Triumph of the Status Quo — Torlakson over Tuck

California’s education reformers had high hopes for Marshall Tuck’s insurgent campaign against State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. The 41-year-old former investment banker and charter school president tried to paint the 65-year-old incumbent, former legislator, and fellow Democrat as a creature of the state’s powerful teachers’ unions. Tuck wasn’t wrong, though both candidates spent a great deal of energy and money attacking one another’s character. And the race did expose a growing fissure between traditional union-aligned Democrats and an emerging faction of pro-business, pro-reform Democrats. But the biggest difference between Torlakson and Tuck—their respective plans for reforming the state’s tenure and dismissal statutes—didn’t galvanize voters.

The day before the election, a Reuters analysis called the nominally nonpartisan state superintendent’s race the “most expensive political contest in California . . . for an office nobody’s heard of.” The candidates and their allies poured more than $30 million into the election—more than three times what Governor Jerry Brown and his Republican opponent, Neel Kashkari, spent on their campaigns combined. The California Teachers Association alone spent $11 million, including at least $2 million on independent radio and TV ads touting Torlakson and denouncing Tuck. Meantime, about a dozen well-heeled education reformers, including Los Angeles real estate developer Eli Broad and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, contributed nearly $10 million to an independent campaign committee backing Tuck.

Yet in the end, Torlakson bested Tuck by a margin of 181,489 votes out of more than 4.3 million ballots cast. Not a landside, but not a nail-biter, either. What happened?

Tuck’s candidacy hinged on two issues: tenure reform and greater local control, especially for charter schools. He hammered Torlakson for supporting the state’s appeal of Vergara v. California, the class-action lawsuit in Los Angeles that seeks to void the state’s tenure, seniority, and dismissal rules. L.A. Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu had ruled in June that students and newly hired teachers “are unfairly, unnecessarily, and for no legally cognizable reason (let alone a compelling one), disadvantaged by the current [law].” Torlakson called Treu’s ruling “an attack on teachers” throughout the campaign. Tuck said Torlakson’s eagerness to appeal the decision showed that he put union interests over the interests of children.

But polls showed that Vergara resonated weakly with voters. Though 42 percent of likely California voters ranked education as their top priority this year, and the vast majority of voters surveyed after Treu’s ruling agreed that the state should do away with “last hired, first fired” tenure protections, nearly 60 percent said they didn’t know what the lawsuit was about. Reformers may not like to hear it, but Governor Brown wasn’t wrong when he dismissed tenure reform in the campaign’s waning days as an “ephemeral” issue. Nor was Torlakson wrong when he said, “I think [Tuck] is focusing inappropriately on one lawsuit, one set of issues around that.”

Tuck also touted his experience as president of the Green Dot chain of charter schools. He voiced his support for California’s landmark parent-trigger law, which lets parents at failing schools petition to force their school district to implement certain reforms, including charter school conversion. Here again, though, voters don’t completely understand charter school reforms. And the CTA and its lesser partner, the California Federation of Teachers, have opposed parent-trigger campaigns and generally consider the charter movement to be “privatization,” even though California’s charters are nonprofit organizations that must adhere to the state education code. The teachers’ unions and their surrogates, such as Diane Ravitch, used Tuck’s charter school ties to paint him as a racist, a bigot, and a tool of “the power elite.” Their attacks bordered on defamation, but they worked.

Outside those contentious but narrow policy questions, Torlakson and Tuck didn’t differ much. Both expressed enthusiasm for the Common Core State Standards, despite their declining popularity among Californians. The PACE/USC Rossier School of Education poll in June found just 32 percent of voters supported the standards, while 42 percent opposed them—a sharp drop over the previous year’s survey, which found majority support. Yet Tuck chose to distinguish himself from Torlakson by accusing the incumbent of implementing the standards too slowly.

On school funding, both candidates agreed that the state should spend more on public schools—apparently, the 1988 constitutional amendment requiring the legislature to earmark at least 40 percent of the general fund for elementary and secondary education provides too little money. Tuck himself told an Education Week reporter last month that on questions of compensation and professional development, “I have tons of alignment with CTA’s agenda.” At bottom, Tuck and Torlakson shared the belief that whatever ails public education, greater government intervention can cure it. They simply disagreed over the means. And with 40 percent of voters still undecided days before the election, it’s easy to see why voters chose to play it safe with the incumbent.

Before Election Day, education policy wonks speculated that the outcome of the Torlakson-Tuck fight could resonate into 2016. Sacramento Beecolumnist Dan Morain argued, “Public school unions will be fundamental to Democrats’ success. But there will be a cost. Teachers unions have not been a force for change for the better. . . . The question is when, not whether, that divide will become a problem for the Democratic Party.” Not this year. The status quo holds, for now.

