendent in 2010, the same year Brown returned to the governorship. Though Brown has not endorsed his reelection, Torlakson has been a loyal supporter of Brown’s efforts to revamp school funding and to transition the state’s curriculum and testing in alignment with Common Core State Standards.

He has solid support from Democrats and educators. He has been endorsed by the state Democratic Party, a long list of office holders including U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and attorney general Kamala Harris. Both teachers unions support him: the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the California Federation of Teachers. Torlakson’s approach to school reform fits squarely into the public sector-centered model advocated by one major Democratic Party faction.

That coalition has been unusually productive in the last four years in getting the state’s inherently unwieldy education governance system to move past gridlock. Torlakson’s transition task force produced a Blueprint for Great Schools. Several elements of the plan have been legislated, including the Common Core and association with the Smarter/Balanced testing consortium.

Most significantly, Brown, Torlakson, and state school board president Michael Kirst created, and the legislature passed, the largest overhaul of the state’s school finance mechanism in 40 years. The Local Control Funding Formula, as it is called, will give school districts substantially more flexibility in how they allocate funds. The funding formula is joined by a new accountability system. In education policy terms, these changes make the school budget a potential instrument of educational change and improvement rather than a compliance-with-regulations document.

Though he endorses the recent reforms, Tuck wants to move farther, faster in giving schools flexibility, and he would follow an accountability path more in line with the national Democratic Party faction led by President Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and others advocating a view of school change based on large data systems and linking indicators of student growth to individual teachers. This approach also draws support from many Republicans and nonpartisan groups.

Tuck took the job as president of Green Dot Public Schools in 2002 when that Los Angeles-based charter operator was three years old. In 2008, then Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa named him CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, the mayor’s school reform initiative that now runs 15 schools with nearly 15,000 students. Villaraigosa has endorsed Tuck’s candidacy, as has Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Reuters reported last week that Tuck, who has never held elective office, has raised nearly $800,000 for his campaign, including strong support from “billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad,” a nationally prominent supporter of corporate school reform. He also counts Laurene Powell Jobs as a contributor. Tuck insists that he supports teachers’ right to collective bargaining (teachers at Green Dot schools are unionized and affiliated with the CTA), but that “unions have ‘too big a seat at the table.’” He opposes statutes that require teachers with the least seniority to be the first fired during layoffs, and is against granting teachers tenure after just two years on the job.

Partly because of his distance from the unions, Tuck has run the table with editorial endorsements from the state’s major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, and San Francisco Chronicle.

Tuck’s web page uses rhetoric that emphasizes crisis: “For decades, California’s education system has stagnated while other states and countries rapidly retooled to prepare their kids for the 21st century economy. Now, when students face more global competition than ever before, public schools are leaving them unprepared. While low-skill jobs were once a pipeline to the middle-class, those jobs that remain in California pay poverty wages. ... It’s long past time to bring urgent change to California’s schools.”

A third, wild-card candidate is Lydia Gutierrez, a teacher in the Long Beach school district. She ran in 2008 for state senate as a Republican and lost badly in the general election. She also ran for state superintendent in 2010 and lost in the primary, but her low budget $30,000 campaign garnered her nearly 9% of the vote. In the current campaign, she describes herself as a “scathing” critic of the Common Core. Although her web site does not disclose the association, she has actively sought Tea Party support and the party’s Orange County blog carried a supportive post. Gutierrez has also courted Common Core opponent Diane Ravitch, who has not endorsed Gutierrez, but there has been favorable mention of Gutierrez among teachers who follow Ravitch.

The wild card aspect of the Gutierrez candidacy arises because State Rep. Tim Donnelly has been successful in activating Tea Party supporters in the governor’s race. He is current front-runner in the Republican primary. Donnelly’s most notable political attachment is to firearms. He once tried to tote his loaded gun through security at Ontario International Airport. Recently, he claimed that his opponent Neel Kashkari favored Sharia law because Kashkari had attended a conference on Islamic finance when he worked in the U.S. Treasury Department. Even rock-ribbed conservative Rep. Darrel Issa--no stranger to over-the-top politics--told Donnelly to get out of the GOP. Embarrassment to the party or not, Donnelly may attract more Tea Party followers to vote in the primary and thus, arguably, to the state superintendent’s race.

The primary is on June 3rd. If any of the superintendent candidates gets 50%+1 of the vote in the primary, they win. Otherwise, there will be a November runoff between the top two candidates in the primary.

Torlakson may be hoping the contest flies under the radar. In 2010, he finished second in the primary with 18.6% of the vote, close behind Republican Larry Aceves’s 19.2%. Torlakson won the runoff easily with 55% of the vote.

(David Menefee-Libey is professor of politics at Pomona College.)

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.