EDlection2018: Education Reformer Marshall Tuck Has Narrow Lead in Extremely Close Race for California’s State Superintendent of Schools — Once Again the Most Expensive Schools Chief Race in Election History

Marshall Tuck. (Courtesy)


EDlection2018: This is one of dozens of races we’ve analyzed for the 2018 midterms that could go on to influence state or federal education policy. Get the latest headlines delivered straight to your inbox; sign up for The 74 Newsletter and the LA School Report Newsletter.

After the costliest race ever for a state schools chief, education reformer Marshall Tuck has a narrow lead in his second bid for California’s superintendent of public instruction, according to unofficial results from the state.

“I think the most important thing in our state is our public schools,” Tuck told NBC4 Tuesday night as early results were released in his favor. “You can’t have a good future in the 21st century without a good public school. We’re not getting the job done for our kids, particularly low-income kids.”

By midday Wednesday, 100 percent of precincts were reporting and results remained unofficial pending the counting of provisional and mail-in ballots. State Assemblyman Tony Thurmond had not yet conceded. Tuck had 50.7 percent of the vote, barely a percentage point over Thurmond’s 49.3 percent. Only about 86,000 votes separated them, out of about 6 million ballots cast.

“The election continues to be incredibly close, but so far we have held onto a small lead,” Tuck’s campaign manager, Andrew Blumenfeld, said in a Wednesday morning email. “At this point, 100% of precincts are reporting, and we have 50.7% of the counted vote. We are still waiting to hear from precincts in San Diego, and then provisional and later absentee ballots from all over the state. These outstanding ballots will continue to come in rather slowly.”

The race centered on California’s debate over school choice, pitting union-backed Thurmond against Tuck, who was supported by the California Charter Schools Association and wealthy reformers. Both are Democrats, but the race also highlighted a north-south divide. Both were raised in the Bay Area, but Tuck has led independent charter and traditional public school organizations in Los Angeles, and Thurmond is a state legislator in Richmond, just north of Berkeley on the San Francisco Bay.

The heated campaign featured disputes over negative advertising and became the most expensive race in the nation for a state superintendent — for the second time. Tuck narrowly lost in 2014 to Tom Torlakson, who served two four-year terms and is now termed out. That race cost $30 million. This time, the candidates raked in more than $54 million as of Monday — more than any House race this cycle and all but a handful of the most expensive Senate races. Tuck took in the lion’s share, outspending Thurmond roughly 2-1.

Thurmond, 50, is a former social worker, school board member and council member in the Bay Area. He is ending his second term in the state Assembly, where he serves on the Education and Human Services committees. He was backed by the powerful 325,000-member California Teachers Association.

Tuck, 45, was president of Green Dot Public Schools, a nonprofit charter management organization started in 1999 in Los Angeles, as well as the founding CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a network created a decade ago by former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa after his failed attempt to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The Partnership focuses on turning around the lowest-scoring schools with the highest dropout rates in the toughest neighborhoods of Los Angeles — Boyle Heights, Watts, and South Los Angeles. One of its 18 schools, 20th Street Elementary, has posted more than 20-point gains in state test scores since it joined the network two years ago, putting it in the top 5 percent of all Los Angeles Unified elementary schools in terms of growth. Just two years ago, 20th Street Elementary was considered such a failing school that the parents moved to take it over from LA Unified using a state law called a “parent trigger.”

The state superintendent job lacks partisan affiliation, carries little statutory power and has not historically set its occupants on a path to higher office. But a Tuck win would represent a symbolic victory for the charter movement.

“I’m about every kid in the state. We’ve got to have great public schools in every neighborhood. Charters schools play a role, but ultimately the focus has to be in our traditional public schools,” said Tuck, who had the support of the education reform movement’s philanthropists including Eli Broad and Bill Bloomfield.

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 has been one of the fastest-growing, expansion has stalled amid loud political opposition.

The two candidates differed in their support for charters. 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.

The state’s public schools rank 44th in the nation based on national assessment scores for reading and math. State test scores have risen a bare 1 percent in the last three years despite a significant increase in state funding. Fewer than 4 in 10 students can do math on grade level, and only half are proficient in English language arts.

“We’ve got a lot to do to improve our schools,” he said.

The state’s Local Control Funding Formula over the last three years has funneled more than $27 billion in extra funding to school districts that serve large numbers of disadvantaged students, but the achievement gap persists between white students and blacks and Latinos, and 11th-graders this year lost ground. English learners, who were supposed to benefit from the extra funding, continued to perform at the bottom of all subgroups of students. Over 20 percent of the students in California’s public schools — or 1.3 million children — are English learners.

Both candidates agree on adding more subgroups of students who are underachieving so students such as African Americans can also receive additional funding under the Local Control Funding Formula, which currently provides additional funding for English learners, low-income, homeless and foster students. They also agree on free preschool for all children across the state and additional mental health support for students.

For updated election results, follow the Election Liveblog here.

EDlection2018: This is one of dozens of races we’ve analyzed for the 2018 midterms that could go on to influence state or federal education policy. Get the latest headlines delivered straight to your inbox; sign up for The 74 Newsletter and the LA School Report Newsletter.

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