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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The statewide election that could end up as one of the closest and most expensive in California this fall is for an office many voters probably have only the dimmest awareness of: state schools superintendent.
With Democrats' current lock on Sacramento having removed much of the suspense from the governor's race and the other contests, two Democrats are engaged in an unexpectedly close fight for the nominally nonpartisan job of superintendent of public instruction. The office oversees an area of government that accounts for more than $4 out of every $10 in state spending and carries out education policies set by the Legislature and a board appointed by the governor.
Incumbent Tom Torlakson, who spent eight years as a high school science teacher before entering politics full-time in 1980, is facing a vigorous challenge to his bid for a second term from Marshall Tuck, a former charter school executive and first-time candidate.
Polls conducted since the June primary have shown the two running neck-and-neck with large numbers of likely voters still undecided.
California is one of 13 states with an elected K-12 schools chief, and one of only four in which candidates for the post run without party affiliations.
The race has turned into a referendum on the state's underachieving education system and a growing divide within the Democratic Party, both nationally and in California, over its traditional allegiance to organized labor and its plentiful campaign cash.
Tuck has criticized Torlakson for resisting the White House's efforts to tie student test scores to teacher evaluations and merit pay. He also has made his support for a recent court decision that overturned California's generous tenure laws and other job protections for teachers a major talking point of his campaign. He cites Torlakson's decision to participate in an appeal as evidence that the incumbent lacks the independence needed to be an effective advocate.
"Challenger going against the strongest force in politics in California, and we are winning. And that's because people want kids to have a better future and they've had enough," Tuck, 41, said.
Torlakson, 65, is making the case for continuity at a time when the state's schools are rebounding from the deep budget cuts of the recession and reaping the benefits of a new funding formula that gives districts more autonomy while directing more money to those with the neediest students.
He credits his collaborative approach, along with his comfortable relationship with Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature where he served 14 years, with helping keep the state's students on track and securing additional money for implementing the Common Core State Standards.
"We are making real progress. This is no time to put that progress at risk," he said during one of the three forums where he and Tuck have appeared together. "Blaming teachers isn't the way to solve our problems. Investing in them, investing in our schools, that's the way."
The contest has attracted money and attention not usually lavished on a position that offers a visible perch from which to promote the state's public schools but carries more managerial responsibility than power to fulfill a vision.
Torlakson has raised at least $2 million for his campaign, much of it from public employee unions representing education, health care, construction and public safety workers. Education unions led by the powerful California Teachers Association have pledged $3.1 million in independent expenditures so far to support the incumbent and oppose Tuck. He has been endorsed by the California Democratic Party, his two predecessors as state superintendent and 46 of California 58 county superintendents.
Tuck has secured endorsements from all of the state's major newspapers and a handful of Democratic mayors, including Kevin Johnson of Sacramento and Chuck Reed of San Jose.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who recruited Tuck as CEO of a Villaraigosa nonprofit that took control of 17 poorly performing L.A. schools, also gave his endorsement. Los Angeles' current mayor, Gil Garcetti, is backing Torlakson.
Tuck has nearly matched Torlakson in campaign fundraising, with $1.9 million, while a Southern California businessman who often supports Republican candidates, William Bloomfield Jr., has independently picked up the tab for at least $900,000 worth of slate mailers and ads on his behalf.
Patricia Gandara, an education professor and co-director of the UCLA Civil Rights Project who served on Torlakson's transition team four years ago, said an argument could be made that Torlakson has not used his bully pulpit as effectively as he might have. But Gandara also has doubts about "the big corporate money" that is backing Tuck and whether he would be any more effective in pushing change in a state where 43 percent of school children speak a language other than English at home.
"Historically, it hasn't mattered that much because that has been a seat that has been under-utilized," she said. "But there is potential there that is really untapped and particularly at a time when there is so much going on, and there is such a high profile around the inequalities our students are facing."
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