Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press
Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, talks with schools chief Tom Torlakson, during the Senate session in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. In the race for superintendent of education, an advocate of school reform — including charters, local control and tempering union influence — is squaring off against incumbent Torlakson, a former teacher.

A one-party state like California may be tailor made to highlight sharp policy differences within the party. In the race of superintendent of education, an advocate of school reform — including charters, local control and tempering union influence — is squaring off against a more traditional Democrat supported by teachers' unions.

The race pits two well-funded Democrats against each other, with former charter school executive Michael Tuck challenging incumbent Tom Torlakson, a former teacher.

Tuck said in an interview with Reuters that he supports teacher unions but thinks they have "too big a seat at the table."

"He opposes rules that require teachers with the least seniority to be the first fired during layoffs, and is against granting teachers tenure after just two years on the job," Reuters reported.

"Policy experts in California say that increasingly, Democrats are supporting elements of the reform agenda," Reuters noted. "At the national level, the call to tie teacher evaluations to students' performance on standardized tests has been championed by the Democratic Obama administration, as well as leading Republicans."

The battle in California thus reflects a larger national battle pitting the Obama administration as a strong supporter of both charter schools and rigorous testing, both positions that pit him against teachers' unions.

In "Dreams of My Father," Obama offered an early signal that he would be an iconoclast on education, when he wrote of "annual budget shortfalls in the hundreds of millions; shortages of textbooks and toilet paper; a teachers union that went on strike at least once every two years; a bloated bureaucracy and an indifferent state Legislature."

"President Obama has a unique opportunity to advance reform," wrote American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael McShane in 2012, "because calls for change from a Democrat with an intimate knowledge of the dysfunction of schools in low-income, inner-city communities do not garner the 'assault on public schools' label that has been given to similar efforts advanced by Republicans. And this is why the tides have turned. Union power is no longer sacrosanct. Unions can no longer phrase the debate (in any way that rings true with the voting populace) as 'us versus them' as leaders from Cory Booker in Newark to Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles chafe against union interests in a push to reform large urban school systems."

Last summer, Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaking at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference in Washington, D.C., argued forcefully for more charter schools.

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“Many high-performing charters have long, long waiting lists of families, and that story is both inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time,” he said as reported by TRNS. “High-performance charter schools have irrefutably demonstrated that low-income children can and do achieve at high levels.”

But the Obama administration always drew a strong line against vouchers, which — unlike charter schools — offer tuition to parents which they can use at the private school of their choice. When the Obama administration took office in 2009, one of its first actions was to suspend the popular District of Columbia voucher program, sparking an outcry from parents and conservative supporters of the program.