The most expensive political contest in California is for an office nobody’s heard of

November 3, 2014

A woman inserts her ballot into an intake machine at a polling station during the U.S. presidential election in Los Angeles

On Tuesday, California may not have a suspenseful governor’s race, but the contest for an obscure state education post has attracted an astonishing amount of outside money and turned into a high-stakes test run for the 2016 presidential campaign.

It is the most expensive candidate race on the state ballot this election cycle and certainly the most contentious. An estimated $30 million, or roughly three times the money consumed by the governor’s race, is being spent.

The contest pits two bastions of the Democratic base against each other: The powerful California Teachers Association, backed by teachers’ unions nationwide, is fighting off a cadre of well-heeled education-reform proponents, including many Silicon Valley supporters of the charter school movement.

Teacher Kennis Wong points to Chinese characters on the board at Broadway Elementary School in Venice, Los Angeles

Yet the battle for the state superintendent of public instruction, a largely ministerial post, is a harbinger of a possibly perilous schism within the national Democratic Party. The divide could emerge as an intraparty smackdown in 2016 and cause huge discomfort for the next Democratic presidential nominee, who will need both labor and high-tech support.

This state contest is a proving ground for the heightening clash between labor unions and “new” Democratic money, as well as identity politics. It could also signal serious ramifications for the future of K-12 education.

The nominally nonpartisan contest (no party IDs appear on the ballot) pits two Democrats, incumbent Tom Torlakson, heavily supported by unions and the Democratic Party, against challenger Marshall Tuck, a former charter school executive. The state’s teachers’ unions have spent millions of dollars on independent and issue ads supporting Torlakson; the reform coalition, including civil rights organizations, parents’ groups and wealthy Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and national reform proponents, has flooded the zone for Tuck.

The superintendent post has little political power. The governor appoints the state Board of Education and typically has his own education advisers. In any case, the state Department of Education doesn’t directly run California’s schools and has limited policy sway.

Entrance to Malibu High School is pictured in Malibu, California

There’s usually not a whole lot of voter — or media — interest in this backwater contest. But a recent L.A. Superior Court decision (Vergara v California) invalidated California’s teacher tenure and seniority laws — labeling them unconstitutional.

Teachers’ unions see the decision as potentially lethal — because it threatens job protections under the current hiring-and-firing process — even as educational reformers celebrate it. The decision, if upheld, could have an impact in other states, reformers say, and block unions’ efforts to maintain tenure rules. Soon after the Vergara decision, eight New York families filed suit (Wright v. New York) targeting teacher tenure. Similar lawsuits are in the works in other states.

Tuck, who supports the Vergara decision, has been using it as a sledgehammer, hitting Torlakson hard on the school chief’s move to appeal the ruling. Torlakson “stands with his Sacramento funders and not with students,” Tuck declared in a press release.

Vergara has also shown up in the governor’s race. Governor Jerry Brown, often allied with the state teachers’ union, has weighed in against the decision. His Republican opponent, Neel Kashkari, has embraced the ruling and responded with television ads likening the governor’s position to the failure to save a drowning child, shown struggling underwater until rescued by Kashkari. Meanwhile, Brown has not endorsed in the Torlakson-Tuck race.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson speaks at the 2014 California Democrats State Convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center

The latest, and last, pre-election Field poll shows Brown holding a 21-point lead over the unknown and underfunded Kashkari. But it shows a dead heat in the race for superintendent of public instruction, with Tuck and Torlakson each supported by 28 percent of likely voters. A whopping 44 percent remain undecided. The two candidates are also running neck and neck in terms of direct-candidate campaign funding. But this race will be a test of the impact of a late-in-the game infusion of outside money and of the influence of independent expenditure campaign committees on down-ballot contests.

According to EdSource, an education resource engine, Torlakson and Tuckspent $4.9 million in direct contributions to their campaigns (as of Oct. 18) … outside groups have spent the greatest share of the funds pouring into the race. They have spent a total of $25.1 million … to date, with $6 million of that spent in the past week alone.”

The California Teachers’ Association has spent about $7 million supporting Torlakson. A group called Parents and Teachers for Tuck for State Superintendent 2014 is Tuck’s largest outside supporter. Donors include “real estate developer William Bloomfield Jr., Broad Foundation founder Eli Broad, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Emerson Collective Chair Laurene Powell Jobs.” The group “has spent about $7.5 million on ads.”

In the end, the outcome of the superintendent’s race will be about more than bragging rights and influence. It is a test of whether the reform agenda advocated by federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan and some big-city mayors can overcome the political and financial muscle of the teachers’ unions on solid Democratic turf.

And it can offer clues to the political weather in 2016.


PHOTO (TOP): A woman inserts her ballot into an intake machine in the garage of Tom and Carol Marshall, which was made into a polling location in the neighborhood, during the presidential election in Los Angeles, California, Nov. 6, 2012. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

PHOTO (INSERT 1) Teacher Kennis Wong (L) points to Chinese characters on the board at Broadway Elementary School in Venice, Los Angeles, California, April 11, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

PHOTO (INSERT 2): The entrance to Malibu High School is pictured in Malibu, California, Oct. 11, 2013. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson speaks at the 2014 California Democrats State Convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center, March 8, 2014. REUTERS/David McNew


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Any Teacher’s association that is against letting the money follow the child is NOT for the heart of education, they are for themselves and their own closed door collective bargaining demands. There was a time when children learned in one room schoolhouses and they grew up to be educated, well mannered, productive, upstanding productive members of society. Today….well let’s just sat maybe that nice little one room school house isn’t all that crazy of an idea this point.
I support charter schools and I support vouchers. I think telling a mother who has a bright kid that is forced to stay in a school where he or she is not being give the chance to rise to his/her fullest potential is just cruel and manipulative. We have many bright and spirited inner city kids that are being denied the right to thrive and grow because their parents are forced into a box of collective bargaining strongholds. What child or child’s mother should lay up at night wondering the way to obtain a scholarship to move their child outside the box that may be holding their child in?

Posted by BGoldberg | Report as abusive

Why do you need a union if you are a good teacher? Answer: you don’t.

Unions are for losers who need someone to protect them.

End of story.

Posted by Factoidz | Report as abusive

You think money is supposed to flow to the child? How do you see that working? No money for the teacher or supplies? Just start giving the money to the kids and hope for the best?

Good teachers need unions. Most of labor needs unions. The union evens the playing field with the owners so that both may benefit from the labor and the company. Education is the field that must benefit the employees and the society. Unions are working on reforms to improve the outcomes for individual students. The wealthy are paying to mold society toward a return on their investment.

Who do you think is really for the students? The corporate elite or a bunch of teachers who spend more time with your children than you do?

Posted by HankMo | Report as abusive

I would generally support an individuals right to seek the education they want for their children. However, typical second generation success families always have soft and unaware children, who deserve no more than anyone else. It is actually the germ in the belief of an endowed life which presupposes a specialness by birth. So, all you silicon valley success stories, your children are likely soft and should actually go to public school to see if they actually are better or just the same as every other spoiled child in this nation. I know you hope some day they will be king, but I will build a gallows. Unless tested against reality all espouse specialness is fake. It’s the falsehood of our fascist corporations and undoubtedly what destroys all societies, the endowed existence which ascends to power.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Best areas in Silicon Valley are dominated by private schools. The landlords are trying their best to kick out public schools, and the less affluent families related to the public schools, so that will increase the property values a lot :). Hence, the push towards chartered schools.

Posted by Ananke | Report as abusive