This year’s election for California state School Chief has drawn national attention as one of the tightest and costliest on the ballot.
The battle so far has seen Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson debating hotly against newcomer Marshall Tuck. The race has pitted teachers unions against each other, as some want to keep the status quo in schools and others look to rapidly overhaul the state education system.
The result of the race could reach far beyond California.
“The politics and the symbolism are tremendous, both for the [unions and] the reformers,” said Dan Schnur, executive director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. “Whichever side wins this relatively low-profile office gets a huge leg up in the broader debate over education policy.”
Seeking a second term, Torlakson was first instated in 2010. In that time he has worked to help schools overcome the effects of the recession, increased graduation rates in the state to a record high, and lobbied for funding increases and local control of that money.
“I’m a teacher, I have that in my genes,” the silver-haired incumbent said in a recent interview. “I love the work I’m doing. It’s the toughest work I’ve ever done. We’re going to work hard to keep improving things. We know there’s a lot of work to do and we know that it’s not a time to take a risk on the unknown.”
His opponent, Marshall Tuck, worked as an investment banker before turning to the field of education. In those years, he led multiple charter schools and traditional public schools in Los Angeles that had been taken over by then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. During that time, he said he learned the effects that state bureaucracy has on schools, as well as how best to improve the low-performing, most violent schools in the area.
“If you’re happy with California public schools, vote for the incumbent and vote for the status quo,” Tuck said in an interview. “If you think our kids can do better and we need major change in our schools, vote for someone who’s actually delivered that.”
Another issue focused on in the campaign is that according to a report card compiled by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, California’s students are failing. State fourth graders rank 47th in the country for reading scores, and 46th for math, while the eighth-graders rank 42nd in reading scores and 43rd for math.
Torlakson believes the answer to the issue is additional funding; Tuck would like to see better leadership in the schools.
While many did not expect Tuck to stand a chance in this race, a recent survey by the Field Poll showed the pair in a tie. Internal conflict among teachers unions has fueled uncertainty as they debate teacher tenure, seniority, evaluation and dismissal policies.
A Los Angeles judge ruled earlier this year that teacher tenure laws violated student constitutional rights to an equal education through inadequate teachers. While Tuck viewed the ruling as a win for students, Torlakson appealed the ruling with state teachers unions.
“I’m tired of the blame game,” Torlakson said, arguing that tools exist for eliminating poor instructors and that the ruling infringes upon teachers’ due-process rights. “Teachers are the solution, not the problem.”
Meanwhile, Tuck is planning to remove the appeal if he wins.
Both candidates in the nonpartisan race are Democrats.