In the state race that California voters are most uncertain about, the two schools superintendent candidates are neck-to-neck in the latest poll even while some of their educational philosophies are miles apart.
Political commentators frame the contest for the top schools job as one over the soul of California education, a close battle between self-described reformists and corporate executives backing challenger Marshall Tuck and the education establishment and labor unions supporting incumbent Tom Torlakson.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
The strength of Tuck's campaign surprised many who expected incumbent Torlakson would have an easy reelection. Then, in the summer, polls reported numbers that showed the race could be a real contest.
This week, new Field Poll data suggests the two candidates are effectively tied as they approach the final days of the campaign, each drawing 28 percent support from likely voters.
"His [Tuck's] backers were able to recruit a very strong and effective candidate," said David Plank, the executive director of the research center Policy Analysis for California Education. "It is something of a surprise that he has mounted as strong a challenge as he has done."
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Supporting Tuck is a sea of monied backers, many of whom are part of the education "reform" movement. Billionaire Eli Broad and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are among his supporters, as is the California Charter Schools Association.
Torlakson is backed by labor unions, including the powerful California Teachers Association. Independent spending for Torlakson's campaign has been dwarfed by outside supporters of Tuck — as of Wednesday, Tuck's campaign had more than $11 million in outside contributions compared to just $3.9 million for Torlakson.
Even with the millions of dollars spent for each candidate, the Field Poll results found voters are mostly undecided heading into Tuesday's election. Given the choice between Tuck and Torlakson, both Democrats, 44 percent of likely voters say they don't know who they'll vote for.
"I think people don't pay attention to this race very much," said Jackie Goldberg, a faculty advisor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. "It's not a big race in people's minds."
On one level, the state superintendent of public instruction — a non-partisan position — has little direct authority to make changes, said Plank. Budget decisions are largely in the hands of the state Board of Education and, increasingly, in local school district control.
But a win by Tuck would give the education reformers a high-profile victory — and a champion to follow another advocate for educational change who butted heads with labor, former Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy.
"A Tuck win would certainly revitalize the reformers and give them a very public platform," Plank said.
Regardless of who wins, Plank said public education in California is in a state of radical and rapid change.
In the past few years, a series of very ambitious reforms have launched, including the redistribution of education funding through the local control funding formula and the implementation of new curriculum and teaching methods under new standards known as the Common Core.
In rolling out the standards, Tuck and Torlakson are in agreement. They also both support the shift to local control of school funding and increased state spending on education.
One issue that differentiates the two candidates — and could make a difference to voters — is teacher tenure. In the landmark Vergara v. California case, a judge found the laws behind teacher tenure are unconstitutional and deprive students of quality teachers.
Torlakson joined Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Board of Education in backing an appeal of the decision, which unions views as an attack on teacher job protections.
"If you’re an experienced teacher, it’s very important to have the right to a fair hearing when your job is on the line," Torlakson said in an interview with KPCC. He says he supports the need for high-quality teachers, but the decision was flawed.
Tuck, on the other hand, has been a vocal advocate of the ruling, pledging that he’ll withdraw the appeal his first day in office, if elected.
"As state superintendent, I will take every action I can to make sure we don’t sit for this thing to wind through the courts, but we make changes now that our kids deserve around these policies," he said recently — adding in an interview with KPCC, "These laws don't make sense for kids."
This could be one area that gives Tuck an edge. Polling data suggests the public largely supports the Vergara ruling.