SAN FRANCISCO — While races for governor and U.S. Senate are grabbing attention elsewhere, one of the most hotly contested statewide contests in California involves a nonpartisan position that rarely generates headlines.
Two Democrats — an incumbent and a newcomer — are competing in the unusually animated, expensive race for state schools superintendent — a contest that has become a multi-million dollar battle between powerful teachers unions and education reformers.
California, home to one-eighth of the nation's public school students, is one of 13 states with an elected K-12 schools chief. It's an unheralded office where the occupant carries out education policies set by the California Legislature and a board appointed by the governor.
The contest pits incumbent Tom Torlakson against first-time candidate Marshall Tuck, a former charter schools executive.
Candidate and independent spending in the race has approached $14 million, making it California's costliest statewide election this year after the election for governor. The campaign also has exposed divisions within the state Democratic Party over its allegiance to organized labor.
The reform movement sees the unions as a barrier to accountability, parent choice and improved education quality in the state that ranks near the bottom in per-pupil spending and on many measures of student performance.
A Field Poll released earlier this week had the race as a dead heat, with both candidates supported by 28 percent of likely voters and the rest undecided.
The outcome is being watched outside California as a potential bellwether for changes in how teachers are hired, evaluated, rewarded and fired.
"One of the dynamics you are seeing in this race is the feeling among young Democrats that we have to do something much different than we did before," said former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is raising money for Tuck and whose husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, has endorsed him. "They are saying we have to change the way we do business as a party around education. We can't side with the unions without asking questions."
Torlakson, 65, a former state lawmaker who worked as a high school science teacher before he entered politics, has the backing of the California Democratic Party and the unions, which have raised at least $5.4 million for independent expenditures on his behalf.
Citing his comfortable relationship with the governor and Legislature, where he served for 14 years, Torlakson said schools need continuity while rebounding from deep cuts during the recession; moving forward with new state standards; and applying a new funding formula that directs extra money to districts with the neediest students.
"California schools have a long way to go, but we are making real progress," he said during a recent candidate forum. "Do we keep moving forward, or do we risk taking a huge step backward?"
Tuck, 41, oversaw a network of unionized charter schools in Los Angeles before then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recruited him to lead a schools turnaround organization.
Tuck has been endorsed by Villaraigosa, a handful of other Democratic mayors and the leading newspapers in the state. Villaraigosa exemplifies the split within the party: A Democrat and former state Assembly speaker, he is a former labor organizer for the Los Angeles teachers union.
Tuck's financial backers have contributed more than $6.7 million to committees supporting his campaign. They include regular Democratic Party donors such as philanthropist Eli Broad and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, as well as Republicans such as Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton and independents such as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Like Torlakson, Tuck thinks California spends too little on its schools, supports the Common Core standards and opposes school vouchers.
The candidates disagree, however, on a June court decision that overturned the state's generous teacher tenure laws and other job protections. Tuck never misses a chance to criticize the incumbent for his decision to participate in an appeal of the landmark court case, citing it as evidence that Torlakson lacks independence from the unions.
"The only thing that hasn't changed in the last couple of decades while our schools have been stuck at the bottom has been the same Sacramento leadership, the same focus that isn't prioritizing kids on every single decision, but too often is prioritizing insiders, politicians and business as usual," Tuck said during a candidates forum.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said voters should be asking if the change Tuck represents will help schools improve or destabilize them. She said teachers prefer someone who will work with them instead of attack them.