The state prison officers' union is backing Tony Thurmond, right, in his race for schools chief against Marshall Tuck, left.
Results in the race between Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond could take weeks.

In summary

The most interesting statewide political contest this year is for state superintendent of schools, and it’s a proxy war for the years-long conflict between the education establishment and reformers over how to close the “achievement gap” among California’s six million K-12 students.

Aficionados of political jousting will find little of interest in the array of statewide offices to be filled on Nov. 6.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom appears to be a lock to succeed Jerry Brown as governor over Republican John Cox, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is overwhelmingly favored to win re-election despite the ardent efforts of her fellow Democrat, state Sen. Kevin de León, and the other “races” for statewide offices are mostly ho-hum affairs.

The most interesting statewide contest this year is for an office that’s little known to the public but affects arguably the most important state responsibility, K-12 education.

The state superintendent of public instruction oversees, along with a state Board of Education appointed by the governor, a system that spends about $90 billion in local, state and federal funds each year to educate 6 million children and adolescents.

Tom Torlakson, a former teacher and legislator, is departing after eight years in the office, having barely defeated charter school and education reform advocate Marshall Tuck in his re-election four years ago. Tuck’s back on the ballot this year, facing Assemblyman Tony Thurmond. They virtually tied in June’s primary election.

It’s a battle between two Democrats but one that encapsulates the political war over California education that has been raging for years between the education establishment, particularly the California Teachers Association, and an “Equity Coalition” of civil rights groups and Tuck’s fellow reform advocates.

Their No. 1 issue is how to deal with the stubborn gap between low-achieving poor and “English learner” students – about 60 percent of the state’s 6 million K-12 students – and their more affluent, higher achieving classmates, one with a distinct ethnic element.

Whites and Asians dominate the upper portion of the “achievement gap” while Latino and black kids are concentrated in the lower.

The establishment, which generally backs Thurmond, argues that the gap is best attacked with more money, pointing out that California is below average in per-pupil spending vis-à-vis other states.

During a quasi-debate with Tuck last month, Thurmond said that if elected, he wants California to move into the “top 10 in the first four years and No. 1 in eight years.”

Tuck, reflecting the reformer position, also calls for more money but laments that the sharp increase in school financing during the last half-decade, about a 50 percent in per-pupil spending, isn’t being used effectively. “The system is not working,” he said. “We’ve neglected our kids for decades.”

The broader conflict they represent revolves largely around the Brown-sponsored Local Control Funding Formula, which provides extra money to districts with large numbers of low-achieving, “at-risk” students.

Brown and the establishment have largely left decisions on how to spend the extra money to local school districts, but reformers contend that it’s often been squandered on spending that doesn’t directly benefit the targeted students.

Torlakson, countermanding his own department’s advice, gave districts permission to use LCFF funds for overall salary increases, for instance, and Tuck declares that if elected, “On day one we’re going to change that.”

There are many other points of conflict, from teacher tenure to paying experienced teachers more to work in schools with low achievement levels.

While the governor and the Legislature set overall education policy, and provide the system’s money, the superintendent does have considerable authority. That’s particularly true, as Tuck’s comment on salaries implies, in overseeing how schools are spending those many billions of dollars, and that’s why the Thurmond-Tuck duel is a proxy war for the larger conflict.

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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...