In a high-profile defeat of self-described education reformists, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson overcame challenger Marshall Tuck in a widely watched contest pitting labor against reform-minded interests.
Torlakson garnered 52 percent of the vote to Tuck's 48 percent in Tuesday's election. He declared victory early Wednesday.
"There are still many votes to count. But it looks like tonight is a win for the people who do more than talk about improving education - tonight is a win for the people who do something about it," Torlakson said in a statement posted to his campaign website.
He later told KPCC that he'll be working with school district, the governor and the board of education to get the resources schools need to improve.
"I think the public got the message that I have a background in education, we are changing, we are moving dramatically forward to improve education in California,” he said.
Torlakson said he'll continue to focus on career readiness. "In the Los Angeles area — Pasadena, Long Beach area — I’ve given grants out of about $5o million to start career pathways. One thousand businesses have opened their doors for internships. So I think the public saw relevancy to the agenda I have.”
In an interview Wednesday, Tuck said he thought more undecided voters would come his way.
“We knew it was going to be close. But I thought we were going to get there in the end, and ultimately we didn’t,” he said. On his Facebook page, Tuck posted:
"While I am disappointed by the results of last night’s election, I remain inspired and unwaveringly optimistic about the future for California’s children. So many people put an incredible amount of passion, heart and energy into this campaign because they believe that every child deserves a quality education. Our work from the last 15 months does not go away simply because we lost the election."
Tuck said he hasn't made specific post-election plans, but is looking at opportunities that would make positive changes for kids. “To me everything is on the table."
He did not rule out the possibility of running for public office again.
With less than a week to go before the election, a Field Poll had found the candidates in a dead heat — each with 28 percent support from likely voters. Unofficial final results reflected a similar close race, but with Torlakson gaining a somewhat wider margin than the poll had suggested.
Tuck was backed by well-financed, self-described reformists who support charter schools, tying teacher evaluations to test results, and in some cases, providing school vouchers. His loss comes just weeks after the forced resignation of Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasey, who drew support from several of Tuck's backers.
“You’d have to consider Tuck’s loss another blow to that approach to ed policy,” said David Menefee-Libey, professor of politics at Pomona College, on Wednesday.
Torlakson's win also represents a big victory for labor groups, Menefee-Libey noted, and the political establishment. “Torlakson was a fairly conventional candidate, somebody who’d been involved in Democratic Party politics for a long time,” he said.
Tuck was viewed as an outsider candidate. "He is a Democrat, but he has never been involved in electoral politics,” Menefee-Libey said.
Menefee-Libey said the education reform movement has some work to do with Tuck's defeat and Deasy's departure.
"The next move is on them of trying to figure out a way of presenting their reform that is broadly attractive to voters and especially Democratic policy makers," he said.
Although the nonpartisan office of superintendent has little direct authority, it commands a large stage. Millions were poured into the campaign as corporate executives together with those seeking policy changes faced off against the labor and educational establishment.
Tuck and Torlakson, both Democrats, split party loyalties: progressives and establishment supporters chose separate sides. One-time allies found themselves at odds over the philosophies that will guide the future of education in California.
Leading up to the election, self-described reformists like billionaire Eli Broad and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg battled powerful labor groups such as the California Teachers Association with heavy outside spending and marshaling of campaign resources.
The expensive race saw more than $19 million in independent expenditure for the candidates.
Education interest groups watched the race closely because similar battles pitting the "reform" movement against the traditional labor and school interests are playing out throughout the country.
California has been a major battlefield in that continuing clash as drastic changes take place in public education.
New curriculum and teaching standards known as the Common Core are being rolled out. A shift is underway to cede more financial decisions to school districts through a new local control funding formula, one aimed at pumping additional resources into schools with high populations of low-income students, foster children or English learners. Meanwhile, charter and alternative schools are peeling off students from traditional public schools as parents seek educational options for their children.
In this stew of issues on which the candidates were largely in agreement, teacher tenure proved perhaps the clearest difference between the candidates.
Torlakson, aligned with the teachers union and Gov. Jerry Brown, supported an appeal of the landmark Vergara v. California case in which a judge threw out teacher tenure protections. Tuck said he would have let the ruling stand.
This story has been updated.