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A Great Divide: The Election Fight for California’s Schools

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The Challenger: Marshall Tuck (Photo: Mark Lawson Shephard)

An election campaign now being fought almost completely out of public view could radically alter the way California’s school children are taught. If Marshall Tuck unseats incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, the state’s public education system could become a laboratory for a movement that prizes privatization and places a high value on student test scores over traditional instruction. The contrasts between the two top contenders in the nonpartisan race could not be more dramatic – nor could the stakes for the country’s largest education system.

The 40-year-old Tuck is a Harvard Business School graduate who has worked  as an investment banker for Salomon Brothers and as an executive at Model N, a revenue-management software company. He is a former president of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school operation in Los Angeles, and later served as the first head of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools — former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s controversial education nonprofit that tried to improve 17 low-performing public schools, with mixed results

Tuck’s candidacy is supported by the same mix of wealthy education privatizers, Silicon Valley and entertainment money, hedge fund and real estate interests that backed privatization candidates in the 2013 Los Angeles Unified School District school board election — when billionaire businessmen such as Eli Broad and Michael Bloomberg gave large campaign contributions to an unsuccessful effort to defeat board member Steve Zimmer. (The Broad Residency, an education management program operated by the Broad Foundation, lists Tuck as an alumnus.)

For additional interview quotes, see Q&A excerpts with Marshall Tuck and Tom Torlakson


The Incumbent: Tom Torlakson

“The contest between Mr. Tuck and Superintendent Torlakson couldn’t be starker in every way,” says Steve Zimmer. “Superintendent Torlakson is a lifetime public servant. He’s an educator, he’s a legislator and he’s kind of a [policy] wonk. In contrast, Mr. Tuck is a business man. I’m not sure there’s anybody more engaged at running schools like a business.”

In conversation Tuck presents an affable, conciliatory persona and seems at pains to play down differences between the movement he represents and the educators who oppose it through their unions, several of which are financial supporters of Capital & Main.

“There’s no question that the teachers union has a lot of influence on the state, but I think they get too much negative credit for all the problems,” Tuck tells Capital & Main during a lengthy interview at his bare-bones campaign office on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. Then, almost in mid-sentence, he appears to change his mind about teachers unions. “Right now,” he continues, “their seat at the table is too big and they have too much influence over education policy.”

Tuck has spent almost no time as a classroom instructor, while the 64-year-old Torlakson is a veteran science teacher and track coach. Torlakson, who is still a teacher on leave from Contra Costa County’s Mount Diablo Unified School District, says he usually teaches one community college course every year. He was elected as California’s 27th State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2010 after serving in the state legislature. The two men also face longshot candidate Lydia Gutierrez,  who lost a bid for superintendent in the 2010 primary. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the June primary vote, a runoff election between the two frontrunners will take place in November.

Torlakson has received substantial financial support from unions and celebrates his closeness with teachers. “I’m happy to be aligned with teachers – classroom teachers know me and trust me,” he says in a telephone interview.

A significant indication of what a future Tuck administration’s relations with teachers might look like can be found in his embrace of a lawsuit that seeks to erase nearly a century of teacher job protections, including seniority rights. The lawsuit, Vergara v. California, is currently being tried in Los Angeles Superior Court and names Torlakson as a defendant.

“I’m supportive of the case,” Tuck says. “I think that the changes they’re asking for are good for kids and make sense for California schools.” He points out that he recently wrote a commentary for LA School Report backing the case. Tuck also believes in the contentious Parent Trigger law, which has opened the door for charter schools to take over public schools and is strongly supported by conservatives and school privatizers. Torlakson voted against the law in 2009 when he was a member of the state Assembly.

Surprisingly, even those who follow the politics of education have paid little attention to the Tuck-Torlakson battle, which has received scant media coverage so far. John Rogers, director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, suggests that influence over education policy has shifted somewhat from the superintendent to the California State Board of Education. The board’s current president is Michael Kirst, who was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown. Kirst had served on the state board of education under Brown in his first term as governor in 1975.

Nonetheless, Rogers said that the state superintendent retains the power to use a “bully pulpit” to articulate a vision for public education. For Tuck, that means  streamlining what he characterizes as California’s bloated education code, which he says is a big impediment to making needed changes.

“We can’t run a school that way,” he says, holding the code in his hand. “You call the state and say, ‘How can we actually drive change?’ and the state says, ‘There’s nothing you can do about it.’ It’s in the 2,300-page State Education Code, in four-point font.”

