California’s long-running feud over the direction of its 6-million-student public school system has raged in many arenas, but never in a high-profile campaign for political office.

That day, however, may come soon.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, two candidates for governor who run a close 1-2 in the polls, are exhibiting serious differences over education policy that next year’s campaign may magnify.

Newsom is destined, it seems, to be the candidate of the education establishment and its leading component, the California Teachers Association.

That likelihood is enhanced by having Villaraigosa in the race because he sparred with education unions as mayor of Los Angeles and seems to be siding with the establishment’s foes in the school reform movement. Also, the woman who wants to be the education candidate, former state schools Supt. Delaine Eastin, is scarcely a blip in the polls.

Villaraigosa warred with school unions over the direction of the Los Angeles’ troubled school system, and celebrated when a reformist, pro-charter school coalition, opposed by unions, recently captured control of the Los Angeles Unified School District board.

Villaraigosa echoes reform and civil rights groups, self-dubbed the “Equity Coalition,” when he says, “We must disrupt our education system” by adopting “assessment, accountability and transparency.”

“I, as governor, will shut down schools that have failed our kids for a very long time, whether they’re charter schools or traditional public schools,” Villaraigosa said when all the candidates appeared at a recent forum on education in San Diego.

Villaraigosa’s positioning was bolstered recently by an endorsement from Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat considered to be the Capitol’s most vociferous advocate of education reform.

She’s gone head-to-head with the CTA over teacher tenure and other issues and has mostly been rebuffed by a union-oriented majority of her fellow Democrats. “Education is not a pressing issue in Sacramento,” she says.

The establishment has consistently maintained that closing the “achievement gap” separating poor and “English-learner” students from more privileged classmates is best accomplished by spending more money in the classroom.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature have responded by increasing per-pupil spending by 50 percent in the last half-decade and directing that much of the money be concentrated on “high-needs” students through the “Local Control Funding Formula.”

Reformers, however, question whether the money is being spent as directed or being diverted to other purposes, and whether it’s making a difference. They have demanded stricter accountability, as Villaraigosa and Weber support.

Brown himself has been content, at least so far, to trust local schools officials to act wisely and effectively, even though studies to date show no major closure of the achievement gap. Weber has been pressing him to join the reformer cause and he’s dropped some hints that he wants education to be addressed again in the last year of his governorship.

All of these developments imply that the education battle, so far confined to bureaucratic wrangles over education rules, rhetorical exchanges, occasional lawsuits and local school elections, could explode next year, not only in the contest for governor but what shapes up as a sharp-elbows battle for state schools superintendent.

That duel will pit charter school advocate Marshall Tuck against Tony Thurmond, a Democratic assemblyman from Richmond who will be the CTA’s candidate. Tuck came close in 2014 to unseating the current superintendent, Tom Torlakson, who survived only with massive financial and other support from the CTA.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...