School Choice & Charters

Tom Torlakson Declares Victory in Calif. Chief’s Election

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 05, 2014 3 min read
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Tom Torlakson has won the California state superintendent’s race, beating Marshall Tuck after a close campaign. Torlakson, the incumbent, declared victory early on Nov. 5. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Los Angeles Times, Torlakson won 52 percent of the vote, compared to 48 percent for Tuck. UPDATE (12:53 P.M., Nov. 5): The Associated Press has called the race in favor of Torlakson, and Tuck has conceded the race.

The highest-profile state chief’s race in the country, the contest attracted a huge amount of attention in the education policy world. Torlakson, a former state senator who was elected to be state

superintendent of public instruction n 2010, stressed the large number of significant changes to California schools since he took over. However, Tuck argued that the state’s schools needed fundamental change, in the form of greater freedom from state regulations governing K-12.

The race quickly became a battleground between unions supporting Torlakson, and philanthropists and other self-described education reformers backing Tuck. Although it was a non-partisan race, both candidates identified themselves as Democrats.

Torlakson’s victory represents a major triumph for the unions, which poured millions of dollars into his re-election bid. The California Federation of Teachers and the California Education Association cast Tuck as an insurgent with a Wall Street background (Tuck worked at one time as an investment banker) who would destabilize the teaching profession and push to “privatize” public education on behalf of his wealthy backers. Torlakson won re-election without an explicit endorsement from Gov. Jerry Brown, a fellow Democrat, although the two have seen eye-to-eye on several K-12 policy issues. His win means that the traditional Democratic political machine in California can defend one of its major candidates against a strong challenger.

In short, it’s likely the state will continue on its current policy trajectory with Torlakson continuing to work with Brown, who won his re-election bid, and state Board of Education President Mike Kirst. That means that schools and districts probably won’t get significantly more flexibility from state K-12 regulations, a key part of Tuck’s platform. Torlakson’s win also means the state superintendent’s office will continue to join the defendants in appealing the Vergara v. California ruling from earlier this year, in which a judge declared the state’s teacher-tenure laws unconstitutional.

Tuck also pledged to push the state to seek a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, which Torlakson and other state leaders have been dead set against. It will be

interesting to see if Torlakson makes a major push for expanded early education next year.

Throughout the election, Torlakson cast himself as the friend of teachers who had partnered with Brown and Kirst to enact several significant policy changes. Among these, Torlakson highlighted the state’s transition to the common core and the new Local Control Funding Formula that grants more power over spending to local school districts. He has also pushed for greater resources for career and technical education.

Tuck, however, said that state students’ academic performance was stagnating, showing the need for the kind of fundamental reforms Torlakson and other state policymakers had proved unwilling to deliver. One of his main positions was that schools deserve much more freedom from state education law, in order to spur innovation at the local level that the state should then be responsible for sharing.

A critic of the teachers’ union in state K-12 policymaking, Tuck also sided with the plaintiffs in the Vergara trial about teacher tenure, and said he would push for a statewide waiver from federal education law in order to evaluate teachers based on test scores.

Much of the attention focused on the race in the closing weeks was about the amount of spending on the campaign, both by the candidates and outside groups. Three days before the election, EdSource reported that total spending on the chief’s race reached $30 million, and the news site even developed an app to help track money in the most expensive California superintendent’s race in at least a dozen years. Unions plowed cash into the race to help Torlakson, while philanthropist Eli Broad and others showered Tuck’s effort with money.

Don’t forget to join us Nov. 12 for After the Storm: What the 2014 Election Results Mean for K-12 Policy, a live Education Week event at Gallup headquarters in Washington.

Photo: Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson greets his supporters during an election night watch party Tuesday in Sacramento, Calif. --Andrew Seng/Sacramento Bee/MCT

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.