The bigwigs at the powerful California Teachers Association are feeling a little uneasy this campaign season, knowing that their preferred candidate for state superintendent of public instruction is not guaranteed a win for the first time in more than a decade. Former science teacher, triathlete and now assemblyman Tom Torlakson of Contra Costa County, a little-known politician who recently pushed to improve California air quality by asking drivers to participate in Bike Commute Week, is facing Los Angeles state Sen. Gloria Romero, an expert on school and prison reform who orchestrated a comprehensive reorganization of California's corrections system. She's now turning her sights on the schools.

“It's going to be a tough race,” says CTA President David Sanchez, “but we have 325,000 members who are going to work for Tom.”

Which is no small thing. The CTA, made up of teachers, counselors, librarians and others, is rich. It employs many lawyers, keeps a permanent lobbying office near the Capitol in Sacramento, and can easily throw $30 million at a ballot measure it doesn't like. It has pushed through laws that make it all but impossible to fire bad teachers, and is one of the largest opponents of charter schools in the U.S.

And, since 1994, the CTA has controlled the nonpartisan post of California superintendent of public instruction.

That year, the CTA anointed as its candidate a Democratic state legislator named Delaine Eastin. Eastin beat Maureen DiMarco, a widely respected and experienced educator whom some still remember as one of the missed opportunities in the fight to fix California schools.

DiMarco, though a Democrat, was eviscerated by California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and his close CTA allies, who painted DiMarco as a public enemy for having taken a job under then–Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, in which she was working to turn around faltering schools.

Eastin easily beat DiMarco. But Eastin's tenure was disastrous. When she took over, California students, even those in the middle class, had fallen to near the bottom nationwide in reading and math achievement tests. Eastin repeatedly failed to take on what some see as the root of the problem: the state's inept but politically powerful teacher colleges, which churn out thousands of teachers who cannot teach.

Eastin left office in 2002 and was replaced by yet another longtime legislator handpicked by the CTA, Jack O'Connell. Like Eastin, a frequent appeaser of the huge union, O'Connell successfully fought Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2005 ballot measure that would have required public school teachers to work for five years, instead of two, before being granted lifelong tenure.

But this year is different from 1994 and 2002. Voters are moody, and the kingmaking practiced by the CTA may not work.

Romero, a former college professor, one-time friend of the CTA and chairwoman of the state Senate Education Committee, is a top contender for superintendent — and CTA's new public enemy No. 1.

The energetic, plainspoken Romero is seriously challenging Torlakson, and she won the backing of the Sacramento Bee, the newspaper that keeps a closer watch on the state superintendent than any other.

Romero offers pointed comments such as: “There's a lot of change going on in teachers' unions today, but the old guard has resisted change every step of the way.”

CTA leader Sanchez, alluding to Romero's rousing support for charter schools, snaps back: “She wants to privatize public schools.”

Several other candidates are running, including retired educator Larry Aceves, who was endorsed by the Los Angeles Times. The top two vote-getters will face each other in November. The winner will control the California Department of Education and set policy affecting more than 9,000 schools and 7 million children.

Political observers see not only a bruising Romero-Torlakson matchup in the works for November, but a public referendum on the California Teachers Association.

“Torlakson wins and the message is, 'The CTA is still powerful,'” says Tim Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University. “If Romero wins, the message will be, 'The CTA isn't as powerful.'”

Torlakson and Romero, although both liberal Democrats, are very different people. “Torlakson is known as a Mr. Nice Guy,” says Hodson. “Romero is the iconoclast in the race. She's not afraid to take on the CTA, and that's been her M.O. for her career. She's not afraid to pick a fight.”

Romero infuriated the CTA and Sanchez by pushing hard for expansion of charter schools and other major reforms to help California win money from President Barack Obama's Race to the Top initiative. Romero's legislation, signed by Schwarzenegger, gives parents the right to petition a failing school, demands specific improvements in writing from administrators and lets children in California's 1,000 lowest-performing schools leave for schools outside their districts.

Opponents fought Romero's reforms. Many ideas got watered down or axed, including a proposal to provide merit pay to high-performing teachers, and Obama chose not to grant California any Race to the Top money.

For Romero, who represents a heavily Latino and Asian district stretching from the Eastside through the San Gabriel Valley, public education is “the most significant civil rights issue of our time.” She talks about shaking up a culture of complacency in Sacramento that “looks the other way,” and does a better job of throwing young people in jail than educating them.

“If you don't educate, you incarcerate,” Romero says. “We have to make changes here, or we're just going to keep feeding the prisons.” As for her pugnaciousness, she says, “If you get elected to be afraid and to only do what powerful interests want you to do, then you're wasting your time.”

Torlakson doesn't talk like that. His campaign Web site shows him standing in a make-believe classroom where a cartoon student asks him what kids can do to get better exercise and not eat junk food — not exactly pressing issues in a state with a devastatingly high 23 percent to 39 percent high school dropout rate, depending on whose study you believe. Asked by L.A. Weekly about the criticism that he is the “status quo” candidate, Torlakson sent an e-mail that hit upon such bland and widely agreed goals as ensuring school safety and helping parents support teaching that promotes “good citizenship.”

“I'll make the health and fitness of students a top priority,” pledges Torlakson.

But epic troubles face the classrooms. Although they deny blame, the colleges of education — such powerhouses as USC, UCLA and Cal State Northridge — have for two decades produced teachers who do not know how to teach English, math or science — even how to control rowdy classrooms. Yet with few exceptions statewide, teachers work just two years before winning lifelong tenure, often without a serious evaluation. Incompetent teachers cannot be fired (See L.A. Weekly's cover story “Dance of the Lemons,” Feb. 11, 2010, by Beth Barrett). Fed-up parents are increasingly embracing charter schools that eschew many of these CTA-backed rules.

Says Hodson: “The [public] perception is growing that the teachers' unions are interested in growing their benefits and salaries, even at the detriment to other teachers and kids.”

Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, says the race is the “classic face-off between the CTA on one side and the reformers on the other,” and “perfectly encapsulates the debate going on in education in this state.” Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California says his nonpartisan group's polls show that voters are paying attention to education issues and that they share a “strong desire for reform and change.”

“Once upon a time,” Hodson says, “if you got the endorsement of the CTA, that was magic. That isn't the case anymore. There's some frustration felt among voters against teachers' unions.”

But anything could happen next week. California voters are notorious for going to the polls and selecting candidates using guesswork. They could want reform, but still pick anyone but a reformer. Says Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, “Sometimes they just vote for someone with a good-sounding name.” In a state where Latino voters can be a deciding factor, a woman named Romero may beat a man named Torlakson.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.

LA Weekly