Reformer battles with teachers union darling for top education position in Sacramento.

“Teachers Unions Are Putting Themselves On November’s Ballot” was the headline in a recent article by Haley Edwards in Time Magazine. Okay, this is hardly news, but the extent of the largess is eye-opening. Considering that this is not a presidential election year, the political spending is noteworthy.

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, is on track to spend between $40 million and $60 million this election cycle, while its smaller sibling, the American Federation of Teachers, plans to throw in an additional $20 million – more than the organization has spent in any other year.

The reason for the spending orgy is easy to understand: education reform – at long last – has become an important issue with voters across the country. As Edwards writes,

While the issues at stake vary by state, a number of elections this cycle will hinge on a variety of education-related questions, including recent cuts to public schools, growing class sizes, Common Core State Standards, access to pre-K education and the availability of state-funded student loans for college. A June Rasmussen report found that 58% of total expected voters ranked education as “very important,” while local polls indicate that voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kansas and Illinois rank education as among the top three most important issues this cycle.

In California, perhaps the most ballyhooed contest is not for a legislative position, but rather the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction.  As Fox & Hounds Joel Fox points out, the election is a referendum on teachers unions, pitting reformer Marshall Tuck against incumbent Tom Torlakson, the bought-and-paid-for choice of the California Teachers Association. The SPI’s various responsibilities include acting as chief spokesperson for public schools, providing education policy and direction to local school districts, and working with the education community to improve students’ academic performance.

Typically, in a race that pits union guy vs. reformer, organized labor gets its way. But maybe not this time.

First off, Tuck is passionate, articulate and a pit-bull on the issues. He worked on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley before serving as president of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school management organization. He then became CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s collaboration with the Los Angeles Unified School District to operate 17 struggling public elementary, middle, and high schools.

Torlakson was a teacher before entering politics as a city councilman in 1978. He served as a California State Assemblyman and Senator before becoming SPI in 2010.

Perhaps the difference between the two is best exemplified by their responses to the Vergara ruling, which saw a judge throw out the state’s teacher tenure, dismissal and seniority laws. Tuck saw the decision as a victory for kids, while Torlakson claimed it was unfair to teachers. Moreover, the incumbent asked the California attorney general to appeal, which she did.

As writer Steve Greenhut points out, the challenger has direct experience dealing with issues raised by the Vergara case. After Tuck took over some of LA’s most troubled schools as CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles 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.” Tuck explains,

The CTA should always be part of the equation because teachers are so important but their influence is too large right now. … 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,’ 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.’

Additionally, he refers to California’s behemoth educational code as

… 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.

Torlakson and his CTA friends are losing the battle of ideas, basically because they don’t have any. Instead, they disparage Tuck’s previous work as a “Wall Street investment banker.” They also idiotically claim that the challenger wants to turn schools over to “for-profit corporations” and “sell off our schools and sell out our kids.” The October issue of CTA’s magazine, California Educator, is full of anti-Tuck blather, including an editorial by union president Dean Vogel in which he solemnly proclaims that the challenger is a “well-funded corporate education reformer who supports the privatization of public schools and efforts to obliterate due process for teachers.” Also, in a talk a few months ago, Vogel asserted that, “We know who Tom is. He is one of us….”

He sure is.

Invariably in races like this, CTA manages to outspend the reformers. This one, however, may be an exception, as Tuck’s donations have been keeping up with Torlakson’s. The challenger has found some deep-pocketed backers whose donations have matched the free-spending CTA. As reported by EdSource,

Nine wealthy backers of Marshall Tuck – led by $1 million donations each from William Bloomfield of Manhattan Beach and Eli Broad, a longtime funder of reform efforts in Los Angeles – seeded a new independent expenditure committee with $4 million. That brought outside fundraising for Tuck nearly even with outside fundraising by the California Teachers Association, the biggest financial backer of Supt. Tom Torlakson. The CTA contributed an additional $1.4 million this week to the $5.7 million it has already contributed to Torlakson. The new donations, as of Oct. 10, will push expected spending by groups not affiliated with the candidates to about $14 million, split about 40 percent for Tuck and 60 percent for Torlakson.

The two candidates themselves have raised about $4.4 million in direct contributions as of Oct. 10 … That combined total is already more than twice the total raised by the candidates in the 2010 election, in which Torlakson defeated a retired school district superintendent, Larry Aceves. As of the latest campaign finance disclosure period, which ended Sept. 30, Torlakson had about $608,000 left in the bank, while Tuck had close to $700,000.

Money, however, isn’t the only important factor in elections. Teachers unions have a great advantage in races like this. In California, they have easy access to 300,000 teachers who are being told, in no uncertain terms, that Torlakson “is one of them” and that Tuck is the corporate reformer from Hell.

But interestingly, Tuck is getting a major boost from the mainstream media. Just about every major daily in the state, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times has come out – forcefully – in favor of Tuck. The Sac Bee editorial board endorsed the challenger because it believes that “teachers unions have a chokehold on the state’s public education system and that’s been detrimental for everyone, including teachers.”

With two weeks to go, polls show an even race with many still undecided; it’s anybody’s guess as to who will ultimately prevail. I suspect that the teachers unions will ramp up their spending down the home stretch because they know that if Torlakson loses, the status quo is history. And for a reactionary bunch like CTA, that is a fate worse than death.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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