With no serious contest at the top of next month’s primary election ballot and none likely to emerge this fall, the multiple-candidate run for California secretary of state has drawn a lot of political attention. But the intraparty race for state schools superintendent offers at least as much contrast and might just have more consequences down the line.
Neither of these offices generally draws much election-time energy from voters, but the spectacle of secretary of state candidate Leland Yee – a Democratic state senator from San Francisco – being dragged off in handcuffs even as he sought to become California’s chief elections officer put more focus on the post than it’s gotten in decades.
Yet, the run for the nominally nonpartisan schools superintendent post might involve the more important job. For sure, there’s a lot of contrast between the two main candidates here, incumbent Tom Torlakson and former charter schools executive Marshall Tuck. (A third candidate has managed to raise only a small fraction of the money and support generated by the other two.)
The 40-year-old Tuck was president of the Green Dot charter school operation before he began running a 15,000-student group of 17 failing schools awarded to former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s jurisdiction as a kind of consolation prize after a slate of “reform” candidates he backed failed to take over the local school board late in the last decade.
Ask Tuck how things might change if he ousts former schoolteacher and ex-Assemblyman Torlakson and he mentions more local control of curriculum, budgets and staffing; possible restructuring of the school day; and a vast reduction of the public schools’ rule book, the 2,300-page state Education Code.
But others cast this race as a contest about teacher unions. In fact, the majority of Torlakson’s campaign kitty comes from labor-linked sources, while Tuck claims to have 1,100 individual donors. Most donors of more than $1,000 to his campaign are business executives or owners.
Under Torlakson, the desired policy of the huge California Teachers Association to keep seniority as the main criterion for deciding which teachers to lay off in hard times has been retained. Tuck, on the other hand, says it’s now too difficult to fire incompetent teachers, as determined by a combination of student test scores, principal evaluations and suspension and graduation rates. He would try to use those factors in some kind of combination with seniority when layoffs must occur.
Tuck cites a 60 percent increase in four-year graduation rates at the public schools he managed, plus a 58 percent graduation rate at Green Dot schools (compared to 35 percent overall for Los Angeles schools at the time), as major accomplishments. But graduation rates have improved considerably for California schools overall in recent years, and there’s the fact that charter school parents are often more involved in their kids’ education than those at ordinary schools.
Does he want to get rid of teacher unions and privatize public schools, as charged by Torlakson backers? “I have only worked in union schools,” the Harvard Business School graduate asserts. “Green Dot teachers were the first charter group with their own union contract. But there are policies the CTA now defends that I disagree with. For one thing, I don’t like giving tenure after just two years. That’s too soon to really judge a teacher. Plus, the time is actually shorter than two years, because principals have to make tenure recommendations in January of a new teacher’s second year, so it’s really decided after only 18 months at the local level. And it is just too difficult to remove grossly underperforming teachers or those with grossly inappropriate conduct.”
So even though Tuck insists he has no problem with teacher unions, he has a lot of problems with some protections afforded their members. He can play down his differences with unions all he wants at election time, but it’s clear he would try for major changes once in office.
Change has been very slow in California public schools, where state superintendents appear to come and go every four or eight years, usually without major impact on the school system.
That perception is one reason this race is important: More than any other statewide contest this year, this one is about whether voters want major changes.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at email@example.com.