SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The victory of a union-backed incumbent over a reform-minded political novice in the unusually heated race for California’s K-12 schools chief on Wednesday had leaders of state and national teachers unions expressing satisfaction that voters were more interested in supporting teachers than holding them responsible for what ails public education.
Incumbent Tom Torlakson, a former high school teacher, is an ally of organized labor who spent 14 years in the state Legislature. He beat back an energetic and well-funded challenge by former charter schools executive and fellow Democrat Marshall Tuck in Tuesday’s general election.
Tuck conceded the nonpartisan superintendent of public instruction race Wednesday morning, after results showed him trailing with 48 percent of the vote to Torlakson’s 52 percent.
“Today, one day after this election, there are still 2.5 million children in California public schools who can’t read and write at grade level. Those children are counting on all of us to take every action necessary to give them a better education and a chance at a better future,” he said in a statement.
The outcome represented an important win for California’s politically powerful teachers unions. Tuck built his campaign around his support for a June court ruling that overturned the state’s generous tenure laws and other job protections for teachers for infringing on the right to a quality education. The unions made defeating him their top priority.
“People respect their teachers,” California Teachers Association Vice President Eric Heins said. “The millionaires and billionaires that backed Tuck can inundate the airwaves and buy all the ads they want, but when an educator who lives in the community says, ‘This is who we think will do a better job and why,’ they have a lot more credibility with the public.”
Torlakson was one of several old-guard Democrats who, led by Gov. Jerry Brown’s cakewalk to an unprecedented fourth term, helped the party maintain its stranglehold on statewide offices in the face of a handful of strong challenges.
Democrat Betty Yee defeated the GOP nominee, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, in the race for state controller, while termed-out state Sen. Alex Padilla prevailed over Republican Pete Peterson to become secretary of state. Padilla and Yee both won by about 6 percentage points.
Attorney General Kamala Harris, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones won re-election, while state Controller John Chiang succeeded in his leap to state treasurer.
Education reformers unhappy with the pace of change in Sacramento sought to find a message, if not a mandate, in the close contest between Torlakson, 65, and Tuck, 41. A margin of 181,489 votes out of more than 4.3 million counted separated the two as of Wednesday afternoon.
Democrats for Education Reform Executive Director Joe Williams said the respectable showing by Tuck, a first-time candidate, suggests there is an appetite for revisiting the rules around how teachers are hired, evaluated, promoted and fired.
“The fact that (Tuck) did as well as he did shows how far the needle has moved. I don’t think a few years ago you could have contemplated a candidate like Marshall doing as well as he did yesterday,” Williams said. “There was a lot of money spent on a race that should have been a ‘gimme’ for (the unions) in terms of the natural physics of elections.”
Tuck operated charter schools in Los Angeles and led a nonprofit that took over running 17 low-performing schools.
Spending in the race exceeded $22 million, making it the most expensive election for a statewide office this year apart from the governor’s race. The California Teachers Association and its organized labor allies devoted more than $7.5 million in independent spending to back Torlakson.
Tuck’s upstart campaign 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.
The race generated interest outside the state as it reflected a growing divide within the Democratic Party over its traditional allegiance to organized labor.
Torlakson said he would take the election as authorization to maintain the direction he set in his first term by working to secure money for after-school programs, high school programs that links academics with career training and for implementing the new Common Core State Standards.
He also said he would work harder to let Californians know he has been addressing teacher quality. Those steps include revising the requirements for earning a teaching credential, making sure student teachers receive more classroom experience and training administrators to better spot struggling new teachers who should be denied tenure.
“What happens in politics is somebody who is challenging the incumbent tries to paint it as he isn’t doing anything on these issues. I was certainly working on these issues,” Torlakson said. “Maybe we didn’t market what we are doing enough.”
The American Federation of Teachers, which usually leaves state races up to its affiliates, took the unusual step of donating money to the race, putting more than $555,000 behind Torlakson.