Torlakson, Tuck in tight race for schools chief

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – The hotly contested race for California’s superintendent of public instruction remained too close to call early Wednesday as incumbent Tom Torlakson maintained a lead over first-time candidate Marshall Tuck in an election that became an expensive battle ground with high stakes for teachers unions and education reformers.


With more than four-fifths of precincts reporting, returns from Tuesday’s election showed Torlakson in front with 52 percent to Tuck’s 48 percent. But fewer than 200,000 votes separated the two Democrats while millions still needed to be counted.


Torlakson is a former high school science teacher and state lawmaker whose re-election the unions had made their top priority in an otherwise ho-hum election for California Democrats. He issued a statement just after midnight expressing confidence that the lead he held from the time the first returns trickled in would hold as the rest of the votes were tallied.


“We knew it wouldn’t be easy. They were strong, but we were stronger. They were tough, but we were tougher,” he said after attending an election night party in Sacramento hosted by the California Teachers Association. “There are still many votes to count. But it looks like tonight is a win for the people who do more than talk about improving education – tonight is a win for the people who do something about it.”


California, which educates one-eighth of the nation’s school children, is one of 13 states with an elected K-12 schools chief. It is a largely ministerial office in which the occupant carries out education policies set by the California Legislature and a board appointed by the governor, and in most years the election for it does not make headlines.


The contest between Torlakson, 65, and Tuck, 41, a former charter schools executive, turned into a multi-million battle due mostly to the challenger’s vocal support for a June court ruling that overturned the state’s generous tenure laws and other job protections for teachers, a position that distinguished him from his opponent. Spending in the race exceeded $22 million, making it the most expensive election for a statewide office apart from the governor’s race.


Speaking from an election night party at the candidate’s home, Tuck’s campaign manager, Cynara Lilly, said she was “cautiously optimistic” based on the number of outstanding votes.


“It’s hardly a mandate,” Lilly said of Torlakson’s lead. “The thing that is clear from tonight, no matter what happens, is that California voters are incredibly concerned about the state of our failing schools and are looking for major change.”


The election’s outcome was being watched outside California as a referendum on the direction of the state’s underachieving education system and on the powerful role organized labor, especially education unions, has played in the Democratic Party both nationally and in Sacramento.


Torlakson was elected as schools superintendent four years ago after serving 14 years in the state Legislature. In his bid for a second and final term, he had the backing of the unions, the California Democratic Party and the majority of county school superintendents.


Tuck is a former charter schools executive who spent six years leading the Partnership for LA Schools, a nonprofit founded by the former mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, that took over 17 urban public schools.  He secured endorsements from his former mentor and a handful of other Democratic mayors, as well as all of the state’s major newspapers.


Tuck’s upstart campaign also benefited from at least $10.7 million in independent expenditures by the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other business and technology leaders.


Torlakson argued that the state needs steady and experienced leadership as schools rebound from deep budget cuts during the recession and begin to implement curriculum and testing changes associated with new standards.


Tuck, who supports tying students’ standardized test scores to teacher evaluations and merit pay, accused Torlakson of being tied to a failed status quo that prioritized the wishes of the unions over the needs of California’s 6.2 million public school students.

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