CA Teachers Brace for Impact on Election Day

The expensive race for California superintendent of public instruction may have the biggest education impact of any election Tuesday.

Regardless of its outcome, the race will send shockwaves across the country and set the national tone for how strong unionized teachers remain in an era of rapid change for public education.

The showdown is between incumbent superintendent Tom Torlakson and challenger Marshall Tuck, both Democrats. Torlakson easily won the primary over the summer, taking 46 percent of the vote to Tuck’s 29 percent (California uses a nonpartisan primary in which the top two candidates advance to the general election, regardless of party). Since then, however, the gap has narrowed tremendously, and the final outcome is completely uncertain. The final polls prior to Election Day show the candidates tied with 28 percent support each, while an incredible 44 percent of voters are undecided.

Torlakson is a pro-union Democrat, an individual representing the symbiotic relationship between Democrats and organized labor that has existed since before the World War II. A former science teacher, Torlakson spent years in California’s State Assembly and Senate, where he helped boost funding for after-school programs and low-performing schools by billions of dollars. As the state’s top education official, he has helped lead the legal battle against the Vergara v. California decision that gutted California’s tenure law and other generous job security protections that have made it excruciatingly difficult and costly for teachers in the state to be fired. He opposes using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, is skeptical of charter schooling, and favors traditional union goals such as reducing class sizes.

Tuck, on the other hand, represents every trend in the Democratic Party that teachers fear. Unlike Torlakson, Tuck has never been a public school teacher, and his primary experience is as an administrator for various charter school efforts. He supports the Vergara court ruling, wants to tie teacher pay to performance and has pledged to shake up California schools that he says have grown too comfortable with poor performances on standardized tests. More broadly, he embodies a new movement in the Democratic Party, one willing to question whether the interests of teacher unions and students perfectly coincide. A win by Tuck would be an electoral vindication for Democrats who take up the mantle of aggressive school reform rather than the pro-union status quo.

Tuck also represents the growing role of business leaders in influencing educational policy. His campaign has been substantially helped by the generosity of a few big donors from the business world. Billionaire Eli Broad, the founder of SunAmerica and a major proponent of education reform, has given him at least a million dollars. Other big donors include former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, Silicon Valley investor Arthur Rock, and Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. Among teachers, distrust for the intentions of these current and former moguls runs high, with many arguing the money comes not from altruism but rather from a desire to expand the operations of for-profit standardized testing companies, charter schools, and technology firms.

Tuck’s business ties have been furiously attacked, with one ad from the American Federation of Teachers labeling him a “Wall Street banker” (he worked in finance for a short period after college) and saying he would “turn our schools over to for-profit corporations.”

Tuck may have Wall Street on his side, but teachers have ensured he has no money advantage. The 325,000-member California Teachers Association and several other labor groups groups backing Torlakson have spent nearly $14 million to support his candidacy directly, along with another $7 million on issue ads that reflect positively on him. They’ve also spent close to $3 million on ads attacking Tuck. Altogether, spending in the race has surpassed $30 million, more than any other race in the state and among the most expensive non-gubernatorial state elections in the country’s history.

In this deep blue state, the final outcome of the race will be a critical bellwether about the state of education reform in the United States. For decades, teachers unions have provided Democratic candidates with money and volunteer muscle, helping them to win office and in return being rewarded with the strong pensions, benefits and job protections that offset relatively low salaries. Should Torlakson hang on, it will show that the public education establishment, despite all the attacks upon it from reformers, remain a tremendous force to be reckoned with and a potential kingmaker in Democratic politics. Should Tuck triumph, however, it will represent an overthrow of the old order, a changing of the guard that could last for years.

This piece was originally published at The Daily Caller News Foundation

Editorial: As state superintendent race tightens, Tuck the best choice

In this editorial, the Orange County Register reaffirms it’s endorsement of Marshall Tuck for state superintendent of schools:

Let’s not bury the lede: California’s school superintendent race has drawn nearly three times the campaign spending as the race for governor. It has generated more than double the spending of the last three superintendent races combined. It has featured a clash of union interests, billionaires, charter schools and Hollywood stars.

And yet, according to an Oct. 30 Field Poll, challenger Marshall Tuck and incumbent Tom Torlakson are tied at 28 percent – with 44 percent of voters undecided.

The campaign resembles something of political trench warfare: Each side lobbing shells, but gaining little ground. Field Poll’s Late August/Early September results found a 3 point split in favor of Mr. Tuck, 31-28, with 41 percent undecided.

