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Election Day in California: Teachers' Unions v. EdVoice

While the GOP primary for governor gobbles up most of the major media attention today in California, education policy geeks will be more interested in what goes down in the three-person contest for state schools chief. (Yes, there are a total of 12 candidates, but only three that are viable.)

This race, and it actually is a race, is viewed widely as a referendum on the influence of the California Teachers Association, the 325,000-member teachers' union that has, for decades, been one of the state's most formidable special interest groups. The CTA, along with the other statewide teachers' union, the California Federation of Teachers, has sunk close to $1.5 million into the campaign of Tom Torlakson, a former teacher and coach who is an assembly member from the San Francisco Bay Area. Interestingly, the union money has not been used to produce and buy television time for Torlakson. CTA invested in radio spots, which are cheaper than TV.

But the contest's outcome could just as easily be seen as a measure of the influence of wealthy philanthropists with very specific ideas about improving public schooling, folks by the name of Broad (as in Eli), Hastings (as in Reed of NetFlix fame), and Fisher (as in the family of the late Don Fisher, founder of The Gap and major benefactor of KIPP). Those heavy hitters, individually and through their reform organization, EdVoice, have poured about the same amount of dough into the campaign of Gloria Romero, a state senator from Los Angeles. Romero, who is pro-charter school, has also become one of the loudest state voices for the Obama administration's school-reform strategies, particularly its $4 billion Race to the Top sweepstakes. The EdVoice money bought Romero television exposure.

Then there's Larry Aceves, a retired district superintendent who was recruited to run by the Association of California School Administrators. Aceves' candidacy, buoyed by ACSA's independent expenditures, as well as important endorsements from the Los Angeles Times and the Contra Costa Times newspapers, is expected to keep Romero or Torlakson from scoring an outright victory today.

Which will likely mean even bigger spending from CTA and EdVoice for the November runoff. CTA will no doubt have to carefully balance its spending priorities for the general election, though. With state Attorney General Jerry Brown, a Democrat, expected to be facing billionaire GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, every penny of labor union political action committee money will be in great demand from the Brown campaign. And while it really matters who sits in the state's schools chief's office, who becomes governor matters a whole lot more.

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