To defeat Torlakson, Tuck will have to convince voters that his opponent – not low funding levels – are responsible for California’s dire academic standings. He will also need to persuade Californians that what he lacks in classroom experience he makes up for in his determination to fundamentally restructure the state’s educational system.

“Our state is 45th in the country in terms of achievement in math and reading,” Tuck says. “I mean, California is the wealthiest state in the nation, the most innovative state in the nation, we’ve got the entertainment capital of the world, the innovation capital of the world, and yet we’re 45th in achievement.”

Tuck says his experiences running Green Dot charter schools and overseeing the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools are at least as relevant as teaching experience, and believes the current superintendent, despite his classroom experience, is out of touch with the state’s education needs.

“I think the last time he’s actually been a classroom teacher was in the early 1980s,” Tuck says. “We’re talking about 30-plus years ago. I taught for a year. I taught internationally. My work has been running school systems and building, and not teaching, although I have actually been in front of kids, carrying a course load, teaching groups of kids in a classroom both in Zimbabwe and in Thailand.”

But in the end it’s Tuck’s perceived adversarial position toward the men and women who teach, and the labor groups that represent them, that sets him apart from Torlakson.

“There’s no question that I’m focused on changing the status quo in schools in California,” he says. “If that feels like a threat, then that’s maybe what it is.”

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  • Heidi Ifft

    Lydia Gutierrez is the ONLY person I would ever consider. Do a feature on her. This is a waste of time.

  • banshee4___thedayz

    Tuck says he is a democrat like Mayor Reed and Mayor Johnson but in reality they are the lackeys and imposters working for eli broad and the waltons who want their greedy paws on the publics money to run their schools without any regulations. they envision a new orleans 90 % charter 10% public schools They also need the help of dasterdly sac bees to help promugate their agenda..The sac bee runs lie after lie each day and has instituted a policy of no rebuttalsExample disgraced sac supertendent is allowed a full column and the reply comes not not from the teachers who detest him but a lackey board supporter this actual non educator. Read Pat Brown institute changing red state to blue and watch right wingers rhee, reed , Johnson suck up the broad and waltons money trying their darndest to change cal to a republican state..Can you imagine a public debate for strong mayor where the press is . NOT allowed this is gestapo days. CTA NEA stand up..not so far No rebuttals is like no press allowed and no one put truth to our liesCancel your bee tomorrow say bee lies democracy died ….. tony

  • Marshall Tuck isn’t qualified for any education related seat. He is not an educator. He is entirely ignorant about pedagogy and the nuances of education policy. Under his “leadership” Green Dot Corporate Charters had some of the lowest API and SAT scores in the county, while simultaneously having some of the highest remediation rates of up to 98%.

    Tuck’s tenure at PLAS was even criticized by the privatization friendly LA Times, which admitted that the neighboring public schools were doing better than PLAS schools. The distinguished Professor Diane Ravitch said that during Tuck’s stewardship at PLAS he “compiled a mediocre and unimpressive record.”

    Lastly, Marshall Tuck’s disdain for people of color led him to shut down both ethnic studies at Santee, and heritage language programs at Ritter. Parents frequently protested Tuck since nearly all of his decisions were unilateral without community input. California doesn’t need a State Superintendent of Instruction with Tuck’s background or record. There’s a long record of him denying poor children of color of their cultures and heritage languages. The pattern would seem to indicate he is both a bigot and an elitist. http://bitly.com/bundles/rdsathene/s

  • Lisa Alva

    Nice to know there is a third candidate, a woman, a woman of color, in a place where the majority Latino population is under-represented. I worked directly with Marshall Tuck as a member of the Partnership board of directors, and as a PLAS school teacher, and as a PLAS employee. I’m very interested to know more about Ms. Gutierrez’ candidacy.

    • Ms. Alva, what are your thoughts on Tuck’s ethnocentric campaign to eliminate any and all heritage language and ethnic studies programs while he was “CEO” at PLAS?

  • Rene Springer

    I would have liked to hear more about Lydia Gutierrez. How about some fair representation.

    • Dominica Kristedja

      I agree!! Lydia Gutierrez is the the candidate with our grassroots support!!

  • MadMamaBear

    Someone needs to do their homework.

