Only in the field of public education are millions spent campaigning to elect someone to a job few Californians can even describe.
The most expensive race on the June 3 ballot will almost certainly be for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. The California Teachers Association (CTA), by far the biggest-spending California special interest group of the past decade, is focusing its vast wealth on making sure that incumbent Tom Torlakson survives, and that his fellow Democrat, Marshall Tuck, gets buried.
Actually, Torlakson has two opponents, the other being Republican Lydia Gutierrez, but the two guys are waging the primary as if she doesn't exist. Torlakson vs. Tuck is a Democrat-on-Democrat battle between the teachers unions and a loose coalition of reformers who think that giving children a better education requires new rules making it easier to fire teachers. They want to give local schools more control, and - also in stark contrast to the teachers unions - they think these issues are as important as finding more revenue.The CTA and a few other labor unions have spent $2.6 million touting Torlakson and tearing into Tuck with a widely-heard series of negative ads. The CTA has spent another $2 million on "issue ads" telling you Torlakson is a great guy, but leaving out that he's running for political office.
Don't feel too sorry for young Marshall - he's been vastly outspent but he's been endorsed by nearly every major newspaper in the state, a fairly unusual slam on Torlakson, the sitting superintendent. And Tuck has his own rich backers, including L.A.-based billionaire Eli Broad and laundromat king Bill Bloomfield, who've spent $1.4 million on pro-Tuck mailers.
"The fact is that our state is 45th in the country [in student test scores]," says Bloomfield, who attended public schools before making it big. "It's not something that anyone can be remotely proud of. ... If one had to choose one thing to fix in this state, it would be our schools.
"If you don't, you're not paying attention."
Tuck, Bloomfield, Broad and President Barack Obama are among the self-described reformers behind initiatives like Obama's program, Race to the Top, which encourages states to compete for millions of dollars in federal money by enacting school reforms that the teachers unions generally hate.
Under Torlakson (and Gov. Jerry Brown, another ally of the CTA), California has never once come close to qualifying for Obama's millions in Race to the Top funds. The reformers decry this fact, and the teachers unions shrug it off with a "so what?"
Torlakson's campaign spokesman Paul Hefner says, "We're not anti-reform. ... Certainly we don't share the agenda that hedge fund corporate folks have advanced, and we're not marching in lockstep with Washington in terms of education policy."
So far, the school reform movement has mostly unfolded at the local level, under school boards such as the one in Los Angeles, where LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy has pushed for a plan to evaluate Los Angeles teachers.
For decades, California teachers have been all but rubber-stamped as satisfactory, regardless of whether they're effective or ineffective. Deasy wants to measure the teachers by whether their students improve or fall behind - from where they began in class with that teacher - on achievement tests in subjects like math and reading.
Teachers unions hotly oppose the idea. Deasy has also angered teachers unions by championing independent charter schools and greater autonomy for the district's individual schools.
Now Tuck wants to take those same battles to the state level - but at the state level, the CTA has long been accustomed to getting its way.
"The California Department of Education - their focus should be on finding out what works in public schools, and sharing best practices as a soon as possible," says Tuck.
He envisions a much broader role for state superintendent. "You can see scenario where parent voice is the most important voice in policy making," says Tuck. "Now, the CTA has a disproportionate influence in Sacramento."
The CTA has poured money into negative ads blasting Tuck as a "Wall Street banker" (back in his early 20s, he worked at an investment firm for a couple years), and saying that the teachers who worked under Tuck at the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools - 17 failing LAUSD schools that Antonio Villaraigosa and a band of reformers were allowed to take over to try to fix - hated Tuck.
Some teachers probably did hate Tuck - so many changes were instituted at the 17 schools that the four-year graduation rates, as Tuck notes, rose more than 60 percent. Tuck's campaign, to combat the CTA claim that teachers at those schools had "no confidence" in Tuck, is floating a letter signed by 14 Partnership for Los Angeles Schools teachers saying they like Tuck just fine.
For unclear reasons, the big-time school reform money hasn't exactly been flowing like wine toward Tuck.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg famously spent millions of dollars in the last LAUSD board elections, causing some local angst, and the Charter School Association and outspoken reformer Michelle Rhee's group spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on local board races.
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But so far, it's just Bloomfield and Broad, buying a bunch of slate mailers asking people to elect Tuck for the big state job.
The third candidate, Gutierrez, has little monetary support. But insiders say she's a factor because she is the only Republican, the only woman and the only Hispanic running. Since it's a non-partisan election, candidates won't have party affiliation listed on the ballot, but some voters will figure it out on their own.
If enough Republicans vote for Gutierrez, that could keep Torlakson - the favorite because he's the incumbent and nearly $5 million has been spent trying to re-elect him - from winning 50 percent of the vote on June 3. If he doesn't win at least 50 percent "plus one vote," as the rules work, Torlakson gets forced into a November face-off against either Gutierrez or Tuck.
With low turnout expected Tuesday, anything is possible. But Torlakson will be hoping that if he doesn't win outright, he faces the Republican in November, not Tuck and his own deep-pocketed supporters.