California's Only Meaningful Race: Democrats vs. Teachers Union

Can education reform triumph? Or will the union reign?


SACRAMENTO — Recent polls show most Democratic candidates for statewide office in California holding significant leads over their GOP rivals, which means the most intensely fought and ideologically charged race in the November election is between two Democrats. That's the race for the little-noticed position of superintendent of public instruction.

The top two vote-getters from any party in the primary election face off in the general election (provided, in nonpartisan races such as these, that neither candidate gets a simple majority in the primary). The race to be the elected head of the state Department of Education pits current superintendent Tom Torlakson against the former president of a charter school system, Marshall Tuck.

This will be a bitterly fought race based on substantive policy disagreements and, unlike those other constitutional races (governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, controller, secretary of state, insurance commissioner), both candidates have sufficient cash to clobber each other with negative advertisements.

But there's a bigger surprise here than a competitive statewide race. The real news: Torlakson v. Tuck highlights a deep divide within the Democratic Party regarding the state's troubled public-education system.

Torlakson functions like a subsidiary of one of the state's most powerful unions, the California Teachers Association. Tuck ran the Green Dot Public Schools, a Los Angeles-based charter company that focuses on helping low-performing schools. He also worked with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in leading that city's public-education reforms, and has the backing of high-profile reformers.

What can he accomplish if he wins this bureaucratic position? "The position has been dramatically underutilized," he said in an interview last week. The position can be used not only as a bully pulpit, he said, but can change the state's approach toward myriad legal-oriented reform cases.

He raised the example of "Vergara" — the Los Angeles Superior Court decision that declared as unconstitutional the state's system of tenure and other union-backed job protections because they stop school districts from ridding classrooms of abusive and incompetent teachers. Torlakson blasted the decision as an attack on teachers and Gov. Jerry Brown announced an appeal.

"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 said. He saw the real-world impact of the system the judge criticized. After he took over some of LA's most troubled schools, about half of his teachers received layoff notices because of the system's seniority based layoff system, which protects older teachers regardless of job performance.

"The CTA should always be part of the equation because teachers are so important but their influence is too large right now," he added. "The state superintendent is a nonpartisan position, right? Not Republican, not Democrat … and it's supposed to just be focused on advocating for kids, yet the state superintendent has never disagreed with the CTA. It's insane."

As a result of this "undue influence," Tuck says the state ends up with "laws like two-year tenure and seniority based layoffs, laws that we know are not good for kids; they stay on the books for year after year. … Our kids are harmed dramatically by them to the point where the judge said the evidence shocks the conscience."

He calls California's 2,300-page educational code the "visual definition of bureaucracy" and wants to help public schools — traditional ones and charters — receive waivers from the red tape and allow more local control and flexibility. He wants to give parents a seat at the table in determining school policy. The governor has supported charters in Oakland, he noted, but needs a non-status-quo education voice in Sacramento.

So expect a real battle, especially within Democratic ranks. Tuck pointed to a recent poll showing him up 4-1 among African-Americans and 2-1 among Latinos, groups that tend to vote Democratic. "Their kids are getting crushed in these schools and I've gone in and turned these schools around. … The party in our state has not been prioritizing kids when it comes to education policy."

This is the race to watch: Democrat v. Democrat, school reformers v. the union. It may be the only California statewide race that matters.