  • Dominica Kristedja

    I don’t see the “contrast” between Tuck and Torlakson. They are both intent on moving full steam ahead with the Common Core agenda. Lydia Gutierrez is our ONLY candidate willing to stand up for students against becoming guinea pigs in this great educational experiment called Common Core! A HUGE oversight to not mention her as a candidate in this article!

    • If you read the article you would have noticed that it does mention Ms. Gutierrez in the eighth paragraph.

      I know Gutierrez personally, and while I don’t subscribe to her political world-view, I do commend her on her refreshingly principled stands against both Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and school privatization.

      While Gutierrez and I differ on issues of pedagogy, we do agree that the corporate reforms embodied in Marshal Tuck exist only for one reason—to enrich corporate coffers.

      • Michael Yu

        Can someone explain to me how Marshall Tuck is trying “to enrich corporate coffers”?

        • Here’s a few of the ways. Firstly, Tuck is on record saying he will try to increase market share for the highly lucrative charter school sector. Rather than provide a social justice link critiquing the profitability of charters, I’m including a link from Forbes Magazine: http://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2013/09/10/charter-school-gravy-train-runs-express-to-fat-city/?&_suid=13996607905440049276388715952635 that gushes about the investment opportunities that charters and school privatization provide hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. Second, Tuck is an outspoken proponent of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) windfall for transnational corporations like Pearson PLC, Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify, and a host of technology companies ready to siphon off our scarce education funds into their profitable testing-industrial-complex. Third, Tuck is well connected to the charter realty and land development sector, in which charter firms like Alliance purchase sites (with public funds) in gentrifying areas ostensibly for charters, but with contractual clauses stating that later they can choose to sell the land and the proceeds be kept by those managing the CMO. Should I go on?

          • Michael Yu

            Yes, please do.

  • A response to Mr. Cohen’s Article:
    Dear Mr. Cohn,

    I first want to thank you for the article you had written in your analysis on both of my opponents. It is good to know who are their financial backers and what political favors they will adhere to once elected.

    In getting to know who I am maybe you should know how well I had done on my previous campaigns with little financing. What people fail to realize is that social media is the pocket of gold, especially when candidates refuse to be sold out to special interested groups with the dollars.

    In the State Superintendent 2010 race, I came in 4th out of 12. When I ran for LA Community College Board of Trustees 2011, the largest community college district in the nation, in a crowded field of 7 candidates, I made the run-off. In the run-off I lost by 3%. My opponent spent a total of $1.2 million to my $35k.

    I would like to point out one correction, if any candidate gets over 50% of the vote, they will still be in the November election.

    Maybe you would like to read the ballot statements of all three candidates that will be sent out to every voter of California. I think the voters are wise and will want the person who will put their children first, not special interest groups.


    I am sorry that you did not do any research into the qualifications of all three candidates but begin your assertion that money is what drives education by who gives the most to influence. I hope this campaign will start a new tone of influence by allowing the every day person, not corporate money, be the deciding factor for State Superintendent.

    Thank you for your time.

    Thank you,
    Lydia Gutierrez
    for State Superintendent
    of Public Instruction, 2014


    • Colleen Ochoa Huston

      Lydia Gutierrez has my vote!! Torlakson and Tuck are the last two people I want in this position. The current status of Schools in CA speak for itself as far as Torlakson and the job he has been doing. The future that Tuck wants for our schools is just way to scary and will be the downfall of future generations whom we in this generation are now called to stand up for and protect and defend against such policies and changes that Tuck has in mind. Lydia Gutierrez is by far the most qualified and the most desired type of person based on what she wants for the education and success of this upcoming generation. She understands what is developmentally appropriate and what is not. She understands what teachers, parents and children want in order for children to learn, grow and develop into creative, critical free thinking and productive people. She understands as a teacher herself and she cares more than either of the other two opponents about the things that parents and teachers want for their children/students. I hope everyone who reads this will investigate and learn about who Lydia Gutierrez is and what she believes and wants for future generations along with the current one who is being subjected to a mass experiment at the moment which is completely dispicable! I hope once you learn about her and see for yourselves the stark contrast between her and Torlakdon as well as Tuck. It will be crystal clear who would be The better choice for California Superintendent of Public Instruction.


      Colleen Huston ( a mother who has met and seen Lydia Present to the community, who she is and what she wants for the children. Who was deeply touched and impressed with this woman’s concern, sincerity and integrity.)

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