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Torlakson, Tuck Talk Federal Power, Teachers' Unions, in Calif. Chief's Race

San Jose, Calif.

This year, the most closely watched race for state superintendent is probably in California, where there's a tight (technically) nonpartisan race between incumbent Tom Torlakson and challenger Marshall Tuck.

And one of the biggest tugs-of-war in the race is over a California judge's June ruling in Vergara v. California that the state's laws governing teacher tenure and due process (in which hiring and firing decisions are based on seniority, and teachers receive tenure after a two-year probationary children) violated the constitutional rights of the state's neediest children.

Tuck has vigorously sided with the Vergara plaintiffs, who are several children in public schools backed by the advocacy group Students Matter, while Torlakson has joined Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and the California Teachers Association in appealing the case. 

I caught up with Tuck in Woodside, south of San Francisco, and asked him about the impact of Vergara on the state chief's race, particularly since laws around tenure and due process are very difficult to turn into easy campaign material. He told me that the particulars of the Vergara case, from a policy perspective, aren't what make the lawsuit truly important for his run. 

"It's about the ultimate question of, are our elected officials making decisions about what's best for kids, versus making decisions for the status quo? It's not the details that have captured the public's imagination," he told me. "You had elected officials fighting the judge and fighting the kids." 

In a question-and-answer session with students at the University of California, Berkeley last week, Tuck talked further about the CTA, which has raised millions of dollars to support Torlakson. Tuck stressed to me that when it comes to teacher pay and the need for more professional development, "I have tons of alignment with CTA's agenda." But the video below of his UC-Berkeley appearance shows that, in the campaign, he's also keen to stress why the union is opposing him. (Apologies for the mediocre video quality.)

'Blaming Teachers Is Not the Answer'

It's relatively easy for each side to paint the opposing candidate as a proxy for broader, more powerful interests—Eli Broad, the head of the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, and a critic of the state's laws for teacher tenure and due process, is a major Tuck supporter, for example. And in an interview with me in San Jose, Torlakson highlighted Tuck's previous work as a Wall Street investment banker, a characterization that has energized Torlakson's backers, but which Tuck has called an irrelevant attack. 

Torlakson raised it largely to highlight that he, unlike Tuck, has worked as a classroom teacher. He stressed that "there's large consensus" in California about the general direction of education policy. What he's referring to is the state's Local Control Funding Formula, which will bring billions of dollars in new state funds designed to help low-income and other high-needs students, and more than $1.5 billion in state funds to help districts implementing the Common Core State Standards.

"We're coupling reform with real money, real change," ..." Torlakson told me. "I think he [Tuck], is focusing inappropriately on one lawsuit, one set of issues around that. I feel he's missing the point: Build capacity. We are building capacity for our teachers to excel. ... Just to focus on, let's go find bad teachers, to me, is the wrong emphasis. Blaming teachers is not the answer to the challenges facing California schools."

Torlakson's campaign has attracted high-profile support recently, including from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who last week visited the United Educators of San Francisco union to stress the election's importance.

Federal Oversight

One other note on an issue that hasn't gotten as much attention in the race as Vergara: the role of the federal government in California schools. There's been an anti-Washington strain in California education policy recently that Torlakson has been a part of. He was keen to highlight the state's decision not to seek a No Child Left Behind Act waiver, and that he took "a stand against Arne Duncan's threats," a reference to the protracted spat between California and the U.S. Department of Education over its testing plans in the 2013-14 school year.

Regarding the NCLB waiver, Torlakson told me the Education Department, "was trying to jam down California's throat, and every other state's throat, a set of conditions, and very costly conditions."

But Tuck sees things differently. He told me that one of his major goals is for California to officially seek and obtain an NCLB waiver, along with the state board. He said that a groundswell of local superintendents would ultimately succeed in getting the state, specifically the state chief and the state school board, to seek a waiver, regardless of the views of the legislature and governor. In Tuck's view, acquiring a waiver would require California to use test scores in teacher evaluations, which the state does not do right now and won't for the next two years, according to the current plan.That represents progress for Tuck, and a step away from the current policies being contested in Vergara.

(The state filed a request for an NCLB waiver, but it ignored key parts of the requirements the federal Education Department set out for states seeking waivers, including linking test scores to evaluations. The department ultimately rejected California's request.)

Tuck's plan seems like a very tall order, given the state's aforementioned distaste for a waiver. But the precedent has already been set, Tuck argued, by the group of districts in the California Office to Reform Education (CORE) that have received a separate waiver from NCLB.

"Let's get another 200 superintendents that want to join that CORE waiver, if we can't get it through the legislature," he said.

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