In the hours since Marshall Tuck’s daunting but failed effort to unseat incumbent State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, education and political observers have reached different conclusions about the election and its significance.
One said Tuck’s defeat would have no impact. Another said it would further deepen the rift between the two main factions that squared off in the record-spending $30 million-plus race: teachers unions on behalf of Torlakson and well-heeled benefactors who agreed with Tuck’s vision of education reform.
A third observer said the closeness of the results should be a wake-up call to both sides to de-escalate. And Tuck himself said Wednesday he was disappointed by the result but inspired by the campaign and the coalition he built – and that he will continue working on behalf of California’s kids in ways he has yet to decide.
Torlakson defeated Tuck 52.1 percent to 47.9 percent. The gap was less than 2 percent in Tuck’s home turf, Los Angeles, where he ran the Green Dot charter school network before managing the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, the nonprofit charged with turning around low-performing schools in Los Angeles Unified. The campaign was a bruising battle fought through independent expenditure committees, in which the California Teachers Association anted up $11 million and one Tuck backer, William Bloomfield, alone donated $3.5 million. The race became the latest front in an ongoing war between teachers unions and those advocating a brand of reform that calls for weakening union power and injecting competition through charter schools and parental choice. Tuck made challenging the California Teachers Association’s influence in Sacramento a campaign theme and said Torlakson represented the status quo.
But in the end, the race won’t make much difference, said David Plank, the executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent research center based at Stanford University, UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California.
Had he won, Dan Schnur said, “Tuck would have been a very visible and influential voice in Sacramento. That’s not going to happen.”
“The election was a defeat for ‘reformers’ and a successful defense for the teachers unions but it won’t put them in a stronger position; they successfully defended their turf,” Plank said. A win by Tuck would have given the coalition of reformers in his camp a “public triumph,” but Tuck made empty promises, he said, because the state superintendent has little authority to determine education policy. That power rests with Gov. Jerry Brown and Michael Kirst, an emeritus professor at Stanford who Brown appointed as president of the State Board of Education.
Tuck’s vow to withdraw the appeal of the decision in the Vergara v. State of California lawsuit was an example of his limited authority, Plank said. In that case a state Superior Court judge overturned five workplace protection laws for teachers, including tenure after two years, dismissal procedures and layoffs by seniority. Torlakson, a defendant in the suit, has appealed the decision. Tuck agreed with the judge’s ruling and said he would drop the appeal if elected.
“Marshall Tuck could have stood naked on the grounds of the Capitol and torn up the Vergara appeal, and it wouldn’t have mattered,” Plank said, because Brown has filed an appeal.
Plank said Tuck’s defeat showed how difficult it would be for those who back Tuck’s vision of reform to win that office.
“They had a very strong, articulate, well-funded candidate. Incredible assets: a good bio, an issue (the Vergara case) distinguishing him from the incumbent, the endorsement of all of the state’s major papers,” he said. “Yet he could not overcome the institutional advantages of the unions: motivated teachers and an ability to spend on their behalf.”
Tuck also had what proved to be another disadvantage – unfamiliarity. For most voters, he was a blank canvas that Torlakson and his allies painted darkly. In ads, they attacked him as a Wall Street banker – a reference to a banking job he had right out of college – working with billionaires to privatize and dismantle public schools.
“My guess is that voters decided less on policy – teacher tenure or testing – than on biography,” said Dan Schnur, executive director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. The unions characterized Tuck as “someone without schools’ best interest at heart,” he said.
Had he won, Schnur said, “Tuck would have been a very visible and influential voice in Sacramento. That’s not going to happen.” But his loss has importance, he said, though not in the way Tuck’s allies would like.
“The message the teachers unions will take away is that they can dig deep and beat the other guy, so in the short run, they will be less likely to compromise,” he said. “They can go to a legislator considering tenure reform and say, ‘The same thing will happen to you that we did to Marshall Tuck, and you won’t be as well funded as Tuck.’”
A choice to rearm or de-escalate
That take-away would be unfortunate, because “neither side is going away,” said Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot charters, who hired Tuck for his first job in education and calls him “a rising star” who “rose out of nowhere and did everything right in the campaign” even if he didn’t win.
Barr is the new chairman of the California affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform, which has clashed with unions and other Democrats on charters and standardized testing. The message of the election to both sides should be to de-escalate, not rearm, Barr said.
“Is this a day to conclude, ‘We have to spend more money and work harder next time’ or is it an opportunity to reach out and work on common issues?” he said, like how to attract and retain great teachers. There might even be room for compromise on Vergara, such as requiring tenure after three years, instead of two, though Barr acknowledged he wouldn’t put it at the top of his agenda.
“Dialogue is a good thing,” said Eric Heins, vice president of the California Teachers Association. “We have built coalitions for a long time. But we’re just not ready to support bad reform, and many of the other so-called reforms have nothing to do with improving student learning. There appears to be another agenda.”
“Maybe there are some intersections where (reform groups and teachers unions) can work together, to avoid the zero-sum game,” retiring Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said.
Barr said one only has to look at Gov. Brown for someone who “has figured out a way of cohabitating with both sides.” Brown works closely with unions, yet started two charter schools in Oakland with non-unionized teachers and has become “a master of reform,” pushing through a tax increase, a new funding formula and a shift of power from Sacramento to local schools.
“What can we learn from that?” he asked.
Looking for common ground
A lot, says retiring Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. Steinberg worked closely with Torlakson, who he said he admires “for focusing on tangible things,” like expanding preschool and the $250 million career partnerships program that Steinberg championed. Yet a few years ago, Steinberg also authored a bill that would have eliminated laying off teachers in low-performing schools based on seniority – one of the issues raised in the Vergara lawsuit. The bill, faced with opposition from the California Teachers Association, went nowhere.
Like Barr, Steinberg also has concluded the election presents a chance to “expand the definition” of reform. “Teacher tenure, the challenges in firing teachers who aren’t doing a good job and seniority-based layoffs are important issues, but they suck all of the oxygen out of the room,” he said, crowding out critical issues like expanding preschool, examining the quality of schools of education and creating incentives to go into teaching.
“Maybe there are some intersections where (reform groups and teachers unions) can work together, to avoid the zero-sum game,” he said.
There are, Tuck agreed in an interview Wednesday, and many of the issues he raised during the campaign were drowned out by negative ads against him.
But he also expressed no second thoughts on the theme of his campaign: There must be new leaders in Sacramento, a shift in power and a new coalition of parents and teachers in order “to make meaningful changes so that we can educate all kids in California.”
Before the election, many people didn’t know there was a state superintendent. Now, through his campaign, there is “a base of hundreds of thousands of passionate people to help move forward,” Tuck said. He said he will take time to decide what his role will be, whether he will be an advocate or a manager of schools, but he will remain involved. “I was inspired by how many people got behind this campaign,” he said.