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California’s campaign for state superintendent costs more than most Senate races. Here’s why

Kevin Mahnken | October 23, 2018

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*Updated Oct. 31

The 2018 midterm elections, marked by a slate of tightly contested races and a furious backlash against President Trump, will be the most expensive in history. Both Democratic and Republican aspirants in large media markets like Florida and Illinois have smashed quarterly fundraising records, with outside groups vastly outspending the official campaigns.

In California, though, the biggest money bombs haven’t been dropped in the race for Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat, or for any of the congressional seats that Democrats hope to pry away. Though Kamala Harris leaped from the state attorney general’s office to the U.S. Senate, the race to succeed her as California’s top prosecutor isn’t the big-dollar brawl one might expect.

That distinction goes to the race for state superintendent of schools — a job that lacks partisan affiliation, carries little statutory power and has not historically set its occupants on a path to higher office.

Candidates Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond — both Democrats, as California primaries elevate the two top vote-getters regardless of party — have raked in more than $50 million between them through the end of October. That’s more money than has been raised in any House race this cycle, and in all but a handful of the most expensive Senate races. Tuck, who narrowly lost his first bid for the office in 2014, has taken in the lion’s share. On Oct. 31, less than a week before the election, a UC Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies poll was released showing Tuck with 48 percent of those surveyed and Thurmond with 36 percent.

The huge sums at play are a testament both to the stakes of the race and the impressive bankrolls of the players involved. Though both Democrats in a state where the GOP has essentially collapsed, the two men are standard bearers of opposing camps: organized labor, led principally by the 325,000-member California Teachers Association, and the education reform movement, powered by philanthropists like Eli Broad and Bill Bloomfield.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of politics and communications at the University of Southern California, has spent years observing the state’s evolution from Reagan country to blue bulwark. She says that the Democratic split on charter schools is a recurring phenomenon that flared up most recently this spring, when the CTA’s endorsement helped Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom secure the Democratic nomination for governor against his charter-friendly rival, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

• Read more: How Education Could Shape the Governor’s Race in California: Funding, Accountability, Charter Schools

“It’s very definitely another round in the war between the teachers unions and the charter schools movement,” she told The 74 in an interview. “Just as the Democratic nomination was — with the proxies being Gavin Newsom, endorsed by the teachers unions, and Antonio Villaraigosa being funded mainly by millionaires who are attached to the charter schools movement. The charter schools lost that one. Now they’re back at it.”

Kevin Gordon, a longtime education advocate and president of the political consulting group Capitol Advisors, agreed that the school choice community was clearly placing its bets on Tuck this fall.

“It’s a proxy war,” he said in an interview. “There is no question that Marshall Tuck is decidedly more pro-charter, as the charter school advocates themselves would define it. He might think, ‘Well, I’m open to them; I’m balanced.’ But…[the charter school movement] would describe Marshall Tuck as their hero on charter school issues and Tony Thurmond as an enemy of charter schools.”

The Candidates

Each candidate brings a different resume, and a substantially distinct biography, to the job. Raised in a prosperous community outside San Francisco, Tuck initially pursued a career in finance before becoming president of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter network operating in several low-income neighborhoods of Los Angeles. After a stint as an education advisor to then-Mayor Villaraigosa, he was appointed the founding CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a joint enterprise between the city and the Los Angeles Unified School District to turn around low-performing schools.

The 2014 election for state superintendent, in which Tuck nearly defeated incumbent Tom Torlakson, occurred among another orgy of outside spending as issues of school choice and teacher tenure came to define the race. National players like the American Federation of Teachers helped bankroll the campaign against Tuck, whom they lampooned as a Wall Street stooge.

With Torlakson termed out this year, the unions have attached themselves to Thurmond, a state assemblyman from the Bay Area. Orphaned at 6, Thurmond was sent to live with relatives in Philadelphia. In an interview with LA School Report, he said he “could have fallen through the cracks. I didn’t because I was really in a public school system that really supported me and teachers who hung in there with me when I needed support or needed more help or enrichment.”

Before his election to the state Assembly, Thurmond was a board member for the West Contra Costa Unified School District between 2008 and 2012. In Sacramento, he has pushed legislation that offered subsidies to child care centers and directed millions of dollars to programs to reduce truancy.

Though Tuck won the most votes in the June primary, another eliminated candidate has since endorsed Thurmond. So has the state’s Democratic Party, which counts public sector unions like the CTA among its most critical allies.

The War

That sets up November’s race as yet another iteration of California’s debate over school choice. Of the state’s 6.2 million K-12 students, about 10 percent are enrolled in some 1,275 charter schools. Though its charter sector is the nation’s largest in overall student enrollment, and one of the fastest-growing, expansion has stalled amid loud political opposition.

With district schools often having to share funds, and even facilities, with upstart charters, the CTA and its allies have lobbied the legislature to constrain further growth. One unsuccessful bill sought to give local school boards much greater power to shoot down new charter petitions. Another, passed this summer and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, bans for-profit charter operators.

The question of charter schools has troubled the waters in local elections as well. Last year, the race for seats on the L.A. Unified School Board attracted over $17 million in campaign spending, as pro-charter donors succeeded in ousting a board president perceived as being opposed to school choice. The elections gained national attention, quickly becoming the most expensive in history.

• Read more: What’s Really Fueling the L.A. School Board Race — the Most Expensive Board Contest in U.S. History

And yet there’s something strange about all that donor money migrating to the superintendent’s race: The California Department of Education, of which the superintendent is the executive, has very little say in authorizing or overseeing charter schools.

“The irony … with the charter schools spending this crazy amount on this race, is that a state superintendent has little more than a bully pulpit on charter school issues,” said Capitol Advisors’ Gordon. “The superintendent of public instruction in California is not a decider. They merely make recommendations to the state board, along with the local districts and counties and district superintendents.”

It is the governor and the legislature, far more than the state superintendent, who call the tune on charter expansion, Gordon noted. But that doesn’t mean the race lacks significance to its combatants.

“What [the race] says is that the power of the podium itself is really important to both labor and the charter school community. They’re probably in this race as much for preventative politics as they are for offensive strategy. They don’t want a state superintendent who stands at the podium every day and bashes their interests.”

While the two candidates differ in their support for charters, it’s unclear just how energetically they will lobby for their respective positions. In a candidate forum recorded shortly before the primary, both agreed that for-profit operators have no place in California. But Thurmond went further, suggesting that a “pause” on new openings might be necessary until new revenues are found to offset the dollars that districts lose when their students move to charter schools. Tuck argued instead that school districts should not be allowed to reject new charter petitions because of the financial hardship that might result.

Questions like these won’t be answered by the superintendent alone. While acknowledging the superintendent’s influence as advocate and agenda setter, Bebitch Jeffe says that much of the fire around this race has to do with both unions and pro-charter activists signaling to their constituencies.

“It’s a question of status and position,” she said. “And that’s particularly true of the charter school movement, which lost a big one and needs to send a message that they still are an influence, they still do have some political power, they can fund politicians. The teachers union is far more reliably loyal to the Democratic Party, and they’re also going to want to send a message to the Democratic governor, the other Democratic constitutional office holders, and the Democratic legislators, that they’re to be reckoned with.”

*This article was updated on Oct. 31 with poll results and new campaign fundraising totals. 

EDlection2018: From coast to coast, The 74 is profiling a new education-oriented campaign each week. See all our recent profiles, previews, and reactions at (and watch for our Election Night live blog Nov. 6).

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.  

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