(Updated Wednesday with final vote totals)
Tom Torlakson has won a second term as state superintendent of public instruction. The 65-year-old incumbent, a former veteran legislator, defeated Marshall Tuck, a former charter school executive who was little known outside of Los Angeles, 52.1 percent to 47.9 percent with all precincts reporting.
In a statement early Wednesday, Torlakson said, “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.”
Two polls within the past month had called the race a dead heat, with nearly 40 percent of voters undecided. If they were right, most late-deciders broke Torlakson’s way to give him a secure margin. Democratic counties in the Bay Area went heavily for Torlakson, and Torlakson’s home base, Contra Costa County, went 66 to 33 percent for him. Tuck won in conservative Orange and Riverside counties and got 55.6 percent of the vote in San Diego County. Los Angeles, where Tuck ran the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit with the mission of turning around poor-performing schools in Los Angeles Unified, split 50.8 percent for Torlakson to 48.2 percent for Tuck.
Torlakson beat Tuck with 2,266,000 to 2,085,000 votes – a difference of 181,000 votes – with thousands of absentee ballots still to be counted. The total vote of 4.35 million was 900,000 fewer than the 5.2 million votes cast for governor and about 700,000 fewer – 14 percent – than for secretary of state, the only other closely contested statewide contest on the ballot, despite the tens of millions of dollars spend on ads and mailers by both sides in the superintendent race.
Both candidates are Democrats running for a nonpartisan office whose chief job is to run the state Department of Education, not set state education policy or write laws. But the race became a bruising $31 million contest, fought primarily by independent expenditure committees, in what was by far the most expensive statewide race.
It pitted the state’s teachers unions – particularly the California Teachers Association – that supported Torlakson, a reliable ally in Sacramento, against two dozen wealthy donors who supported
Tuck. During the campaign, Tuck criticized the unions’ influence over the Legislature and brought attention to Vergara v. the State of California, the lawsuit challenging current teacher employment laws, including teacher tenure after two years, a lengthy dismissal process and layoffs based on seniority.
Torlakson, a defendant in the Vergara case along with Gov. Jerry Brown, called for maintaining a steady course as the state continues its transition to the Common Core State Standards and a new funding formula based on local control. Whether voters saw the race as a referendum on education reform or a vote of confidence in an incumbent, Torlakson will remain the primary voice on education in California for another four years.