California Schools Chief Race Shows Democratic Divide on Education

October 28, 2014

By Allie Bidwell

The hard-fought contest holds symbolic significance for the Democratic Party.

It's a battle of old versus new in California.

The typically overlooked race for state superintendent of public instruction is under a national microscope as it pits incumbent Tom Torlakson, a former teacher closely aligned with labor unions and the school establishment, against fellow Democrat Marshall Tuck, a charter school administrator backed by education reformers who advocate for controversial policy shifts like school vouchers and changes to teacher employment laws.

"This is indeed a test of strengths between the so-called education reformers and the so-called education establishment," says David Plank, executive director of the Policy Analysis for California Education research center. "The substantive implications of that in the next four years are pretty small … but in symbolic terms and in terms of the rhetorical climate around education, it would be a very big victory for the reformers."

Education policy is set by the governor and state legislature, and the state superintendent mainly serves as a collaborative advocate for public education. But ideological splits in the Democratic Party presented in the race – particularly around the two candidates' opposing views on teacher tenure – have cast a national spotlight on a contest many now see as a power struggle between teachers unions and the education reform movement. 

"There's no question it is a change-versus-status quo – I think that's a certainty," Tuck says. "If you are happy with the direction of California's public schools, you should vote for the incumbent." 

Tuck has particularly taken issue with California's national standing in student achievement in math and reading. The most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress place California toward the bottom in the country for students in math and reading, and the scores have been that way for decades. 

But the state is making incremental improvements, particularly in the high school graduation rate – which has risen to an all-time high of 80 percent – and eighth-grade reading, where the average score for students jumped 7 points between 2011 and 2013 to 262, putting it closer in line with the national average of 266. 

"As a teacher and a superintendent, I know we have a long way to go – that's why I ran for the office to begin with, to bring our academic capacity up," Torlakson says. "We're moving forward and there's lots of work to do, not a time to take a risk of a big step backwards." 

The two candidates agree on big-picture items for the state, like implementing the Common Core State Standards, maintaining funding levels for public schools and parental and community involvement in education policy decisions. But the wedge issue that catapulted the race into the spotlight is the stark divide between Torlakson and Tuck on teacher tenure.