In other words, after $30 million dollars of combined campaign spending – a number compiled by Oakland-based education think tank EdSource, roughly 80 percent of it independent expenditures – California voters are in about the same place they were two months ago.

The Register has previously endorsed Mr. Tuck for the office, calling him a “mission-driven education reformer.” We reaffirm that endorsement, and the results of the recent Field Poll give us even more confidence in his candidacy.

Read the full editorial here

Tuck outraising incumbent, but union looms large in State Superintendent race

Education reformer Marshall Tuck has accomplished a rare feat for a political challenger: He’s raised more money than the incumbent.

According to the most recent campaign finance disclosure reports released Monday, Tuck has raised nearly $1.6 million since he launched his campaign to fix California’s failing schools. That’s roughly $200,000 more than incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. Both are Democrats.

In addition to raising more money, Tuck has more cash on hand heading into the final month of the campaign. Tuck’s $699,037 in available funds puts him with a nearly six-figure advantage over Torlakson, who reported $608,609 in cash on hand, as of Sept. 30.

Tuck’s strong fundraising shows donors are responding to his reform message. He’s the only statewide challenger to outraise an incumbent this year. In some cases, challengers are at a significant disadvantage.

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, Republican Ronald Gold, who is challenging Attorney General Kamala Harris, had $17,601 in available funds, with $80,000 in outstanding debts. Meanwhile, Harris reported $3.6 million in cash on hand for the most recent period.

Teachers union’s $1.9 million ‘issue’ campaign just beginning

But Tuck’s financial advantage is largely illusory. That’s because the California Teachers Association, the most powerful special interest group in Sacramento, has declared war on Tuck. The teachers union is the biggest player in the superintendent’s race, even dwarfing the candidates.

On Oct. 1, the state’s richest union launched its latest “issue” advocacy praising their loyal ally Torlakson. According to state campaign finance disclosure reports, the CTA reported spending $1.94 million in issue ads benefiting Torlakson. To put that number in perspective, it’s more than either of the candidates has raised for his entire campaign.

And the union is likely just getting started with its outside campaign spending. According to the Los Angeles Times, the CTA spent $2.5 million in independent expenditures during the June primary on Torlakson’s behalf. Despite the union spending, Torlakson received the fewest votes of any statewide incumbent, an anemic 46.5 percent of the vote.

Vergara decision alters the race

Since the primary, things have only gotten worse for Torlakson as more voters are becoming aware of a landmark court case, Vergara v. California, which has fundamentally changed the dynamics of the superintendent’s race.

In June, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu found California’s teacher tenure and dismissal process violates students’ rights by leaving low-income and minority students with the worst teachers. Immediately, the teachers union adopted a “you’re either with us or against us” policy, attacking anyone in their way, even the judge.

“The Vergara ruling makes clear that Judge Treu failed to engage the evidence presented in court by education experts and school superintendents who testified that teacher rights are not impediments to well-run schools and districts,” California Federation of Teachers President Joshua Pechthalt said in a press release condemning the ruling. “Instead he issued a blanket decision to scuttle these important statutes, absent the kind of compelling evidence that should be the standard for changing state law.” The CFT is the state’s second teachers union.

In August, Torlakson, a staunch union defender, announced he would appeal the decision. “The people who dedicate their lives to the teaching profession deserve our admiration and support,” he said in a statement. “Instead, this ruling lays the failings of our education system at their feet.”

In contrast, Tuck has praised the ruling and vows to drop the state’s appeal if elected.

“When I win … I’m immediately submitting to the appellate court our request to no longer be a defendant and will side with the plaintiffs in the case,” Tuck told the UT San Diego.

Tuck’s reform message resonating with all Californians

The teachers unions’ campaign onslaught could backfire. But, much like Republican Meg Whitman proved in 2010 with her run for governor, money sometimes can backfire. Every major newspaper in the state has endorsed Tuck — all citing Torlakson’s cozy relationship with the union as part of their reason.

“As for Torlakson, he seems too busy defending public schools to think about fixing them,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders. “Torlakson actually has attacked Tuck for working on Wall Street during his first two years out of college. That’s the sort of nasty salvo that made it easy for every major newspaper in California, including The Chronicle, to endorse Tuck.”

On Monday, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune became the latest newspaper to back Tuck.

“Torlakson has joined in a legal appeal of the Vergara ruling, and mouths the union line that people want to streamline the hiring and firing rules are ‘blaming teachers,’” the paper wrote. “Tuck applauds the Vergara decision and has called on the state Board of Education not to wait through an appeal before developing alternative rules, including longer evaluation periods before tenure is granted.”

This piece was originally published on CalWatchdog.com.